If there ever were a time for art that is political, now is the moment. The art of Patriot Acts, a group show at Barry Whistler Gallery, gives body to an alternative--I say much-needed--type of jingoism. The work of Darryl Lauster, Greg Metz, Michael Miller, Robert Terry and Leslie Wilkes reminds us that unquestioning loyalty can also come in the form of ironic doubt and hard critique. Steadfast patriotism is not blind faith but allegiance born of thoughtful analysis and honesty.
Art and politics are by necessity ornery bedmates. Successful art, even art that is political, maintains a certain degree of autonomy: It mustn't enslave itself to simple concepts that pander to power or belittle the viewer. From Stalin and Mao's socialist realism to Thomas Kinkade's Hallmark-card landscapes, we know well that propaganda is an equal opportunity shape-shifter, a tool of communism and capitalism alike. Nevertheless, autonomous art does not necessarily forsake contamination: It can be powerfully sovereign precisely through adulteration, by way of polluting itself with political, religious or economic causes. And seeing as contamination is all the rage in other realms, and here I refer to the pollution of the state with the church, why not run with it in art? All you artists out there: It's time to hijack the contagion of overt ideological bias. Let all good patriots create art that is political but not pandering.
The art in Patriot Acts is gleefully punchy. There's no bloodshed, no violence here. Three of the walls in the front-room gallery are lined with abstract geometries rendered in red, white and blue by Leslie Wilkes. They are untitled framed works in gouache--gummy opaque watercolor--of patterns that seem modeled after quilts. The abstraction of these pieces is deceptively simple. Upon first blush, Wilkes' works are but pretty exercises in kaleidoscopic form. They may appeal to a broad range of tastes--lovers of American craft as well as post-painterly abstraction. Revelation of their complexities comes in her own words: "This urge to use red, white and blue has caught me off guard. It has been confusing and troubling, kind of like how it feels to be an American right now." The beauty of these works rides on their simplicity. Each offers a play of minimalist symmetries and modestly describes the ubiquity of the American trio of colors, underscoring the fact that we see them on bumper stickers, plastic bags, campaign signs and, no doubt, flags.
In marked contrast to Wilkes' non-objective geometries, there are the three heavily impastoed portraits of Abraham Lincoln on the back wall of the front room by Robert Terry. The paint is creepily thick and lush in "Lincoln 1863," a rendering of Honest Abe from the neck up in red oil paint. Though all three paintings pay homage to Vincent Van Gogh in brushstroke, painterly surface and raucous color palette, the painter-to-painter connection is especially felt in "Lincoln, Sunday August 9, 1863." As though making a cockeyed cross-temporal reference to when Van Gogh lopped off part of his ear in 1888, Lincoln's visage faces us at an oblique angle with only one ear showing. These paintings are remarkable not so much for any overt political statement but rather their voluptuous and swirly surfaces of paint. That such paint is shot through portraits of the 16th president doesn't seem accidental as much as it does willfully bizarre.
The intermediate space between galleries is adorned with four eagles cast in polyester resin by Darryl Lauster. Lauster derives their forms from Federal-period workshops of wood-carvers active in the 19th century. Light refracts through the milky resin, giving a rosy pink glow to the whiteness of the eagles. Of the four showing, "Cast Eagle, Based on the Workshop of Wilhelm Schimmel, circa 1817" is the most lacking in verisimilitude. This work stands apart from the others in uniqueness as well as humor. The bird-form by the original artist Schimmel, craftsman rather than classically trained artist, is more a caricature than true likeness of an eagle. Its head is bulbous and body scrawny. Indeed the eagle is a loaded symbol of patriotism, the national symbol of the U.S.A. as well as fascist Germany and imperial Rome. Like the Belgian Conceptualist Marcel Broodthaers' fake museum from 1972 titled "Department of Eagles," Lauster's focus on the eagle highlights the symbolism of national dominion. Missing from Lauster's pieces, however, is the potency of Broodthaers' critique of power. Lauster's eagles "celebrate...American identity" more than dissect it.
The back room gives over to the work of Michael Miller and Greg Metz. Seven of Miller's collages of fabric and painting line the wall. Each is a patchwork of "discount bin printed fabrics" atop which Miller has outlined the figure of an animal and scrawled a few words. These are true icons of Americana and, more profound, American citizenship. "Cadillac Escalade" shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex painted in sea-foam green with red stripes emerging from a many-patterned background. A chicken in red stripes struts it stuff in "Tater Tot," somehow bringing to mind the witches' brew of meat that goes into McNuggets. "Jesus," that saintly icon that now doubles as an American patriot, appears symbolically as a heart painted atop floral and striped fabrics. Offbeat symbols play on a layer of cast-off textiles, making a kooky commentary on the wantonness of American materialism.
Across from the wall stands Greg Metz's "Memorial Kleenex Cozy," a bronze portrait bust of the president that doubles as a tissue cozy. Tissue daintily emerges from the smiling head of the illustrious decider. A small plaque beneath his jovial pate reads "My deepest regrets to those who have sacrificed their loved ones for my Iraq war." Metz apes the classical form of the portrait bust, creating a sculpture that would camouflage itself well among other great works in the Capitol Rotunda. Metz's kitschy bust is by far the most politically blunt.
Summer is usually a time of quiet sleep in the gallery world. Patriot Acts rustles the warm summer air with welcomed political consciousness.
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