Image is everything in politics, as the 2004 presidential campaign clearly shows. Its good vs. evil, with progressive forces marshalling images of truth -- hundreds of flag-draped "coffins," say, representing U.S. war dead -- against the "big lie" technique of the Republican crime family. A case in point is the Purple Heart Band-Aid so joyously worn by Republican delegates at their New York convention to mock the military service of John Kerry.
In this epic battle, which storms across the mass-media landscape like hurricanes through south Florida, our local bohemians can barely hold onto their umbrellas in the wind. The avant-garde sensibility, for all its reputation for vulgarity, is just not bloodthirsty enough to wield much of a political weapon. The problem is too much art, not too little (as Wall Street Journal "De Gustibus" columnist Eric Gibson would have it).
Thus, the works in "The Freedom Salon," a group show of about 40 artists ranging from Ghada Amer and Devendra Banhart to Dread Scott and Krzsysztof Wodiczko, on view during convention week in an empty storefront space on Wooster Street in SoHo, are all poetical, allusive, humorous, odd, expressive -- in a word, esthetic.
For instance, as great as they are, a ferocious little crayon drawing by the late artist and political activist Leon Golub of a dog attacking a "cyborg" or a cartoon by San Francisco "street art" fave Chris Johanson of an alien from the future warning humans to mend their ways are not very muscular political statements.
More to the point is a bright yellow and black Madison Square Garden-style event poster for the RNC speaker lineup, illustrated with the black-and-white photo from Abu Ghraib of 21-year-old Pfc. Lyndie England holding an Iraqi prisoner on a leash. Its by Wayne Gonzales, an artist who has a taste for classic graphics; a few years ago at Paula Cooper Gallery he showed works that take their imagery from historical ephemera such as cocktail napkins and matchbooks somehow connected with the Kennedy assassination. This posters predecessor would be Andy Warhols famous 1972 screenprint of a ghoulishly green and blue Richard Nixon with "Vote McGovern" inscribed underneath.
The artists participating in the exhibition of political posters at Max Fish, a bar on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, were able to work up a bit more ferocity. The bluntly effective Stop Bush, done by an anonymous artist, simply places the presidential surname in the middle of a blood-red stop sign, while Dump Dumb Bush by Bill Kaizen expresses its thumping sentiment in big block letters, done in poster paint to fill the entire sheet edge to edge.
More primally expressive is Jennifer Blacks poster, which reads, in agitated handwriting in white paint on a black background, "Its Really, Really Bad, Weve Got to Get Him Out of There," with a tiny American flag as an accent. Next to it is Craig Dufields simple and terminally eloquent stencil-painted image of Bush finally being honest, urging "Vote Me Out."
Bush campaign propaganda is preoccupied with a pretense towards masculinity, i.e., the fey "girly man" sobriquet aimed at their opponents, and so its no surprise that the gay-friendly art world rings some changes on the theme. At Max Fish is Gay Elephants by Jeremy Davis, a lovely line drawing of two nuzzling pachyderms that, instead of castrating the Republicans, simply recasts them as aggressively pacifist. Nearby is a truly fine Photoshopped picture of a leering George W. spreading his asshole wide, bearing the equally vulgar caption, "The Truth, the Hole Truth & Nothing Butt the Truth." This satisfying expression of antagonism is by the curator Robert Nickas, working anonymously as the "Republican National Conspiracy."
Angrier still is a pair of posters by Matthew Brannon, showing an early-Warhol-style broken-line drawing of George W.s smirking visage, splattered with red paint. The "butcher" motif doesnt exactly square with our frat-boy presidents popular image, though perhaps the artist is illustrating the same feelings as Nicholson Baker in his new novel Checkpoint.
The posters are for sale at prices between $50 and $200, with proceeds going to Downtown for Democracy.
A more theoretical (and theatrical) approach can be found uptown in the installation by the aggressively radical Los Angeles artist Daniel Joseph Martinez at The Project on 57th Street, where dealers Christian Haye and Jenny Liu got a head start on the New York fall art fest -- they dash out to L.A. this week to unveil their new gallery space there -- by opening on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. In New York, Martinez made a splash at the 1993 Whitney Biennial (the last good one) by handing out buttons that read, "I cant imagine ever wanting to be white." More recently, his 1999 photographic self-portrait with a stitched-up skull, ostensibly testifying to an effort to "clone mental disorder with a hammer (after Mary Shelley)," provided a gruesome welcome to the recent "Only Skin Deep" show at the International Center of Photography.
At the Project, Martinez has filled the gallerys front room with a recreation of the Montana cabin of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and painted it with pastel hues from the Martha Stewart housepaint line at K-Mart. This surrealist juxtaposition, laboring under the weighty title, "The House America Built," offers us two kinds of contemporary utopianism -- but it is Kaczynskis demented idealism, and the terrorist bomb attacks that accompanied it, that are so bizarrely apropos today.
