Do you know what's going to make you enjoy Ann Telnaes' political cartoons, on view until Sept. 11 at the Library of Congress? Your journey to see them, that's what.
Talk about security. Recent Hill visitors will tell you that key intersections ringing the Capitol are staffed with officious cops scrutinizing passing motorists. If you are lucky, you will be waved on, but be prepared to be pulled over anyway. Those lucky enough to secure parking will enter the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building only to encounter a second gantlet: X-ray bag screening and a neurotically fine-tuned metal detector.
Congratulations! If you've made it this far, you'll get a treat. Embedded inside "Humor's Edge," Telnaes' solo show, is a gem of an image: a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes -- along with four cyclopean security cameras. Called "Patriotic Surveillance," the 2003 cartoon just about sums up the experience you had getting there.
Though born in 1960 in Stockholm, the author of this wry nugget Americanized fast. Telnaes became a U.S. citizen at 13 and went on to do her undergraduate work at the California Institute for the Arts. Her career started in animation, but she soon tapped her political vein and began producing graphic satire. By 1992, her freelance editorial cartooning had taken off; the next year she moved to Washington. Soon her works began appearing in major dailies, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and The Washington Post. (Most of her work is syndicated by Tribune Media Services.)
Despite her inculcation in all things American, Telnaes brings the healthy skepticism -- and, on more than one occasion, outrage -- of the liberal outsider to her cartooning. Though Library of Congress wall text represents the artist as an equal-opportunity critic, a look at her sassy panels proves that the artist's bipartisanship hardly runs deep. If you think W deserves four more years, you may as well stop reading here -- or be moved to write in the exhibition guest book, as one anonymous visitor did, that the show was "disgusting [and] lacking patriotism."
Things Telnaes disdains: complacency, overconsumption, jingoism, George W. Bush, the pope. Even the news media she writes for don't escape. One February 2003 panel reacting to the second Gulf War features a line of sheep labeled with network names -- Fox, CNN, America's trio of broadcast networks -- eager to follow a sign leading to the war. Though the criticism was lobbed at television news conglomerates, the tribunes and posts Telnaes sells to could feel the burn of her reproach.
Telnaes's job mandates that she react, almost instantaneously, to the day's events. To her credit, she sticks to her ideological guns even in times of crisis. After 9/11, she was saddled with the nearly impossible task of commenting on that day's events. The cartoon filed Sept. 13, 2001, sidesteps the patriotism so common in those days. Telnaes' piece finds Uncle Sam anchored to the boob tube, his hat and beard charred. From the idiot box waft these words: "We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you reality." It's a clean, hard slice at collective complacency and nightmarish TV fare, serious and a little bit funny, too.
As an artist making pictures, Telnaes doesn't have much time. The resulting images are a simple, jazzy lot, with stylized lines and quick dramatic gestures. As a caricaturist, she does a fine job of emphasizing her subjects' most prominent features. Yet even within these abbreviated images Telnaes calculates her moves. The original boards on view at the Library of Congress reveal traces of the blue and pink pencils that sketch out her first lines, as well as the significant zones of Wite-Out deployed to cover up false starts. Telnaes knows it's essential that her images catch our attention.
Her series covering the 2000 presidential election caught the eye of Pulitzer Prize jurors, who awarded Telnaes the editorial cartooning prize the next year. The winning works included clever slams of both the post-election scuffle and the slim electoral pickings voters contended with in the first place. A pre-election panel finds a sleepy-headed American voter contemplating his kitchen pantry and finding "Gore Bran" (ingredients: "artificial flavor, corn syrup, artificial flavor") and George W. Bush's face plastered on "Frosted Flake" (ingredients: "air, sugar, nuts").
That Telnaes was only the second female editorial cartoonist to win a Pulitzer and that she works in a field that counts only a small percentage of women among its members bring me to the one group that's mostly immune to Telnaes's arrows: women. A member of feminist cartoon collective Six Chix, Telnaes files regular features from the female perspective. Unfortunately, many of these aren't her best. A satirist to the bone, Telnaes is at her sharpest when skewering those she hates. Conversely, her weakest work advocates for causes she believes in.
Perhaps Telnaes sleeps better knowing she's not devoting all her energies to takedowns of her enemies. Perhaps helping us laugh at politicians and policymakers makes her feel like the lead bully on the fourth-grade playground. But she's at her best when drawing blood, not donating it.
"Humor's Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes," at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building, First Street and Independence Avenue SE, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to Sept. 11. Call 202-707-1639.