Currently on display at the White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton is an exhibit titled America on Fire that underscores the idea that, while art and politics have been intertwined ever since the birth of realism in the 19th century, thanks to the media and our own sociological sophistication, at no point has the relationship between the two seemed more powerfully interconnected.
Within the creative community as well as society at large, this is due to finding ourselves in an election year where the choices facing us seem as dramatically clear-cut as at any time in our country’s history, making it remarkably easy to feel that some sort of tipping point is at hand. Whether one is a social liberal who fears for the advancements of the past eight years or a conservative devotee of the fear mongering flatulence on display in the most recent Republican presidential debate, its difficult not to feel as if, to echo the title of the White Room’s exhibition, that America is, in fact, on fire.
Interestingly, since alarmist hysteria itself isn’t limited to one side of the political equation, the title America on Fire could be used for conservative artists (there must be one or two) as well as the unabashed liberals (I assume) who have contributed to this exhibit. In fact, the term itself has been used recently at GOP rallies by both patriotic draft-dodger Ted Nugent’s favorite Baptist bass player and nutritionist huckster Mike Huckabee as well as the Grandpa Munster look-a-like from Texas, Ted Cruz.
From a personal perspective and, for purposes of full disclosure as one who has a piece in the exhibition (although its nowhere near as interesting as literally every other work featured), I’m not sure America is on fire as much as if there’s been something smoldering just beneath the surface for the last 50 years. Speaking as someone who lived through the turbulence of the 1960’s, it seems apparent that today’s echoes of that era’s anti-war movement, the ongoing racial divide that haunts our cities, the yawning chasm between rich and poor, and the fear of terrorists and nuclear Armageddon, should leave us all feeling as if we’ve seen this movie before.
Regardless, however, of whether we’re now trapped in some sort of cinematic loop of a historical déjà vu, this doesn’t change the the role of the artist itself. Serving as canaries in the political coal mine, the creative community has always seen itself as holding a mirror up to society in the hopes that the unpleasant truths that stare back allows us to envision what we can become, rather than merely accepting whatever monstrous acts that have been committed in our name in the past.
This theme of ‘here we go again’ is succinctly encapsulated in Paton Miller’s contribution titled Fascist de Jour (mixed media on vellum panel) and which features two lines of ISIS terrorists, marching across the canvas surface like a series of serial killer chorus dancers. Using smudged earth tones that create a daunting sense of menace, this atmosphere of fear and foreboding is both ameliorated and accentuated by the band of blue sky that anchors the upper quadrant of the composition.
In a similar vein, Caren Sturmer’s black and white photograph White Power echoes the relationship of historical malevolence as embodied by the Nazi swastika and todays American offspring, the Aryan Brotherhood, a homegrown movement for white supremacists (interestingly whose media organ recently endorsed Donald Trump for president). The work is powerfully understated and forcefully reflects political theorist Hannah Arendt’s description of what she called “the banality of evil”.
Another work of particular interest is Gina Gilmour’s amusing Toast to the Plutocrats (mixed media) which, speaking of banality, offers images of the Koch brothers and Art Pope, three contemporary incarnations of the robber barons of yore, whose attempts at influencing the political dialogue in America arise less from interest in social evolution than in filling their own pockets with money.
This theme is also investigated in Geoffrey Stein’s Madoff (mixed media), a portrait of one of the few financial oligarchs to be sent to prison because, as it turns out, its one thing to steal from the population at large but quite another thing to rob your fellow 1%.
Guns and gun violence, however, is the hands down winner in terms of the number of works in the exhibition that focus on any particular issue. For the most part, this topic is approached by the artists’ with a certain amount of whimsy as in Rossa Cole’s entertainingly inventive AR-15 (which is made of children’s books with titles like Carnival of the Animals and My Big Boy Undies).
This capricious approach is also plumbed by Mark Seidenfeld (the exhibition’s curator) in his mixed media piece Weapons of Choice in which plastic guns are constructed into a peace sign as well as in Suprina’s sculpture Bang Bang Photo Op, made from stuffed animals (which, in its use of children’s toys, is also disturbingly evocative of the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown last year).
Also of note in the exhibit are Ruby Jackson’s Dick and Busch (mixed media), Charles Waller’s Dollars and Nonsense (mixed media), Dennis Leri’s Toxic America (welded and painted steel), Steve Mannino’s Politics (ink on paper), and Jeff Muhs’ Citizen #1 (oil on canvas).
The exhibition America on Fire curated by Mark Seidenfeld continues through January 31 at the White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton.