B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
I'M A BIG milk drinker, always have been. I like it straight up, couple times a day, and just a splash in strong black tea a lot more often than that. So I was nonplused to find my comfort beverage excoriated in a piece of art in the new Central Arts show Radical Belief: Art as Enlightenment? Art as Propaganda?
One Doug Minkler of Richmond, California, who won one of two awards of merit in the 11-person juried show, attacks milk with all his might in a colored screen print called "Got Milked." He's drawn a dismal-looking cow, skewered her with syringes and a death head, and floated her in a sea of angry text. "Milk has something for everybody: higher cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke" read the words under Bessie's hooves. Floating around her head are one-word zingers--desertification, deforestation, antibiotics--and some two-worders--habitat loss, water shortage, global starvation, growth hormones.
Hey, call me a lactose reactionary, but I take exception to some of this. What if I drink the skim version? Then I'm avoiding the risk of cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, and shoring up my defenses against osteoporosis. I too worry about the antibiotics and hormones that are increasingly being pumped into dairy cows, but let's attack the laws that allow it, not give up on milk. And the land and water issues he raises have more to do with the burgeoning beef cattle business than they do with the faltering dairy industry.
I could keep arguing, but suffice it to say that Minkler struck a nerve with me. And if that's the point of political art, then his work has succeeded. But this doctrinaire little piece also illustrates some of the genre's failings. Minkler is guilty of posturing without informing: The issues are far more complicated than the easy slogans his piece suggests. A lot of the work in this juried show, for which artists from the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Colorado were invited to submit work they consider politically radical, suffer from the same failings as Minkler's. There's too much facile propaganda, not enough enlightenment. The artists go off on a rant that's too obvious, or else the source of their rage is too obscure.
In the category of the obvious is the juvenile "American Asshole" by Benton Brown of Santa Fe. Brown wants to outrage his viewers. He's made a glass case for a painted American flag and put his nasty title in neon lights across it. Brown's clincher is the painted lifecast of somebody's all-American bottom, buttocks pulled wide open. He's positioned this derriere right on the flag.
OK, Brown's mad at America. Maybe next time he could clue his viewers in on just why. (For more shock value, check out Tucsonan Kenneth Rosenthal's photo nudes, so explicit they had to be hidden in a back gallery. Rosenthal's issue is the not-so-subliminal sex in advertising.)
Unlike the sophomoric Brown, Celeste Rehm of Boulder is intent on a serious presentation of her issue--overdevelopment of the Colorado wilderness--but her painting too is simplistic. "Surviving Landscape" is a cliché, featuring a pristine Rockies scene of snow-capped peak, clear water and green trees encircled by the endless pink houses of new suburbia. Worse, it's more illustration than painting, rendered in flat, lifeless strokes of the brush.
At the opposite end from obvious on the political art spectrum are the obscure works, which rail against some specific injustice, but fail to give us enough information. Judy Hiramoto of San Francisco has a more sophisticated aesthetic than many of the other artists in the show, and her mixed-media painting "Karesansui" is interesting to look at. Made of wood and glazed ceramic, it's cracked in two places, lending a sense of discontinuity and foreboding. A broken little girl, a mountain landscape and a 1942 calendar are painted on the surface. But placed in the context of this exhibit, we know that Hiramoto is criticizing something specific and we can't help but wonder what it is. Could the work be about the relocation of Japanese-Americans into camps during World War II? Or is it about some disaster in Japan we were heretofore unaware of? We just don't know. It gets to the point where certain works of political art need a printed tract so viewers can understand them.
The show was juried by two UA profs, Barbara Penn and Alfred J. Quiroz, who address political ideas in their own art, but in very different ways. Barbara Penn's feminist issues are worked out in ambiguous, painterly installations of a lissome beauty. Quiroz typically attacks the Spanish Conquest of America, but too often his paintings deteriorate into cartoonish caricatures. Perhaps it was the push and pull between these two jurors' own aesthetics that gave the show its schizophrenic quality.
For there are works of sophistication and quality. Diego Marcial Rios of El Sobrante, California, turned in two accomplished woodblock prints that blend an ambience of medieval torture with modern technological terror. San Franciscan Diane Jacobs made a series of elaborate artists' books that cover the art media from letterpress printing to cheapo snapshots, and grapple with issues from poverty to false ideals of female beauty. A second prizewinner, Lynn M. O'Brien of Tucson, explores the new technology of infertility in acrylic/collage paintings with a carefully worked textured surface.
None of these works are simple propaganda. They're artistic, thoughtful responses to some perceived wrong. They take us into the promised art land of milk and honey, filling up our cups with a little enlightenment, spiced with more than a dash of aesthetic pleasure.
Radical Belief continues through September 30 at Central Arts Collective, 188 E. Broadway. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information call 623-5883.
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