Arts & Culture · Fine Art · Travel

Happiness, Liberty, Life? Politics and Art

Beyond Red Grooms

Although the main exhibition space is dominated by Red Grooms’s farcical Philadelphia Cornucopia, 1982, featuring Macy’s Parade–size images of George Washington, Martha Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, it is the other works that resonate most strongly.

Thank You America, 1991, by Sue Coe(1)Thank You America (Anita Hill, Study for the lithograph of the same title), 1991. © 1991 Sue Coe. Courtesy of Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

I stood transfixed in front of English artist Sue Coe’s Thank You America, 1991, a black-and-white graphite and gouache painting of Anita Hill being interrogated during the Clarence Thomas hearings. It was created 25 years ago. Hill’s vulnerability and indignation speak louder now than ever, as the future of the Supreme Court remains the top issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

Other works by Coe that demand to be seen, Aids Won’t Wait, the Enemy is Here, Not in Kuwait, 1970, and Riot, 1992, capture the plight of disenfranchised Americans today, those falling through the cracks of the healthcare system and the economy. Vegetarians will love Coe’s Lo Cholesterol Buffalo, 1991, a veritable stampede of buffalo, hemmed in by barbed wire.

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Back to the Future

The most eerily prophetic works are those that draw political comparison between the past and the present. Take Herbert Johnson’s 1944 anti-immigration cartoon urging congress to “Make This Flood Control Permanent.”  It depicts a gigantic wall to keep out a rising tide of “Alien undesirables.”  Those undesirables were Holocaust refugees. Today they are Mexicans and Muslims. Or Alice Neel’s 1933 painting Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation, showing an elderly woman, head in her hands, surrounded by emotionally removed men deciding her fate.

1944 Cartoon(1)Make This Flood Control Permanent, by Herbert Johnson (photo: Harry Saffren, 2016).

Another standout is Nancy Chunn’s Land of the Stupid, 2001, a candy-colored, acrylic on canvas painting of what appears to be our present political crisis. She gives us a sea of pink elephants, suited Wall Street sharks carrying briefcases, and the Supreme Court silhouetted in black, looming menacingly over the painting. Over her figurative images Chunn places glaring stop signs, the TV Guide logo, and exclamations such as “Get lost!” and “This stinks!” Which lead me to believe that Chunn is either a psychic who was able to peer 15 years into the future or we are all trapped on a political gerbil wheel.

Land of Stupid by Nancy Chunn credit PAFA(1)Land of the Stupid, by Nancy Chunn (photo: Harry Saffren, 2016).

Not to be missed: the work of former PAFA student and faculty member Violet Oakley (1874–1961), one of the first female political artists whose work appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. Her dramatic rendering in charcoal, crayon, and chalk, Civil War Scene, 1900, asks, “Do they see equally a whole world desirous of peace?” The same might be asked of our Congress and presidential candidates.

Another study in contrasts is Colin Campbell Cooper’s Lower Broadway in Wartime, 1917, situated next to Roy Lichtenstein’s I Love Liberty, 1982.  While Campbell Cooper’s impressionist painting in soft pastels makes wartime appear to be a summer holiday, Lichtenstein’s portrait of the Statue of Liberty gives the famous image a hard, fierce edge.

Perhaps the most provocative piece is Kathleen Wirick’s No One is Safe, 2011. The title alone captures the current mood. In over 150 comic book-sized story boards in ink wash on watercolor paper and charcoal, Wirick examines the Kent State massacre. The fact that the artist was a child when the event occurred only serves to make her work more compelling. It reads like an investigative report. What happened? Why? To whom? Can it happen again?

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  • roz warren August 25, 2016 at 6:23 pm