Many modern critics, Robert Hughes among them, see the art of our day as politcally impotent. While George Grosz was a fury and Goya a dissenter, all new art is harmless. The idea that a work of art could change political discourse "has gone," so Hughes informs us, "probably for good."
"We still have political art," he writes, "but we have no effective political art . . . As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak." Hughes ought to take a look at the new art of Ed Love.
"Winter in America," the tableau of steel statues that Love is now exhibiting at the Washington Project for the Arts, 1227 G St. NW, though beautifully constructed, makes one want to scream. Washington has rarely seen a work of art more passionate, political or hideous. Its polemics are so raw, its rage and grief so searing, that the viewer -- the white viewer -- can barely stand to look at it.
Love is a professor at Howard University. Most artists, here and elsewhere, may have given up on politics, but most black artists have not.
The central figure of the piece, "Jes' Us" is his name, is a larger-than-life black man who's been castrated and hanged. The creatures that surround him are also made of steel, of reinforcing rods, car parts and chromed bumpers. But they are painted white.
Asked about his work, Love says, "It's a metaphor." He then quotes Susan Sontag: "The white race is the cancer of history." No cancer is more frightening, no maggot more disgusting, than Love's sexless, soulless whites.
Their backs are humped, their limbs deformed; their skin is loose, their fat flesh sags. Their faces have no features. That baby in his carriage is as cuddly as an insect. The most rabid of white racists might look upon these statues and know, for the first time, the nightmare he evokes.
But Ed Love is no bigot. Not all works of art are portraits of the artist. Love is one of the best sculptors in Washington; he's a master of his medium and a teacher of distinction. He seems to those who know him a warm and thoughtful man. Many of his early works hymned the gods of Africa. But this piece is no hymn: It is an exorcism.
There is in its anger something close to innocence. Even as this work repels, its passion is so pure, its pain so deeply felt, that one forgives its fury. Love's art summons pity, and through pity, love.
"We hold These Truths to be Self-Evident" says the dripping, blood-red legend on the wall. But does Love believe those words? Does America believe them? This is not a work of art that is likely to be sold. "My wife tells me," says Love, "this will probably be my last show." One hopes not. Ed Love knows no fear. A kind of black George Grosz, he is a martyr of a sort. His show closes Feb. 28.
The paintings by Robin Rose, now at Middendorf/Lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, are the best he's ever done. They're beautiful and rich. In them Rose continues the calm and the refinement of fine color-field painting with something unexpected: a melodic eccentricity, a kind of jazzy twinkle. A sense of scattered stars, of leaves strewn by the wind, lends a sweetly rhythmic chaos to these abstractions. Their titles -- "Close to Oceans," "Inside Rivers," "Over Deserts" -- fit them well. They are landscapes of a sort.
They are made of linen mounted on panels of aluminum. Their medium is encaustic. Rose paints with melted wax -- superimposed layers of bleached and unbleached beeswax -- into which he soaks, onto which he sprinkles, colors and small shapes. His textures are one highlight of his show. He can make his wax look like molten tar, like bark, like armor or like feathers. His surfaces are sometimes matte, sometimes translucent; they sparkle and they gleam.
Rose is a musician. His band is called the Urban Verbs. The trapezoid that juts upward from the bottom edge of each of his paintings seems to place the viewer on the jutting apron of a stage. The audience before him is an open fog of colors in which crosses, dots and dashes, triangles and squiggles, waxes and petals dance. His show runs through the month.
Jon-Eric Eaton, in the big color photographs he's showing at the Studio Gallery, 802 F St. NW, lavishes loathsome indignities and unspeakable rites on yummy things to eat. In "Banana Bacchanal," bananas dance in mad, candlelit abandon; some have slipped out of their skins. "Macho" shows a dill pickle in bondage. "Houston, You're Not Going to Believe This" is a lunar landscape starring eggs. A strange fellow, Mr. Eaton. His performers do their stuff under garish colored lights. His work is part advertising art, part science fiction, part joke, part culinary pornography. His show closes Feb. 28.