November 8, 2008

Chicana Art and Experience

I am working on a new curatorial project for the AFL-CIO -- organizing an exhibition of women artists whose art reflects the interests and concerns of Chicana workers. The show, which includes more than 30 prints, paintings, photographs and posters, opens at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC on November 19, 2008 and continues until May 31, 2009.

My first major exposure to Chicana/o art was in 1992 when I reviewed the landmark Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA) exhibition at what is now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show was viewed then as highly controversial and panned by the Washington Post's Paul Richard (as too political). I wrote a lengthy response to Richard's review in the Washington City paper defending the show. The work in the AFL-CIO show reprises some of the artists who were represented in CARA, but adds newer voices as well. If you're in town, contact me and I'll walk you through the show. I think it's a bold move for the labor federation, which is deploying its exhibition program to include politically aggressive art and to emphasize the diversity and pluralism that is a reality both in the art world and the world of work at large. The artists include : Barbara Carrasco, Ester Hernández, Cecilia Concepción Alvarez, Laura Álvarez, Favianna Rodíguez, Yreina Cervántez, Juana Alicia, Irene Simmons, Delilah Montoya, Laura Molina, Tina Hernández, Yolanda López, Carmen Lomas Garza, and Kathy Vargas. I want to thank each of them for participating and underscore what a pleasure it has been to be in touch in connection with this show. You can see more images at the AFL-CIO's website:

The images reproduced , clockwise from the upper left are ¡Ya Basta! by Tina Hernández; We Are Not the Enemy by Favianna Rodriguez; Cihualyaomiquiz, The Jaguar by Laura Molina; Humane Borders (from the series, Trail of Thirst) by Delilah Montoya; and Sun Raid by Ester Hernández.

September 1, 2008

Picturing Politics: Artists Speak to Power

Picturing Politics: Artists Speak to Power, which I organized for the Arlington Art Center, is open! If you are in town, don’t miss the reception this Friday, September 5, 2008 from 6:00 to 9:00 PM, which should be a great party. I hope you’ll also have a chance to visit during a quieter time because all this outstanding work requires and rewards sustained attention. (The exhibition closes September 27.) If you’re out of town and/or can’t get there, the catalog is available from AAC [contact info is below].

The artists/collaborations are: Renee Stout, Mary Coble, Judy Byron, Randall Packer & John Anderson, Jefferson Pinder & Matt Ravenstahl, José Ruiz, Rick Rinehard, Alberto Gaitán & Victoria F. Gaitán, Lisa Blas, Wendy Babcox & Meg Mitchell, Helga Thomson, The Pinky Show, Benjamin Edwards, and photographs by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from the Independence Fund and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum.

This show is an ambitious and courageous undertaking for the AAC, which deserves your support! (Images, clockwise from top left, by José Ruiz, Helga Thomson, Steve Danyluk, and The Pinky Show. )

Arlington Arts Center
3550 Wilson Boulevard,
Arlington, Virginia 22201

July 7, 2008

Romantics and Conceptualists

I am preparing an advanced art theory class over the summer called Contemporary Art Theory: Markets and Collecting for the University of Maryland in fall. It's taking me back to all that critical theory culture industry biz: I'm reading parts of Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment this week -- especially the chapter on Enlightenment as Mass Deception. For me, it 's tough going. Also threw me back to Heidegger, sad to say. But I found some help: Timothy Clark's Martin Heidegger, which is a very readable, comprehensive look at the philosopher's poetics. Heidegger is essentially romanticism on steroids in my view. Part and parcel of that romanticism is a bitter critique of instrumental reasoning that furnishes a basis for the dark views of institutionalized, commercialized culture later offered by Debord, Baudrillard, Foucault and Jamison -- all of whom, in one way or another, seem to provide aid and comfort to Conceptualism as a subversion of the mainstream uses and abuses of art.

I don't teach Heidegger in my regular Theories of Art class. It's not just because he's difficult and essentially wrong. Almost all art theory is difficult and wrong. I'm more concerned that reading Heidegger is just too laborious -- slogging through all the neologisms, and jargon to come up with insights that are more simply and emphatically stated elsewhere ... earlier in Nietzsche and later on, in Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension, which I like.

