Review by Jim Feast
It is fashionable in art criticism to take the most bland, inoffensive work and, by means of tortured reasoning, prove that it is politically charged and provocative. Take, for example, premier critic Robert Morgan's description of Kim MacConnel's work. To the uninformed viewer, his paintings resemble beautifully decorated, rhythmic wallpaper. According to Morgan, in his The End of the Art World, as MacConnel's "approach to patterned ornamentation developed into the seventies, it became more ideological, specifically in its allusion to arts and crafts. The history of the Arts and Crafts movement in England... was a history of the defiance of standardization."
Think about what this interpretation presupposes. 1) That the viewer, seeing MacConnel's work, which has no allusions to the British movement in it, will, nonetheless, immediately relate these designs to that different time and place. And even if that connection were invariably made, which seems hardly plausible, then, 2) the mere allusion to a previous, outdated political movement makes the current work itself political.
This is not meant as a jibe against Morgan, a fine critic in many ways, but as a representative example of how mainstream critics often desperately try to promote decorative fancies as cutting political statements. It may well be that this is done because any kind of really politically engaged work is barred from the galleries and museums that are these critics' beat.
Things are different, of course, in the more iconoclastic, fringe galleries, such as that of Gathering of the Tribes, where the show CommuniquÃ© exhibits art that take no spelunker to finds its political depths.
This is not to say that what is on display is work of the agit-prop variety in which a particular person or policy is lambasted. Such art tends to quickly pale as its specific allusions are forgotten. Rather, this art is political in viewing the world as a fraught public concern in which the answer to our prayers and problems will arise through a firm collective address to social issues. In other terms, from this perspective the artist's job is simply to focalize the most demanding current issues in a hard-hitting way, whether with wry irony (as in the work of David Sandlin and Tim Slowinski), puckish cartooning (as in the work of Shalom), or with a more allusive but still demonstrative style (as seen in a photo work by Toyo).
To give you a whirlwind tour of what I mean, we'll begin with Sandlin. In his untitled triptych, there is a sad historical succession, moving from a grotesque Garden of Eden where a baby looks on as two lions copulate in the lap of a lumpy elephant to a last picture where the baby and his fellows, maintaining the same lighthearted innocence, stand at the edge of a swampy battlefield, which has a burning city on the horizon and a squadron of marching babes in arms in the near distance. Given the centrality of infants in these depictions, the suggestive moral would seem to be that children will gleefully adapt to whatever world we provide and will, with equal fervor, observe animals' lovemaking, make mudpies or trash foreign countries.
Equally grotesque, if more allegorically clear, is Slowinksi's "Uncle Frank's War Dance." Here an overweight, sweaty and salivating Uncle Frank, decked out in red, white, and blue togs and holding a small missile as if it were an all-day sucker, shuffles woefully along to a patriotic band containing such mismatched minstrels as an American Indian, a cat, and Abe Lincoln on zither. If there is some caricature of our current leaders' tendencies to beat war drums on the slightest pretext, the oil also contains another edge in how it exposes the pitiable side of this spectacle. While nasty, Uncle Frank is also pathetic, a middle-aged, out-of-shape slimeball trying to replicate a macho posture appropriate to a young hunk.
Shalom's study "No NRA" conveys the same feeling of evil and pathos. In fact, a long-standing motif in the work of this indefatigable artist is an attempt to plumb the inner life of cartoons. Whereas the Tijuana Bibles of the 1940s portrayed Mickie and Minnie in Kama Sutra -like couplings, Shalom in varous works has shown these mice in existential anguish as their spirits grovel before the absurdity of life. In the present show's portrait of a two-rifle-toting, camouflage-jacket-appareled woodsman, there is a distinct hint of self doubt in the character's grimace. Rather than giving us a ferocious gunslinger, the picture reveals a perplexed individual whose NRA support probably springs from a stab-in-the-dark response to our frightening postmodern world.
But let's return to our opening point. One of the most talked about works in the show is Toyo's"Rivington Sculpture Garden." This brings up an earlier idea since appreciation of Toyo, like that of MacConnel in Morgan's interpretation, depends on historical knowledge. What separates the two works, though, is that MacConnel demands a fluency in art history of its viewers while Toyo's photographic triptych calls for a background in the community. This does limit the work, but, at least, residents of the Lower East Side will grasp its sense. The three photos show an extended view of the garden, which was a site of unbridled artistic experiment in the 1980s. The people passing on the sidewalk and the cars whizzing by serve to impress on us the size of the sculpture in the background, two stories of white bars in a chaotic formation that resembles the shattered fossil of a prehistoric Mothra. For those who know the Rivington Sculpture Garden's history, this giant form may remind them of the years of unsightly but glorious performances and installations that filled the space until the moment when the city, in another infamous move to stamp out community self expression, took it over and stopped its use.
These are not the only works in this rich and diverse show and if there were more space more we could describe others of equal force. However, what has been said should remind us that there is still high-caliber art being made whose polemical edge does not need to be excavated by critics before it appears. This art plunges the viewer into a volcanic region where images erupt with political bite, humanist candor, and aesthetic integrity.