Remember the 1990s? An entire decade of relative peace and prosperity. Nobody was worried about the Russians anymore, and people felt rich, even if they weren’t. In the ’90s, people were ready for some fun and beauty (cue Dave Hickey). Those of us who were in our early 20s at the time were imprinted by the glossy froth of paintings by Yek, swing music, and the fat expense accounts of friends who worked for Enron Broadband. We considered the political art from the ’80s (inasmuch as we considered it at all) as tiresome, ugly, and a drag. All of which is to say that, perhaps like others of my generation, I’ve never much cared for art with an activist message.
In my defense, most overtly political art stinks. For every David Hammons backboard or “The Normal Heart” or Barbara Kruger painting, there are thousands of (mercifully forgotten) bad plays, bad paintings and execrable sculptures bleating about this or that urgent issue of the day. Yawnsville.
So I’ve been quite surprised to have enjoyed some political art lately. Perhaps my receptivity has to do with my age. Perhaps angry political art just feels fashionable again. Perhaps I just happened to stumble on a series of artworks I liked. Whatever the reason, and because I like lists, here are some artworks-with-a-message I’ve enjoyed recently:
1. Sin Huellas (Without Fingerprints): Detention Nation
Through May 1, 2015
Sin Huellas is a newly formed collective that’s created Detention Nation, an installation for a show honoring Mel Chin (arguably the most activist artist to come from Houston). The Sin Huellas installation, which is about detention centers for foreign nationals inside the United States, is not striking visually — its sculptural elements of chain link fences, a stainless-steel prison toilet, and figures wrapped in mylar blankets are pretty standard fare. But its eloquent, urgent wall text and letters from detainees and their families succeed where the visuals don’t. These texts paint a grim picture of the harsh, invisible world of immigrant detention, where detainees are raped by members of the same gangs murdering their families back home, and held without bail or contact with an attorney for months at a time. One statement reminds viewers that every time they travel through Bush Intercontinental airport in Houston, they are passing by a silent prison for well over a thousand men.
2. Mary Jenewein: Far From Home
Through mid-May, 2015
While the Sin Huellas installation gets its message across powerfully despite so-so visuals, Mary Jenewein’s works on paper, which are part of the same show at the Station Museum, triumph visually without making much of a dent about their subject matter, which is the plight of homeless people. Jenewein has been active in Houston for decades. In the early 1980s, when she was already in her 50s, she was involved in the heady days of the original Lawndale at UH. Now she’s 80, which means it’s poor form to say anything negative about her work, so I will skip over her sculptures (notably, a life-sized homeless person crafted of bits of metal fabric, with a sad, steel-wool dog nearby). But Jenewein’s charcoal drawings with collaged photographs of homeless people are stunning, beautiful, and art fair-ready. A smart collector or curator should snap up the show’s monumental centerpiece; at roughly 3’ x 5’, it’s a beaut. Jenewein falls into the category of artists working confidently inside traditional art tropes while giving the imagery a contemporary twist (in her case, graffiti-tagged freeway underpasses and grubby convenience stores). Her elegant compositions are as good as anybody’s.
3. Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddamn
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
February 15 – May 10, 2015
Blanton Museum of Art
I wasn’t familiar with Nina Simone before seeing her video at the Blanton. I’m catching up now, though, and was blown away by her raw, angry, unflinching delivery of the jazzy protest song “Mississippi Goddamn.” The video is also available on Youtube, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of discovery about this remarkable talent, whom you might recognize from her cover of the gospel song “Sinner Man,” which has appeared in a lot of movies. Apparently, Simone was always pissed off at being rejected from concert pianist school, in her mind because she was black (and probably because she was a she) – and she funneled that rage into some of the most trenchant, effective protest music I’ve heard in ages. These aren’t pulpy ’60s folk songs; they’re the real deal from someone who knows what’s she’s singing about. Amazing, great stuff.
April 17 & 18, 2015
Part of the CounterCurrent Festival
If political art usually leaves me cold, then contemporary dance brings on downright hypothermia. But I’ll be damned if johnbrown, a politically-infused dance performance which ran at Diverseworks last weekend, wasn’t great. Choreographed by Dean Moss and based on the famously loony white abolitionist, johnbrown is a smart, funny series of remarkably watchable dance vignettes. Thomas Bradshaw’s script incorporates video, music by the artist Stephen Vitiello, and great props, in particular mirrored sheets of foam core and deflated red playground balls.
The show riffs not only on the long-term poison of slavery, but the dynamics of older men being attracted to adolescent girls (John Brown married a 16-year-old within months of his first wife’s death) as well as the attraction that white women hold for some black men (this explored in a particularly funny video of an actor playing Frederick Douglass being delighted to discover he will ultimately marry a white woman – and then being irritated at being interrupted during a makeout session with said wife by John Brown’s oafish ghost).* The choreographed sequences themselves varied in watchability, but the climactic hair-raising duet between Moss and a younger, larger, white male dancer, who climbed onto Moss’s shoulders in an uneasy inversion of the traditional male-female dance lift, was brilliant.
(johnbrown was presented by the UH Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent Festival. This series deserves to be better publicized – I received my first email with the lineup less than a month in advance. Beat the drum earlier, guys.)
Anyway, there it is. All Power to the Imagination.
*(I do have to quibble with the revisionist presentation of Douglass as a pacifist. Let’s remember this is the same guy who said “I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.”)