The Obama Inauguration Art Show
Through Feb. 27
Through March 15
The Friday before Barack Obama's inauguration, large crowds turned out to galleries in Durham and Raleigh to see two art shows, both intimately tied to the zeitgeist, yet very different. At Raleigh's DesignBox, a bulwark of the city's warehouse district, The Obama Inauguration Art Show offers a mostly celebratory, occasionally ironic or pessimistic, display of work inspired by the ascension of the Illinois senator. Paul Friedrich, who co-curated with Georges LeChevallier, reports that the opening night turnout was the biggest in the gallery's history.
On the same bone-chilling night in Durham, approximately 500 people came to the gorgeously renovated Golden Belt factory to see the cheekily named Bailout Biennial, a show curated by UNC art professor elin o'Hara slavick that displays work by 26 artists, organized loosely (sometimes very loosely) around the theme of America's collapsing economy.
These two shows, similar in their topicality, contrast wildly in tone and approach. There is good art and bad art in each, the mixed quality being the inevitable result of quickly organizing the exhibits in response to current events. It's hard to think of another single night in the last decade that was so propitious for adventurous, relevant art in the Triangle, and one that could herald an era of strong artistic responses to our historical moment.
Last week, Shepard Fairey's canonical red-and-blue "Hope" poster entered the National Gallery. Observers cited it as a victory for street art. However, it seems to me that with its veneration of a particular leader, the poster has less to do with the anarchic impulses of graffiti and more in common with Warholian Pop art or Soviet/ Maoist propaganda. It's not to say that Fairey's poster isn't a lovely image, but it seems willfully naïve to ignore the mixed—to say the least—history of plastering someone's face all over public spaces.
As advertised, the inside of DesignBox contains dozens of images of Barack Hussein Obama. The tone is overwhelmingly positive: Indeed, you sense that the downtown community still relishes the memory of drinking beer at Raleigh Times with candidate Obama (did anyone ever drain a pint with George W. Bush, that supposed boon companion of the taverns?). Painting after drawing after collage features the image of America's president, whose youthful, handsome—yet deeply enigmatic—Afro-Caucasian features are being reproduced and disseminated at a rate to rival Che Guevara, Elvis Presley and Jesus.
At least one of the DesignBox works, and perhaps two, even uses the same photo that inspired Fairey's "Hope" poster. Occupying an 8-foot square next to the gallery's front door, "Sixty-four square feet of hope," by Jon Williams and Rob Ruchte, is that same image, composed entirely of standard-issue Post-It notes, mostly gold, green and orange.
Throughout the gallery are renderings of Obama's image that express the extraordinary optimism people have for his administration, feelings reinforced in the paintings' titles. Sean Kernick puts the president in Johnny Cash garb and titles his portrait "New Sheriff in Town." Pete Sack's nicely executed profile portrait bears the title "A True Mission Accomplished." Elsewhere, Victor Knight's "Chi-Town's Finest" is a compelling counterpoint to the Fairey image: His portrait explicitly evokes street art in the slashing letters and paint drips that cover a conventional image of Obama, backed by red-and-blue bunting.
Other efforts reveal artist's utopian hopes for an Obama-led future. Kristin Matwiczyk's "Obama Vision" shows a black-and-white tornado spout laying waste to a landscape. But superimposed over the middle of the funnel are the president's hands making the shape of a rectangular viewfinder. Inside this box, the tornado is a full-color rainbow. A more ironic—but no less optimistic—image comes from one of Friedrich's contributions, "Obama & 7-Up Rainbow," a cheerfully riotous image of the president, clad in red and white stripes, sitting on his throne underneath a rainbow with tweeting birds and a flying unicorn. Meanwhile, with a large canvas called "Audacity of Victory," André Leon Gray makes an early foray into the velvet-Elvis treatment with a black-on-black portrait with the caption "Black-President."
The show's funniest piece is Shane Smith's "Miracle Toast," in which we see a piece of toast—preserved under glass—with Obama's image miraculously burned into the bread. Meanwhile, the new president is present only in spirit in one of the show's strongest efforts, Brian Walsby's masterly, dynamic sketch on cardboard of women gasping at the realization of Obama's victory.
A handful of works in the show reflect unease and ambivalence about the promise of an Obama-led America. Scott McClure's "Change?" shows a split portrait, half of which is Bush's face and half Obama's. It's an eerily plausible effect—and one that others have discovered too, as evidenced on the Web. Gus Fink's "Islamic King" is the most puzzling image in the show. We see a figure in a crucifixion pose that wears two crowns: the crown of thorns in Christian iconography, topped by a traditional gold crown, labeled "Islamic King." Tattooed on the figure's knuckles are the words "Hope" and "Less"; similarly, the tattoos (or labels) on the figure's biceps are "Barry" and "Sotoro." On either side of the figure are crucifixes and dollar signs. What's going on here? Is it a parody of the crudest right-wing allegations against Obama, who was known as a child in Indonesia as Barry Soetoro (the name comes from his stepfather)? Or is Fink playing it straight?
No less ambivalent, but more clear, are four smallish cartoons by Marc Russo that depict a youthful, Boondocks-ian Obama in a variety of tragic Greek myths. In one, he's shown as Atlas, shouldering the weight of America; in another, he's Icarus flying dangerously close to the sun. My favorite of the quartet, which carries the same mystery as its mythological source, is an ominous image of Obama as Prometheus, strapped to the dome of the Capitol, with his liver ripped out by a nearby bird. It's deceptively macabre and unsettling, and unlike other works in the show, it recognizes that the work has only begun, and that it is likely to be painful.
As I write, the Obama administration is discussing whether the financial crisis will require, in effect, the nationalization of America's large, troubled banks.
