The Liberal Rules of 'Engagement'

Dinh Q. Le's
Dinh Q. Le's "Father and Son" is one of many works of opposition in "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement" at the Katzen Arts Center. (Collection Of Peter And Beverly Lipman)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

Approaching American University's Katzen Arts Center from nearby Ward Circle, visitors are met with the sight of ropes of knotted pillowcases hanging from the building's exterior walls like the remnants of a recent prison break. Or maybe the aftermath of a fire, from which the Katzen's occupants have just barely managed to escape. But what metaphorical conflagration, or confinement, awaits those who venture inside to see the American University Museum's latest exhibition, "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement," of which Helene Aylon's "Bridge of Knots II" is merely the most public part (as well as a tangible symbol of hope and salvation)?

Maybe it's the storm of powerful ideas that seems to be raging inside the head of the subject of Llyn Foulkes's "The New Renaissance," a large painting depicting an artist at his easel -- the man's brain divided into sections labeled "starvation," "violence," "gun control," "environment," "greed" and "equality."

These and other hot-button issues are among the myriad subjects tackled by the prickly show, a wide-ranging survey of recent and late-20th-century leftist political art -- mostly from California -- organized by the San Jose Museum of Art in conjunction with a book by Peter Selz, professor emeritus of art history at the University of California at Berkeley. Conceived of as a traveling show, "Visual Politics" has so far had no takers other than AU.

Can you imagine a show like this -- which deals with immigration, xenophobia, racism, environmental degradation, AIDS, homosexuality, war, biotechnology and terrorism -- on the Mall? The National Gallery of Art's "Dada" exhibition possibly comes closest, but the politics in that survey are 90 years old, and the bombs its artists throw have long since exploded.

In an effort to give shape to its many themes, "Visual Politics" starts by sorting them into four large-ish bins: "Against War and Violence"; "On Racism, Discrimination and Identity Politics"; "Toward a Sustainable Earth"; and the catch-all "Contemporary Politics" (whose artists deal with the prison-industrial complex, the Middle East conflict, Bill and Hillary Clinton, gun violence, discrimination against Arab Americans, cloning and Sept. 11, among other things). At times, the ecumenical approach of the show reminds me of the exchange in "The Wild One," in which someone asks Marlon Brando's bad-boy biker character, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?," and he replies, "Whaddya got?"

Of course, the one thing largely missing from the politics of "Visual Politics" is anything that might be construed as right-wing art. (Is there even such a thing? Perhaps, if you include talk radio as an art form.) With the exception of Robbie Conal's charcoal-on-canvas works, which offer unflattering caricatures of Monica Lewinsky and the Clintons, all the art here toes a pretty rigid, and pretty liberal, party line.

That's because Selz, and the show itself, defines "The Art of Engagement" as the art of opposition. It's art made for, and not necessarily by, the powerless: the poor; the oppressed; those caught in the crossfire or under the boot of unchecked corporate growth; and the environment, which has no voice, save that of its human defenders. Among the show's most beautiful works are the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, whose images aestheticize oil fields and nickel mines in a way that is simultaneously gorgeous and troubling.

Not unsurprisingly, considering the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of the ongoing immigration debate, one of the exhibition's thickest threads -- and the one that transcends the show's four-part organization -- is the one that deals with racism, discrimination and xenophobia. In works by Enrique Chagoya, Anthony Aziz, Judith Baca, Hung Liu, Travis Somerville, Salvador Roberto Torres, Evri Kwong and others, the theme of marginalization of, intolerance toward and violence against the Other is explored to often devastating effect.

But the strongest work in this category is Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand's "Beyond Manzanar," an interactive, joystick-controlled computer installation that allows visitors to walk, virtual-reality-style, through the internment camp in Manzanar, Calif. Hidden in various rooms by the artists -- one Japanese American, the other Iranian American -- are photos and documentation drawing parallels between the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the less systematic mistreatment of Arab Americans during (and since) the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80.

In a show whose many voices can sometimes become strident, and occasionally drown each other out, Thiel and Houshmand's argument has a quiet efficacy.

"Visual Politics" is a depressing and at times cacophonous show, but one worth listening to by those whose minds have not completely slammed shut.

It is worth noting that Aylon's poetic installation is made up of bed linens, in an evocation of dreams (in this case, of a better world). It is also worth noting that -- after a reporter commented on how the length of Aylon's makeshift ladders did not reach the ground, suggesting perhaps more despair than hope, or the impossibility of escape from the world's ills -- the artist came back and retied them. They now hang slightly looser, and longer, hinting that there may, in fact, be a way out.

VISUAL POLITICS: THE ART OF ENGAGEMENT Through July 29 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-2787. Open Tuesday-Thursday 11 to 4; Fridays and Saturdays 11 to 7; Sundays noon to 4. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

May 25 at 8 Slide lecture: "The Art of Engagement" by Peter Selz.

June 4 at 2 Susan Landauer, chief curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, talks about the exhibition.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company