'Picturing Politics' Artists' Medium: The Sledgehammer

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 29, 2008

Contributors to the exhibition "Picturing Politics 2008: Artists Speak to Power" wield opinions like loaded muskets at a battle reenactment -- they're packing so much firepower that they quickly overwhelm.

Writer and teacher Rex Weil brought together nine artists and five art collectives for this Arlington Arts Center show. The result reminds us how hard it is to get politically minded exhibitions right. Here, artists and curator share the blame -- the artists for sacrificing aesthetics and neglecting nuance, their curator for selecting works that often try too hard. Even the show's successful pieces can't buoy the sinking ship.

With few exceptions, "Picturing Politics" batters us with its liberal agenda -- an agenda as rife with polemic as the rightist politics its artists oppose. Its artists distrust surveillance, doubt the media and hate George Bush. So what's new?

What's missing is the patience to unpack the issues -- immigration, gay politics, the invasion of Iraq. Too many of these artists take the easy road.

Renee Stout makes a fine example. The artist's signature works mine black Southern folk culture in installations or mixed media. For this show, Weil chose works laced with barbs about the current administration and authority in general.

A silkscreen titled "Lunch at the Bush Whitehouse" imagines 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as an antebellum plantation; at the image's center, a fork spears a heart. Another work on paper is emblazoned with the words "The Authorities"; ringing those words are questions befitting a petulant teenager: "Who are the authorities?" "Who made them the authorities?" and "Why do they think they know what's best for me?"

Yet even this show's subtler pieces arrive with problems. A video and sound collaboration by the husband-and-wife duo of Alberto and Victoria F. Gaitán trains a camera on the faces of two men. Very tight shots of whiskers and pores open up gradually until both faces fill the frame. A muffled soundtrack scratches in the background. The soundtrack is meant to allude to excessive political TV coverage; the men are supposed to represent intimacy trumping mass communication.

Yet what we see is eight minutes of clogged pores, shiny skin and weathered faces that offer little visual interest. The figures' expressions -- distracted, uncomfortable eyes cast down or into the distance -- compound the problem. There is nothing here to keep us looking, or wanting to.

For at least one artist, inclusion in "Picturing Politics" has eradicated all subtlety. That's Jose Ruiz, once a resident of Washington and now living in New York. Ruiz revisits the topic of illegal immigration, which he explored in a G Fine Art solo show last year. But here he's turned politics into polemic. In a single-room installation, references to day laborers and their work sites clue us to his message. There's a ladder, heavy-duty lights, discarded beer bottles, plus an array of video and photographs on the walls. The line on the gallery floor mimicking the U.S.-Mexican border and the bucket suspended overhead reading "blood, sweat & tears" just don't seem necessary.

Jefferson Pinder, the video artist steeped in racial politics, offers a work of endurance that may be the show's most memorable piece.

For the video "Passive Resistance," Pinder collaborated with fellow artist Matt Ravenstahl. It's a low-tech affair. Pinder's usually catchy soundtracks are replaced with pared-down audio. We hear the sound of one hand slapping as Ravenstahl slaps Pinder on the face, repeatedly, for five minutes. Each man occupies half the video's frame; only heads and necks are visible.

Ravenstahl is white, Pinder is black. At first, the white man's violence feels contrived, as if both parties know each other too well. Pinder seems to be overacting his discomfort.

But as the piece gains momentum and Ravenstahl's slapping picks up speed, we become increasingly uncomfortable. In the film's final moments, the battery ceases and both men face us. Their look of profound disappointment seems to say: "How dare you sit back and watch this happen?" It's the only piece in "Picturing Politics" that puts its audience in an uncomfortable position.

Finally, the onus is on us.

A few other works deserve mention. Judy Byron's taped interviews betray the complications of contemporary life. Two women in their early 30s, "Ayanna" and "Willa," talk about how important it is to rear children in a big, happy family. Yet neither is ready to do so herself. Byron's work reveals the difference between life as it's lived and life as we wish it to be.

Also on view: two sets of documentary photographs. One group of pictures by Rick Reinhard captures 28 years of political protests in the D.C. area. The other group was produced by veterans of recent conflicts in the Middle East. Both offer refreshingly understated efforts in an exhibition in which "political" has devolved into "politic."

Picturing Politics 2008: Artists Speak to Power, at the Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 703-248-6800, to Sept. 27. http://www.arlingtonartscenter.org.

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