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Despite the early start at the Project, the prize for the first New York art opening of the season must go to the French American artist Colette, who on Sept. 1, 2004, unveiled new works from her "Maison Lumiere" series at the Madison Avenue outpost of Rosenthal, a classy purveyor of haute design silverware and china located on 25th Street across from Madison Park.
"I like to surprise people with my art," said the famous femme fatale, who captivated the New York art scene in the 1970s with performances in her lower Manhattan loft in which she posed in a dense bedroom setting of draped parachutes and other ultra-feminine frippery. For this show, Colette was invited by Rosenthal to design some plates but did a store-wide installation of her art instead. In the plate-glass window is in as instalation in the grand Surrealist manner, a mannequin of the artist chained to a table strewn with jewels and set with plates embossed with images of the her angelic alter ego.
The show includes new paintings, racks of white dresses and "album cover" collages that Colette considers "records" of her different personae (with prices beginning at $1,200, these are particularly collectible). Downstairs are works from Colettes "Dial C for Scandal" performance from Munich in the 80s.
Also downstairs at the opening was the Johnny Carson of the art world, Willoughby Sharp, looking good after recent surgery and promising to embark on a series of one-man shows. Colettes show remains on view till Oct. 8, 2004.
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Upstate in beautiful hippie-crafty Woodstock, N.Y., the Elena Zang Gallery is a model of a down-home business, self-sufficiently showing work by artists who live in the area, including several with national reputations (Joan Snyder, Mary Frank, Judy Pfaff, Michael Mazur). Some dealers pursue clients by participating in international art fairs. Zang lets the collectors come to her.
Local talents include Joy Brown, who makes wood-fired ceramic figures that have a wide-eyed lovability, and Tom Gottsleben, whose sculptures are built by stringing together small slabs of bluestone and crystal glass on a looping, stainless steel armature. Zangs elegant wood-frame gallery building sits just off the road, by the house, on verdant grounds that double as a setting for sculpture. The owners, Elena Zang and Alan Hoffman, also show their own pottery.
A little closer to the city, the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., gears up for its fall season -- director and chief curator David R. Collens says the place can get 1,400 people on a good autumn day. Collens is hard at work on his next show, which features photos of Mark di Suvero and his sculpture by the legendary dealer Richard Bellamy, who died in 1997. The curator hopes to borrow three more di Suvero sculptures to complement the four already installed in the Storm King landscape, and present some 50-60 large-scale prints of Bellamys photos (selected from over 1,000 in the Bellamy archive) in the gallery.
The two-year exhibition is slated to open in the spring, in conjunction with the publication by the Philadelphia Museum of a book on Bellamy by Judith Stein. The show (and an accompanying symposium) double as a celebration of Storm Kings 45th anniversary (it was founded in 1960). At present, visitors can take in the ca. 100 works on the grounds and the highly praised temporary exhibition of sculpture by Chakaia Booker, which continues till Nov. 14, 2004, when the park closes for the winter. For more info, see www.stormking.org.
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Artist Meyer Vaisman, living in Barcelona, returns New York next month for a show at Deitch Projects celebrating the 20th anniversary of the opening of International With Monument, the East Village art scenes conceptualist redoubt. . . . Due soon from Deitch Projects, an art book called The New Underground chronicling the works of Assume Vivid Astro Focus and other downtown worthies.
Ilona Staller, the Italian porn star and politician who married Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons, now has her sights set on becoming mayor of Milan, says Webster Hall art curator Baird Jones. . . . September issue of Artforum, a massive 300 pages, reads like Penthouse with all its art-and-sex entries, including a text by David Rimanelli on Timothy Greenfield-Sanderss porn project.
A year ago, in "Wish List for the Dog Days," Artnet Magazine columnist Charlie Finch made several suggestions for exhibitions to new Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, including a proposal for a show of classics from the Whitney collection titled "America at War." And so, on view at the Mad Ave museum now is a film series titled "War! Protest in America, 1965-2004," Aug. 26-Oct. 24, 2004, and an exhibition from the collection called "Memorials of War," Aug. 19-Nov. 28, 2004.
More Whitney news: New Whitney staffer Joan Simon, dubbed "curator at large," is keeping her Paris abode and working from the City of Light. Now thats "American". . . Group Material founder Doug Ashford has been made acting dean of art at Cooper Union.
Other summer doings in the Baked Apple included the unveiling of a scheme to fill the city with large, artist-designed apple sculptures and auction them off for charity. One of the prototypes, shown here, is the clear crystal model filled with pillows and pastel dogs, courtesy David Humphrey.
Meanwhile, another artists version of the apple, painted with a seascape of sailing boats, has already been installed at 42nd and 2nd Avenue, where it proves its tourist appeal every day. Two young couples were recently spotted posing for pictures by the oversized bauble. Later they were seen posing with a concrete planter in front of Grand Central Station.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.