“Everything Is Art, Everything Is Politics”
October 1 – December 30, 2020
Art and Politics Show-Online
Curated by Elga Wimmer and Berta Sichel
By MARK BLOCH, December 2020
Elga Wimmer has closed her Chelsea gallery and teamed with Berta Sichel, an independent curator in Madrid to curate “Everything Is Art, Everything Is Politics,” a virtual show viewable now that will also manifest physically in 2021 in Spain and probably also New York next year.
Some works of political art are on a first name basis with the public such as Guernica or Piss Christ. Other works are by artists with well known names whose mere signature convey controversy like Robert Mapplethorpe or Pussy Riot. Some political art is elaborate and complicated like Kara Walker's 2014 large-scale public project in the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while perhaps the most effective political statement for Jean-Michel Basquiat was simply to scrawl the word “Satchmo” across a canvas or a wall, creating a triangulation between Louis Armstrong’s nickname, his own nom de plume, SAMO and as Klaus Kertess noticed, Little Black Sambo.
The very idea of political art gives rise to mental images as disparate as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and redneck senator Jesse Helms’s southern drawl growling out objections to the US National Endowment of the Arts. Political art can be as laser focused as the Electric Chair in Andy Warhol's Death and Disaster series or a John and Yoko War is Over if You Want It billboard facing Times Square in 1969. Sometimes commercially successful artists like Shepard Fairey or Norman Rockwell veer into political areas as in Fairey’s Hope poster for Barack Obama or Rockwell’s Four Freedoms or The Problem We All Live With. Some artworks predictably or unexpectedly provoke outrage for certain audiences such as Ai Weiwei’s assaults on the Chinese Communist Party or African American outrage at Dana Schutz’s decision to paint the face of Emmett Till and the spot then bestowed upon it in the Whitney Biennial. Even works that were never executed like Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International can become a political lightning rod as can a disappeared mural by Diego Rivera in Rockefeller Plaza. George Grosz, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, the Guerilla Girls, Banksy and countless others have wielded as a badge of honor their notoriety and political shades that dominate their palettes. Their messages, not the medium, matter most, though delivery, dollars, diplomacy and dogma are often why we take notice.
But what of more subtle, less direct political approaches? Walker called her 75-foot long sugar installation A Subtlety, but it’s less subtle subtitle was “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”
Wimmer and Sichel have posted “Everything Is Art, Everything Is Politics” and are sending it on the road because they want to bring art into politics, not the other way around. They chose work that is less direct, more flippant and droll than blatantly political, a subtler route to concerns that increasingly engulf us, even while producing exhaustion and fatigue. “Utilizing humor in political critique has long been an effective tool for artists,” Wimmer and Sichel write, “Nevertheless, they risk being attacked and/or rejected, when touching that third rail of politics and social critique. Each one of the artists chosen for this show has gone through that experience.” The four women and five men featured in the show each bring out “the revolutionary potential in art and the social sculpture,” a phrase which the curators borrowed from Josef Beuys, who they both revere as “one of the most influential and celebrated postwar German artists” and from whom they also took the idea of bringing art to politics, not politics to art.
The inspiration for the show comes from four contemporary figures, including Beuys. The other three are: the “poetic terrorism” concept of Hakim Bey, that calls for “exquisite seduction” but in a way that must “be divorced from all conventional structures,” and simultaneously the mainstream burlesque comedy of Mel Brooks who skewered Nazism with a Broadway smash and finally Ai Weiwei, from whom the title for the show was borrowed.
The late Carolee Schneemann’s 1999 mixed media work, Oil of Path and Five Vesper combines the personal and the political in scrawled, scribbled and colors overlayed on mechanical reproductions of a New York Times oil spills graphic titled, “The Great Game: Picking a Path for Oil” while another Times headline, “Midday Bomb in Caucasus Market Kills 62 and Hurts 100” hearkens back to terrorism and kidnappings in post-Soviet Chechnya and the forgotten days of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. These events continents away were juxtaposed with photos of the artist kissing, on the lips, her beloved cat “Vesper,” who starred in many of her works. Schneemann knew the ancient Egyptians also loved their cats. When Persians soldiers painted felines on their shields, the Egyptians couldn’t or wouldn’t battle them. The often seductive Schneemann is seen here battling environmental concerns while reclining.
The Spanish artist Cristóbal Gabarrón’s Altarpiece of Cain XIX, from 2011, also employs an animal form, a fully alert long-necked creature that looks like a dog’s body and a cat’s head. Another figure with arm extended is human and both are part of a series of preparatory drawings for the Cain Altarpiece at the Museo Patio Herreriano in Valladolid, Spain, a town also home to other biblically-inspired cultural and religious sites, even another less daring Cain altarpiece. The Museo Cristóbal Gabarron (Cristóbal Gabarron Museum) in Mula, Murcia, in Southeast Spain will be the site of the in-person manifestation of this show when it opens in June 2021.
The story of Eve’s children in the early chapters of Genesis recounts the murderous Cain’s offering to God that is rejected while his younger brother Abel’s is accepted, causing jealousy, bitterness and shame, with fury and violence following. The Algerian-born French political philosopher Sami Naïr said that Gabarrón’s work foreshadows “the rupture in our history, a split that triggered the birth of a new world with an uncertain future.”
The Austrian Julius Deutschbauer paints, creates posters for the public, and also makes films and interactive performances. In 200 posters over the last 27 years he positions himself as the protagonist in a rip and paste collage technique with disorienting results. Here, his two works can be translated as “Babe, I just burnt another bible” and “Anti-racism Amusement Park” respectively. In the latter he ironically confronts cultural and social issues by earnestly holding up a 1971 book “In Europe The Dead Have Nothing To Smile About” by the outsider poet Hermann Schuerrer who is heralded as a discovered, almost accidental genius.
