The front page headlines of The Washington Post have been splashed—artistically—across the walls of the Touchstone Gallery. Art as Politics brings together 126 works from artists across the country in a free-ranging, juried exhibition that seems to touch on every vexing social issue confronting society today. Juror Jayme McLellan has chosen artists who dig beneath those newspaper headlines to challenge our deeply-held political beliefs.
While a sense of discontent hangs over the gallery with regard to the presidential race (reflective of the national mood), many works step beyond partisan jabs or political soundbites to engage the audience on a philosophical level. First place winner The Wall by Texas artist Augustine Chavez dissects a national campaign one-liner down to a more humanistic level in its assertion that, for construction workers at least, a border wall is just another day at the office. The painting stands in composed contrast to Jenny Wu’s video Wall, Wall. Wall? Wall. Wall!, with a montage of images featuring a pontificating Donald Trump and Ali Onur Sengul’s The day of Contempt, capturing ordinary citizens bracing a “wall” of tear gas and police hoses to demand their voices be heard. Both works received honorable mentions.
The theme of political pontification (or should we say pandering?) also dominates Florida artist Kevin Grass’ The Thinker, the exhibition’s second place finisher that mixes allegory and realism as it examines radio commentator Glenn Beck’s contribution to political dialogue. A similar allegory plays out in Glen Kessler’s Leadership, which also received an honorable mention, with painted proportions that add to George W. Bush’s kingly airs.
While artists have strong points of view about the governing abilities of our politicians on both sides of the aisle, the most thought provoking section of works revolves around how we as individuals define and uphold the sanctity of our very bodies. This push for dignity of personhood is at the center of a woman’s right to control her own body and has gained new traction with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Baltimore artist Kelly Burke’s third place winner Black Lives Matter is an historical primer in flag form that delineates for the uninformed why exactly our brothers and sisters of color sometimes fear for their very lives. This sense of dread is echoed in two other works which received honorable mentions: Ann Stoddard’s installation Black Angel gives new meaning to the chant “hands up, don’t shoot!” and Janathel Shaw’s sculptural work Still a N____/No Entry, revisits Jim Crow era barriers to full participation in national life. Amani Lewis echoes a similar sentiment, but suggests a change is in the air with her graphically powerful Fight Back. Cathy Wilkin brings a feminist perspective to this issue with Help Yourself, inviting the Supreme Court, including Justice Scalia in ghoul form, to weigh in on her self-determination.
Even amidst real angst, moments of levity remind us that we can’t take everything in the 24-hour news cycle too seriously. K. M. Copham’s Whose Hair Are You Voting For? pokes fun at our obsession with professional appearances by reducing each candidate down to a caricature of their locks. Likewise artist Fuentes reduces Vladimir Putin to parody in Putin Me On. Works such as these remind us that the barb of satire can deflate political windbags just as easily as the more emotionally tumultuous pieces seen elsewhere in the gallery.
Art as Politics continues through August 25, 2016 at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: The day of Contempt (detail) by Ali Onur Sengul.