The trillion-dollar scale of this disaster is really too much for most of us to comprehend, and indeed, things are so topsy-turvy that, as The Guardian recently reminded us, the economist who most accurately foresaw the disaster, Nouriel Roubini of New York University, "described George Bush, Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke as 'a troika of Bolsheviks who turned the USA into the United Socialist State Republic of America.'"
With the notable exception of Lorena Endara's handmade book of photos and text that documents the global shrimp trade, it's not surprising that the artists in the Bailout Biennial in Durham don't offer much insight into the nuts and bolts of sub-prime lending and collaterized debt obligations. What the artists do know, however, is that there is something fundamentally wrong—and unsustainable—about a culture that can't find money to provide health insurance for its citizens but has no trouble locating help for reckless and corrupt financial institutions.
Much of the work in the show actually predates (or anticipates) the present catastrophe—and significantly, much of it coincides with the last time the global financial system was under heavy scrutiny, when protestors haunted meetings of the International Monetary Fund and threw rocks and evaded tear gas in the Battle of Seattle. All of this fervor was swept to the side by Sept. 11, as Naomi Klein, the rock star of the anti-globalism movement, noted in a recent New Yorker profile. One global war on terror later, the time has come to pay the bills. We know who's holding the check.
Bailout Biennial is attractively mounted in a raw, 10,000 square-foot space on the third floor of the Golden Belt. Necessarily, many of the works are mounted on temporary plywood surfaces, while others are on finished walls, on the floor and, where possible, on the brick exterior walls.
Some of the pieces deal explicitly with money and financial institutions. Geoffrey Owen Miller's "Babylon," for example, is 18 one-dollar bills, with the image of Washington altered to resemble Bush, and text stamped on the back that reads, in part, "experience in failing businesses was shortened to experience in business."
Across the gallery, in a small voting booth, Julie Thomson's "How much am I paying? Free, please take one. You've paid enough already," calculates the individual cost of the bailout as $2,296.84 and invites viewers to take a button emblazoned with that sum. In a corner of the gallery that contains particularly garish work, there's a 15-foot long, five-panel canvas of a pig, with a line graph intended to evoke economic things running through it like a gastrointestinal tract. This painting raises the question, however, of whether we might turn the page on vilifying the gentle pig (slaughtered by the millions not far from the Triangle) as a symbol—in cultures ancient and modern—of greed, gluttony and filth.
The entrails of a different animal figure prominently on the other end of the gallery, in one of curator slavick's contributions: a Duratrans light box, about 5 feet wide and 3 feet high, suspended from the ceiling. The image is a shocking close-up of the spilled guts of a just-slaughtered cow. The text underneath reads "Global Economy," in the kind of stately font one would expect a Gucci or Ralph Lauren ad to use.
Subtlety clearly isn't slavick's intent here, but in the corresponding artist statement, she tells the astonishing story behind the photo, which sounds like an especially nihilistic Dadaist stunt. She writes that the image depicts a cow "immediately after being slaughtered in rural Brazil by my brother-in-law in a pink Izod shirt, martini in hand, an Austrian handgun aimed between the cow's poor eyes. ... This image became a symbolic spectacle of the imminent collapse of capitalism." Whether capitalism's collapse is nigh, or whether we'll all be coaxed into propping up the cow, is one discussion; I'm most intrigued by the pink Izod, the martini and the brother-in-law (and the artist) who are left out of the frame. (In the interest of disclosure, I recently kept a long-planned appointment to speak before one of slavick's UNC classes with two Indy arts freelancers, and the four of us dined together afterward.)
To find such background information on the work in this show, you need to pick up a catalog at the entrance because the artwork has been hung without wall captions—for which I'm grateful. All too often, the experience of looking is to puzzle over the artist's intent, then read the wall text for the correct answer. The strongest pieces here work powerfully without text. I especially like Michael Itkoff's ghostly, seductive images of a rural demolition derby. There's no explicit connection to the current crisis here—they are just gorgeous pictures of rust-belt culture and a certain kind of renewal. Cathryn Griffin's large-scale photos are more topical, and effectively show barren landscapes of condos and subdivisions on the N.C. coast—where the only signs of life are a port-a-potty and a distant automobile.
Similarly direct are several works that—like the majority of the Obama show in Raleigh—utilize the iconic images of famous, or infamous, Americans. Among them are Severn Eaton's trio of portraits of Lincoln, Washington and Franklin, executed on 4-by-8-foot sheets of drywall—in pixels of blood.
There are several strong sculptures and three-dimensional mixed-media work, too. I particularly liked a couple by Andrew Johnson, especially "The Last Drop," a cast-marble rendering of a water bucket and yoke, shattered on the floor, and white, as if desiccated by centuries in the desert.
If there's any work here that delivers something like transcendence and hope, it's a three-dimensional piece by Lauren Frances Adams called "Flag," which consists of a cane fishing pole, mounted on the floor at an angle, with a piece of white linen hanging from it. On this improvised flag is the word "CROATOAN," formed by pine needles. I needed the assistance of Adams' written statement to remember the story: A member of Sir Walter Raleigh's party returned to Roanoke in 1590 to resupply settlers who'd been left behind three years earlier. They were gone, of course, but there was a clue, a single word carved into a tree. Did the lost colonists drop out and join the natives? The white flag symbolizes the surrender, Adams tells us, of the first white people in America, and their abandonment of the colonizing enterprise. "'Gone to Croatoan,'" Adams writes, "has become a phrase used by proponents of anti-capitalism and subculture activism."
This modest, elegant piece lingers in the memory, and seems to be an appropriately elegant symbol of our predicament, particularly as North Carolinians. With any luck, we'll survive the crisis and make ourselves a better country in the process.