Touchstone Gallery’s August 2016 national juried exhibit Art as Politics reflects the “state of the union” as seen through the eyes of artists who don’t often get asked for their views on anything. The 250 artists who answered the call to make work about the tumultuous 2016 election cycle didn’t disappoint juror Jayme McClellan. They submitted 400 boisterous pieces of art. McClellan chose 127 works by 90 artists. It's an all-media show of wall pieces, video installations and sculpture.
The astounding array was produced by a geographically diverse group of artists, some from as far away as California, Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, and Iowa. Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC are also well represented. A broad spectrum of views addresses social issues of the day: presidential candidates, money in politics, gun violence, immigration, war, freedom of speech, environmental degradation, racism, and women’s rights. “This show is dense in numbers and dense in content,” states Touchstone member Janet Wheeler. “It’s a show viewers will want to spend some time with.” What is described below is only a fraction of the art in this exhibit.
The current presidential election breaks new ground because it includes the first woman candidate nominated by a major political party in the nation’s 240 year history. During this time span, women though excluded from direct participation in government, banded together to discuss politics and sew patriotic quilts using national symbols like the eagle, heroes of their day, and variations on the flag. Quilt artists fostered a sense of patriotic duty and an awareness of national history first gleaned through word of mouth, then radio, then television and now the internet. Bed-size quilts were, in a sense, giant posters when hung on family clothes lines, easily readable from the nearest roadside. The Art as Politics artists who bring this rich fiber tradition into the present include: Misty Cole – Political Circus, Penny Mateer-- Damn Good Whacking #5 Protest Series, Eileen Doughty --Taking Liberties, and Rose Beckham -- Untitled #50.
In the mid 1800’s politically significant quilts were hung on fences and clothes lines to mark safe houses for escaping slaves on their way north—networking codes for the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War such issues as ongoing “Jim Crow” laws in the South, decades of racial segregation, the turmoil surrounding the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60’s, and continuing sporadic eruptions of racial bigotry associated with arrests of African American men continue to plague the American social landscape. The number of black men incarcerated has swelled to 67% of jail and prison populations, and video witnesses to shootings have pushed racial tensions to the breaking point in 2016. This topic elicited many searing responses: Stoddard – Black Angel, Christopher Chinn – Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, Kelly Burke – Black Lives Matter, and others.
Whether racial, sexist, or related to war and immigration, “wall” or “barrier” expressions are a major theme in this exhibit: Janathel Shaw’s clay and wood sculpture Still A N_____/No Entry, for instance, explicitly addresses the wall that exists between white people and those of color. “The door in my installation represents a structure that we must demand to walk through with dignity and accomplishment,” she says. Her piece shows how prejudice is like a solidly palpable wall for African Americans. In contrast this wall is either ephemeral or completely unseen by many in the majority.
Another seemingly invisible wall of privilege and power separates Glenn Kessler’s painting of a powerful royally-robed President George W. Bush from the nearby painting of a homeless man. A poignant and troubling contrast.
A more active barrier scenario, The Day of Contempt, painted by Ali Onur Sengul shows peaceful demonstrators facing violence from a wall of police water hoses and tear gas. Augustine Chavez’ The Wall, a 96 inch wide painting of a wall, under construction to keep immigrants out of the country, invites consideration of the merits of exclusion by a country built on a foundation of inclusion.
Sexist barriers that keep women at a disadvantage are described in unsettling terms by Ashley Danes – Shhhh and It’s Not Rape, and Julia Dzikiewicz – Strip & Search: Suffragette Lucy Burns Experience at the Occoquan Workhouse. Cathy Wilkin’s distressing Help Yourself paintingof a reclining nude, that lies bare before the Supreme Court as they debate her reproductive options, is hung near Byron Taylor's painting of a bleeding woman at the pharmacy door. Tim Johnson tongue-in-cheek painting 1st to 45th …Pantaloons to Pantsuit and Rosemary Luckett’s Hillary Athena Campaigns lighten an otherwise somber group of paintings and photographs.
Even the works in which people are wrapped in the flag, vis a vis flag garments, bespeak the seriousness of what ails our country this year. Patricia’s Turner’s Mayhem in the Middle East connects the dots between American oil consumption and on-going war. Likewise environmentalist artists connect the dots between hyper consumption and the coal- generated pollution that is a by-product of the manufacturing process and electricity production.
Several small paintings by Michael Auger and K. M. Copham offer humorous alternatives to the mostly serious portrayals of presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, President Obama, Michele Obama and Vladimir Putin. One just has to smile at presidential candidates Nudes Playing Chess (paint on cutting board), Whose Hair are You Voting For?, Boobies on Capitol Hill, and Trumpty Dumpty. Janos Somogyi’s abstract Pro Pacem III offers a quiet expression of peace.
Art as Politicsis a fresh alternative to the expounding pundits and talking heads who dominate media coverage of the election process. You’ll never see another exhibit quite like it! Rosemary Luckett
View the exhibit between now and August 25 at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave NW, Washington DC. Wed-Fri 11-6 and Sat-Sun 12-5. firstname.lastname@example.org 202-347-2787.
Art As Politics Award Winners
1st Place - $750, Augustine Chavez; "The Wall"; Oil on Panel; 48 x 84 in.; $8000
2nd Place - $500; Kevin Grass; "The Thinker"; Acrylic on Panel; 33.25 x 25 in.; $4800; http://www.kevingrass.com/
3rd Place - $250;Kelly Burke Artworks; "Black Lives Matter; Oil on Canvas; 54 x 108 in.;POR; http://www.kellyburke-artworks.com/
Ann Stoddard Art; "Black Angel";Video Installation Social Sculpture; 42 x 75 x 12 in.; $7500; http://www.annstoddard.net/
Ali Onur Sengul; "The day of Contempt"; Oil Painting on Masonite Board; 41.5 x 48.5 in. $3200
Janathel Shaw; "Still A N___/No Entry"; Ceramics Stoneware, Wood and Metal; 15 x 19 x 25 in. ;POR
Glen Kessler Art and Teachin; "Leadership";Oil on Canvas; 96 72 in.; $12000; http://www.glenkessler.com/
Jenny Wu; "Wall, Wall. Wall? Wall. Wall!"; Video Installation; POR; http://www.jennywuart.com/wall/