Anyway, the relationship of romanticism to conceptual art appears more complex in this context. They appear at odds on the surface, but they have a common gene -- the goal of truth bearing via estrangement or 'defamiliarizing' the familiar in order to counter a petrified, oppressive social reality. I put it this way:

With the Romantic era came the notion that artists have some special capacity to speak the truth; it wasn't until the age of Conceptualism that they bothered to do any research.

(at right, image from A Breed Apart, Hans Haacke, 1978; one of seven panels first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, near one of British Leyland's factories. British Leyland declared bankruptcy in 2005; its brands are now owned by Chinese and Indian companies. A Breed Apart documents the company's complicity in South African Apartheid.)

The Artist's Journey into the Interior by Erich Heller (a proponent of German Romanticism and a teacher of mine at Northwestern, where he taught for many years); the cover is the often reproduced Casper David Friedrich painting, The Wanderer Above the Mists (1817-18). My favorite book of Heller's is The Poet's Self and the Poem: Essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke and Thomas Mann.

June 3, 2008

Victims of Communism/Victims of Memorials

Family came to visit this weekend and naturally they wanted to see the Victims of Communism Memorial (VCM). Well, no, they didn’t really. It’s just that I’ve taken them to all the other memorials and they hadn’t seen this one yet. In fact, they had never heard of it. (It's located at Mass. Ave. and First St., NW). It was dedicated on June 12, 2007 by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an organization established pursuant to HR 3000, sponsored by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Senator Claiborne Pell, and Senator Jesse Helms (and signed by then President Clinton) "to construct, maintain, and operate in the District of Columbia an appropriate international memorial to honor victims of communism..." On behalf of DC, thanks.

To be fair, the VCM is far from the worst looking public sculpture in Washington DC. It’s not even the worst looking memorial. The competition in both categories is fierce and, perhaps, the subject for further discussion and disputation. (Have you ever really looked at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at Judiciary Square?)

In case you did not gather from the image above, the VCM is a petite, intentionally crude version of the Statue of Liberty (SOL). It’s intentionally crude because, in true Society of the Spectacle (SOS) fashion, it is an imitation of a picture of a simulacrum of a representation. In short, the VCM reprises photographs of the 1989 Tiananmen Square copy of the SOL. This is beginning to sound all Iwo Jima in it’s complex relationships of copies to copies.

Oddly, onsite there is no discernible reference to the sculptor. A little research discloses its author to be Thomas Marsh of Orange, Va. According to his website, Marsh has done portrait sculpture of Betty White and Dick Van Dyke for Disney World, lots of religious statues and so on, all of which appear to be perfectly serviceable.

So much for the art and artist and on to the utterly loathsome, hypocritical, swollen bad consciousness of the whole despicable project. The VCM foundation claims that it’s a tribute to “the 100 million people who have been killed by communist totalitarian regimes worldwide,” which they pointedly describe as a 'holocaust.' On the sculpture’s base is inscribed, “To the more than one hundred million victims of communism…” (emphasis added). Well, that’s both more and less – bigger number, but 'victim' could mean anything, really – not necessarily dead. Not much here in the way of confidence inspiring precision, let alone documentation. To paraphrase Reagan, a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real numbers. Why do I think these are the same people who would quibble over figures on Iraqi victims of the illegal US occupation down to the ones column?

The difficulties with the VCM are too immense and too complex to address in one posting. Can I just say that for Washington, where creepy politicians, capitalists and bureaucrats spent half a century supporting vicious fascist regimes, sponsoring death squads, encouraging, paying for, and directly ordering countless murders of democratically inclined left wing activists, labor leaders, and human rights workers all over the globe, this should be an unbearable stain. Except, it’s so small, so over the top in it’s misguided intentions that it’s really just kind of pathetic and ridiculous. I suggest a visit soon. Maybe 10:30 AM on June 12 for the anniversary celebration. There a lunch at Georgetown Law School afterward.