washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Galleries
Galleries

In the Progressive, Doves as Sitting Ducks

By Glenn Dixon
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page C05

Hawk or dove? Whichever side you're on, there's no denying who's got the badder bird. Depending on your point of view, the hawk is the embodiment of either righteous indignation or reckless truculence. For all its good intentions, the dove is always going to be kissin' cousin to a pigeon. Oddly enough, the Progressive wouldn't have it any other way.

Whether pinned helplessly in a cage, its plumage rendered in shreds of Middle Eastern maps (in David McLimans's "Prisoner of War"), balanced parlously against a cache of weapons in a scale dangled by the infant Jesus (in Anita Kunz's "Christ Weighs In on War") or weeping bitter tears of blood while perched painfully on razor wire (in Sue Coe's "War"), the dove consistently plays the patsy.


Carl Dunn's illustration of an oil-derrick-hatted cowboy brandishing a knife and fork over trees and wildlife makes a statement that's easily recognizable, if unimaginative. (Courtesy Maryland Institute College of Art)

Add Galleries to your personal home page.

For nearly a century, the Progressive has been a magazine unabashedly allied with the causes of the left. For nearly all of the '80s and '90s, Patrick JB Flynn served as its art director, championing illustration over photography. He attracted name talents to less-than-lucrative assignments with promises of creative freedom and a chance to fight the good fight.

Though well meant, it was not quite the sterling tenure he imagines it to be. Many of the pieces displayed in "Another Voice: Political Illustration From the Progressive Magazine (1981-1999)," the show Flynn curated for the Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery, betray the weaknesses of his hands-off editorial approach. And others fail to skirt various pitfalls to which polemical visual rhetoric is susceptible.

Let's start with that pesky dove. If your mascot is more victim than hero, drumming up support by arousing pity, you need a new mascot. But rather than ditch a venerable symbol grown inappropriate to the times, Flynn counterproductively let bird-loving illustrators go with the dove time and again, reinforcing the equation of pacifism with passivity.

The counterpart to left-wing-taking-it is right-wing-dishing-it-out, which Flynn's Progressive tended to personify as some big guy in a fancy hat sticking it to the little guy -- or to the environment. Though Carl Dunn's iconography of an oil-derrick-hatted cowboy brandishing knife and fork over some trees and a nondescript antlered animal isn't all that imaginative, it does have the advantage of being immediately parsible. But although you could have told that the wolf menacing a clapboard house full of terrified pigs in Roxanna Bikadoroff's drawing was a bad guy -- even without his robber-baronish little top hat -- you wouldn't have known what sort of bad guy he was without reading the title: "Big Bad Welfare."

It could be argued that the pieces in "Another Voice," many of which were drawn from Flynn's personal collection, were never intended to be viewed apart from the stories they illustrated. Granted, it's nearly impossible to come across the pictures in the pages of the Progressive without involuntarily scanning nearby headlines and captions. But white-wall presentation allows us to see how well the illustrations get around without the crutch of text.

Despite Flynn's reluctance to meddle with his artists' intentions, sometimes, as though by accident, he got everything right. Reminiscent of the rough-hewn protest art of Ben Shahn, David Suter's "A Manifesto Lost in Time" may be burdened with a cumbersome title, but the image itself is crystal-clear: A spider web spans the outstretched fingers of a hand flashing the peace sign. You get the story without having to read the story.

But too often, artists took the leeway they were given and ran hard in the wrong direction, confident that the Progressive's firm political posture would guide readers to a correct interpretation of their work. McLimans's "Food / Weapons, Life / Death" is too pretty for its own good, tempting the eye to pair up abstract forms of black and white rather than spur the mind to consider the gravity of the Haitian crisis.

Its eye-socketed mouths beaming "X-ray smoke" -- suggesting a distracting hybrid of pulp sci-fi art and Magritte -- Henrik Drescher's "Another Voice" ostensibly illuminates the last words of Haymarket anarchist August Spies: "There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." (It doesn't help that the magazine generally has had a tin ear for sloganeering.) It's one thing for artists to be oblique when undertaking fine-art explorations on their own dime. But it smacks of arrogance for them to head off on willful tangents when they're supposed to be responding to the exigencies of illustration. Illustrators are not auteurs.

Perhaps because the checks were small, contributors forgot who was writing them. And because Flynn knew he was underpaying his freelancers, he was disinclined to push them around. (Having at different times sat on opposite sides of the arts editor's desk at an alternative weekly, I can vouch that it's not an unusual predicament in the non-mainstream press.)

It was an uncharacteristically forceful and straightforward image that marks the end of the Flynn era at the Progressive. In 1999 he was fired when, over the objections of the magazine's editor, he gave the cover of the May issue to Brad Holland's painting of Augusto Pinochet. The stiff-capped generalissimo's teeth are a row of tiny white masks, as though the people of Chile were imprisoned by his smile.

Files of the magazine available in a temporary library assembled outside the entrance to the gallery stop before the end of Flynn's run, so it isn't possible to compare his work with that of his successor.

Flynn naturally spins his ouster as a champion of truth and justice getting the shaft. But it seems plausible that management simply wanted an art director who'd direct.

Another Voice: Political Illustration From the Progressive Magazine (1981-1999), at Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery through Nov. 6. Free. Gallery hours are Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. For more information, visit www.mica.edu or call 410-225-2300.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company