Like, Deutschbauer, Wolf Vostell is no stranger to torn posters. His mid-1950s technique “dé-coll/age,” referring to his own poster tear-off Happenings, are legendary and led to his involvement with the Fluxus movement. Vostell’s frequent focus on political subjects such as wars, assassinations and other current events, here bow to something less sententious and more akin to the landmark book he compiled in the late 1960s, Fantastic Architecture, published in 1970 by the Something Else Press which was owned by Fluxist Dick Higgins, Vostell’s co-editor on the project. The book pushed the Intermedia boundaries between Pop, Happenings and architecture through writings and projects by a Who’s Who of that era’s thinkers and artists. Vostell (1932–1998) died the year he created the piece in this show three decades later that deploys something the book advocates plainly: “the expansion of physical surroundings, sensibilities, media, through disturbance of the familiar.” As Vostell and Higgins proclaimed, foretelling this show’s title, “Action is architecture! Everything is architecture!”
Federico Solmi was banned from an art fair in Bologna for daring to portray a fictional pontiff in a previous work. Here, in one of two pieces, three gleeful but demonic smiling religious figures or warriors hold a globe while seemingly toasting with a wine glass. The Italian artist knows the Pope is still untouchable in his home country, even in art, but uses his satirical drawing chops to poke at corruption by powerful figures in all walks of life with the wit and irreverence of the previously mentioned George Grosz or even Francisco de Goya, whose print series Los caprichos, will hopefully be part of the presentation of this show if and when it appears in New York.
The European born Panamanian artist Rodney Zelenka’s 1994 work Dos grados más allá de la locura means Two degrees beyond the madness. The other work is simply called Manhole. The curators compare his depictions of the human body to the work of Leon Golub that also show man in violent situations. Zelenka here paints the man on the street, literally, addressing the homeless in a makeshift shelter, naked but with dignity and surrounded by labyrinthian forms suggestive of Covid-19. Zelenka lived surrounded by collective amnesia under two military regimes in Panama, one which came to power in 1968, then another starting in the mid-1980s under Manuel Noriega. Both Zelenka works show subjects alienated and isolated that directly engage the viewer.
Another artist exploring isolation and resonant with the Covid lock-down experience is New York based Argentinian artist Liliana Porter whose 1999 drawing of a man collaged with a small photograph called The Traveler, seems to be looking for what the curators call “what remains in the space” that is “formed by the ruled page of an old exercise book, its lines now faded by time.” Then they add “he must look in many directions… as when a traveler links the disparate routes of a journey.”
Speaking of someone looking in many directions, Spanish artist Gala Knoerr has two almost-identical, slightly disturbing portraits of Kanye West in this show, sporting two different caps with two different messages. The naively painted West, known among other things for “rambling, multipart monologues,” looks almost but not quite in the direction of the viewer creating less engagement than Zelenka’s serious subjects. These images were copied from a news photo from West’s Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 Oval Office meeting that also included stunned and subdued football legend turned actor Jim Brown. “They tried to scare me to not wear this hat,” West said to Trump. "This hat, it gives me power in a way. You made a Superman cape for me.”
Six months earlier West had tweeted to 286,000 followers “You don't have to agree with Trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother,” to which Trump replied to only 19,000 people, “Thank you Kanye, very cool!” West was hospitalized for mental health issues in 2016, the year that Trump won the presidency. Coincidence?
Finally, Spanish artist Marina Vargas shows Diez de Espadas, meaning Ten of Swords from a Tarot deck of cards that are used to tell fortunes with symbols, always influenced by the look of each unique deck. Two examples of the same card exist here, done in Vargas’ elegant style. Swords represent strife as well as the mind so this card represents destruction, hopelessness, despair, a bleak and disturbing situation. It may continue for a significant amount of time or things may improve.
One image features black and white depictions of animals, both imaginary and real, in a hierarchy or food chain. A serpent and an Eve figure are separated by a unicorn. The other “card” shows only flowers and a skull. Both images show 10 swords in the same configuration. Despite possibly gloomy predictions, both cards are powerfully executed and project vigor, not negativity.
“My energy and enthusiasm for the arts lay mainly in working with artists I really admire, respect, like and esteem as highly inspirational, interesting and original.” Wimmer said about the closing of her Chelsea gallery, Elga Wimmer PCC. “Since the art market changed so drastically in the last few years, I had contemplated closing the gallery many times in the past 2-5 years.” But she has worked as curator for projects outside of her gallery since 2001 so this show is not unusual for her.
“I'm better off curating for museums and foundations, and I can still advise collectors who look for the same quality in art as I do,” she explained. Regarding Covid she said, “My many years in the arts help me during this time of ‘low tide.’ I notice that people are in general more approachable. She adds, “I am promoting artists and projects on a continuous basis, even though it is difficult.”
This exhibition will show in Mula, Murcia, in Spain in July 2021 and possibly another venue in New York that is currently being negotiated. “What I am trying to do right now, is to continue working as a curator for museums and foundations, and to place some virtual shows for 2021 and 2022 that I am curating during the pandemic.”
Wimmer and Berta Sichel, an independent curator at Bureau Phi in Madrid, want to show their exhibition alongside some examples of Los caprichos, a variation of the word "caprice" and a powerful set of 80 prints in aquatint and etching created by Goya and published as an album in 1799. The light and humorous but irreverent tone of the prints “which Goya was able to get away with, sparing the artist time in the dungeon,” because he presented a copy of the work to the King of Spain, criticized recognizable government and aristocratic figures. For the curators, this would make them an excellent companion piece to “Everything Is Art, Everything Is Politics.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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