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10.08.08

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Phaedra

'GW Bush's War Table,' 2008, by Sheila Halligan-Waltz (oil on canvas, 24 feet by 18 feet)
Vulture Culture : 'GW Bush's War Table,' part of Eike and Sheila's 'Out' exhibit, is at the Mill through Nov. 3.

A Call to Arms

From Santa Cruz to New York, the Art of Democracy movement is rallying counterculture.

By Maureen Davidson


Wall after wall of images ring with an impact that resounds between the ears: it's the sound of the art world awakening. Throughout the continental United States and Puerto Rico, an estimated 1,000 artists, including many of national or international fame, have been moved by the increasingly dire state of human and environmental affairs to create works of political or social content. An art movement called Art of Democracy links these artists through a website, www.artofdemocracy.org, and during this election season has helped organize over 50 exhibitions in galleries, museums and other locations nationwide, including six exhibitions in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Jose and another eight in San Francisco and the East Bay.

Art of Democracy's co-founders, artists Stephen A. Fredericks (of New York) and Art Hazelwood (San Francisco), planned to mount politically oriented print exhibitions in their respective cities, but the response from artists and galleries was so intense, immediate and grateful that they widened the scope to include art of all media nationwide. I asked Hazelwood if such a mobilization of artists had ever occurred before. "In 1936, artists associated with the WPA got together to form Artists Against War and Fascism," he said. "Another national show was mounted during World War II in support of the war. But there has been nothing like this, certainly since the Vietnam War."

The heavy-hitting flagship exhibition, "War and Empire," fills the historic three-story Meridian Gallery building near San Francisco's Union Square with disturbing, funny, wry, angry, anguished prints, paintings, sculpture, photography, video and installations by 45 blue-chip artists. Political art is often denigrated as being simply propaganda in which the art takes a back seat to the message. This exhibition provides a textbook rebuttal. The work is, without exaggeration, thrilling.

Colombian-born artist Fernando Botero's original works are in the collections of at least 45 museums internationally, while his images have been reproduced so widely that his is among the most recognized work by a living artist. Yet his 2005 series of paintings representing the torture at Abu Ghraib created a maelstrom of controversy when it was scheduled to be exhibited at UC-Berkeley in 2006; it was shown finally in the university library. Two of these paintings are included here, Botero's characteristically corpulent bodies now blindfolded and bloody--all the more horrifying for his lush brush strokes in sumptuous oils.

Bella Feldman's installation War Toys, a score of metal and glass sculptures, look as well-made and utilitarian as high-end home appliances and as frightening as torture implements from a medieval dungeon. Nearby, a massive poetic painting, Pullman, is quickly identifiable as the work of Hung Lui, whose gorgeous surface is ribboned with long drips of paint from anonymous figures of men in traces, hauling a great burden. On the staircase hangs an extraordinary 10-foot-tall woodcut by Art Hazelwood, Trouble for Uncle Sam in the Green Zone, carved in his trademark expressive line energized by a wicked imagination: A contingent of politicians, soldiers and businessmen crowd under a tattered American flag atop a lofty pillar, not noticing the armed, angry mob below.

Censors and Sensibility
Another riveting exhibition is shared by San Francisco's Center for the Book and Oakland's African American Library. "Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship" focuses on not only the banning of books and digital media but also the climate of surveillance, the self-censorship that occurs in an environment when it's deemed unpatriotic to speak out. Words, by David Broom, incises seven rectangles into a long white surface. Each space is the specific outline of a different open book. Over these, a glass is imprinted with words from or about the missing book. In one, Salman Rushdie writes of The Satanic Verses: "The book that is worth killing people and burning flags for is not the book I wrote."

Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall was banned in South Africa, where the song was a rallying cry against apartheid. A moving DVD by artist Clinton Fein uses his childhood experiences in South Africa to chronicle the impact of that song. Fein passionately challenges First Amendment abuses, even as far as the Supreme Court. Most recently he has been embroiled in controversy surrounding his series of giant, disturbing, aestheticized photographs reproducing the Abu Ghraib atrocities.

Fein is one of eight artists in the upcoming "NOISE" exhibition opening Oct. 16 at Monterey's Anton Gallery. (Disclosure: I am co-director of this gallery.) "NOISE" takes on a culture full of political, environmental and social noise that, in the words of curator Patrick Frank, "must be dealt with rather than ignored or tolerated." The works range from video art by Anthony Discenza and Jesus Aguilar looking at the effects of media to the teeming paintings of Heather Wilcoxon, whose ire at the destruction of the environment and the empire-building of the Bush administration bubbles up into paintings that attract with bright whimsy, then pack a monster punch. The NOISE website by Tony Sheeder is one of the artworks; it goes live on opening day, at www.antongallery.com/noise.

Across town, the Monterey Peninsula College Student Art Gallery hosts an exhibition of political art by students across the country through the end of October.

In Santa Cruz, "OUT: A Shoutout of Painful Paintings, Sculpitti and More by Sheila & Eike" is now open at the Mill Gallery. Sheila Halligan-Waltz's outrage at the war drove her in 2003 to paint a series of portraits of Bush's cabinet members combining a graphic painting style with assemblages of photos and newspaper headlines spilling beyond the rectangle. The couple rented a San Francisco warehouse and mounted an exhibition in 2004. "Outrage" was visited by over 2,500 people. In 2006 in Santa Cruz, they mounted "Outrage/Outreach" at the Mill. The current "Out" exhibition serves to "remind people of the lies, the greed of this administration: They're 'Out' but things still have to change." The exhibition is accompanied by a full schedule of performances and events.

Eike, as a boy in Berlin, observed the postwar despair of a country in which "everybody was spying on each other, a nation with nothing left, no heart, no soul." He has become increasingly concerned about the inaction of the public. "We have become a nation of Barbies," he says.

On Oct. 23, "Visual Politics: Art and the American Experience" opens at the venerable Santa Cruz Art League. Organized by Aptos artist Lucien Kubo, it is a national juried exhibition. Kubo approached one of the most revered figures in American art, Peter Selz, to serve as juror. Professor Emeritus of Art History at UC-Berkeley, founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum, trailblazing curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and author of more than 20 books including the recent Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond, he agreed.

From all over the country, 129 artists submitted 278 works for consideration; 70 works were chosen. "The work that I saw was extremely good," Selz said in a telephone interview. "There is an upsurge of political work in the last couple of years ... People are very angry about what is going on. For so many years art and politics were separated ... like church and state almost. Now artists again feel politically engaged, that they must take a stand with their art."

Each venue participating in Art of Democracy has produced a poster and exchanged and exhibited posters from other galleries, creating a vast network of artists and galleries, most of whom previously had worked in isolation.

"We hope to encourage a national political art movement that will endure beyond this administration and help prevent a recurrence of its usurpations," says Hazelwood.


ART OF DEMOCRACY: VOICES FROM STUDENTS NATIONWIDE shows through Oct. 31 at Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont St., Monterey; OUT: A SHOUTOUT OF PAINFUL PAINTINGS, SCULPITTI AND MORE is on display through Nov. 3 at the Mill, 131 Front St., Santa Cruz; NOISE opens Thursday, Oct. 15, with a 6pm reception at Anton Gallery, 701 Hawthorne St., Monterey; VISUAL POLITICS: ART AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE opens Saturday, Oct. 25, at the Santa Cruz Art League, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz (reception Nov. 1 at 3pm). For a complete listing of Bay Area Art of Democracy participants, visit www.artofdemocracy.org.


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