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Against Truisms

Political Art Shows Around Chicago

    In 2006, New York artist Jenny Holzer exhibited enlarged, colorized silkscreen works of declassified and redacted military and intelligence documents that had been made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Holzer magnified the documents and screen-printed them on canvases that had been hand-painted in creams, peaches, renaissance blue and alarming bright reds and greens. The documents that Holzer chose for her work addressed counter-terrorism, prisoner abuse and even the threat of Osama bin Laden. Although declassified, much of the information in the documents was concealed, almost completely inked out, as in Colin Powell’s memo on Defense Intelligence Agency reorganization.
   The works are historically significant, presented by Holzer as a maze of words and signs, bold communications of power on the artist’s canvas. In an interview for PBS, Holzer noted, “I know that my researchers and I have had to stop various times reading the material for these redacted paintings. Sometimes it’s a relief to come to the pages that are wholly blacked out because then for at least a page or so you don’t have to read what was there.”
   When asked whether these works were a form of protest the seminal language-based artist replied, “Presenting the documents about torture is a protest. Showing love poems is not.”
   London’s Gilbert & George have been making art together since they met at St. Martins School of Art in the late 1960s. The duo’s “Art For All” methodology deals with contemporary, critical issues, using graphic images that capture humanity from their own personal urban experiences. The artists’ provocative creations explore such themes as religion, sexuality, race, terrorism, superstition, AIDS, aging and death.
   The Milwaukee Art Museum features a Gilbert & George exhibition through September 1. The show includes approximately 45 large-scale works and a selection of archival materials taken from the massive retrospective organized by London’s Tate Modern, with the support and collaboration of the artists, who consider this undertaking to be the definitive presentation of their work.
   Among the works is a series entitled, Six Bomb Pictures, created by the artists for the retrospective. There are 136 sandwich board posters, collected and photographed by Gilbert & George for more than two years, featuring headlines from London’s Evening Standard. In its main triptych, “Bomb,” the London Plane Tree can be seen, the city’s tallest living form and nature’s symbol of continuity. The fruit of the tree in some of the pictures refers to the millions of seeds it contains, symbolizing regeneration and hope. Also featured are images of the artists as guards and witnesses in an explosion of life and death. Initially, the project was intended to be seen as modern townscapes reflecting the daily exposure in urban life to bomb threats and terror. After the shock of several more recent bombings in London, the artists have also aimed for the works to be viewed as commemorative, each functioning as a memorial with its title written on a tombstone, symbolic of the ultimate sacrifice.
    Reflecting during an interview for the Tate Modern, George said, “We always say that we are here to de-shock rather than to shock. That is our theory that we can deal with the difficult subject in a humanistic way that doesn’t send people running out of the museum or running out of the gallery. Some artists are interested in that they like it if the police are called in and things. We always want to get away with it.”
   And Gilbert maintained in the same interview, “But that (our work) has to be extreme, if not (it becomes) invisible. Like all the old artists. To be totally extreme in some way, if not, it is invisible. You don’t see it and that’s what you want them to see. That’s why you make them more powerful than it should be. You are what you call exaggerated life to make it more visible. I think artists always have done that.”
   Locally in Chicago, several art exhibits involving politics are scheduled to open next month. On September 5, David Weinberg Gallery opens Who Gets What: A Political Show. At Loyola University Museum of Art, Art of Democracy begins September 6, with works by 60 printmakers concerned with democracy, social activism and political change. And opening on September 18, DePaul University Art Museum will show 1968 Art and Politics in Chicago, examining the diverse responses of artists to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention. The exhibit will include the seldom-seen sculpture by Barnett Newman entitled, “Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley.”

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue