WHAT AN AGE we live in. Perhaps more than ever, political leaders control commerce, commerce enables art, art defines the times — and none of the above seems to be getting along with the others in the dialogue.

As far as movements (and all that that word implies) go, these modern times are hazy: We’re past the post and we seem to have less power as individuals than we used to. Exercising our voices more often than not turns out to be discordant, disconnected noise rather than a clarion call to arms. And the properties of contemporary art are less defined and pigeonholed by their vagary. (Impressionism, for example, conjures its time, place and Zeitgeists immediately.)

Sometimes, artistic movements are born out of their political movements. And a recognizable trend — maybe also a collective inspiration — is the current political scene. Goya painted “The Third of May 1808” in response to the horrors of war. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” a peaceful polemic about racism. In Washington, in 2008, the art scene is bustling, busy, breaking new ground.

Irvine Contemporary gallery is leading the charge with the recent exhibition, “Regime Change Starts at Home,” three collections by influential artists whose work appears not only on canvases and pedestals, but also in the public sphere.

Shepard Fairey‘s work is a walking portfolio. The cult graphic artist known for his screen prints and stickers of the wrestler Andre the Giant has been known to tag buildings and billboards in an awful hurry. Now he’s standing front and center before his work.

Although his prints have been widely exhibited in galleries around the world (he recently finished a successful show in San Francisco), he is perhaps now best known as the designer of the “Obey” logos and an image of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama rendered in red, white and blue. Retailer to youngsters who feel disenfranchised but still want to shell out dough to corporate clothiers have been buying T-shirts of “Obey” at Urban Outfitters by the gross. Art, meet commerce. Go play.

Fairey’s collages and prints on display at Irvine are as vibrant as pop art and hark to the ’60s on more than one occasion. His “Duality of Humanity” series evokes Vietnam, Orwellian dystopia and revolution in its myriad forms. And “Evolve/Devolve,” a burnt-orange stencil of an oil rig plunging into soil and a derrick belching smoke, brings to mind the movie “There Will be Blood” and America’s recurring energy crisis. A vulture circles the scene in Fairey’s landscape, while a rickety windmill spins its wheels all by its lonesome.

For this exhibition, Al Farrow has armed himself, so to speak. A metal sculptor for 20 years, he draws on reliquaries and religious buildings, as well as weaponry, when he constructs one of his intricate pieces. Each structure is a labyrinthine building, embellished and filigreed with spheres, cones and studs. These details are made from gun parts, bullets and artillery shells. On close inspection, the parts that make up the whole represent violence and machinelike precision. From a farther vantage point, the sum of the parts transforms into luxurious swirls and carving. Squint at Farrow’s demi-shrines, mosques and reliquaries, though, and the overlap of textures, material objects and symbolism will wipe you out. Violence and religion seem both timely and timeless.

Most people know Paul D. Miller as DJ Spooky, an experimental musician and mixed media artist. He wants to talk about the environment. Or rather, he’d like the environment to speak for itself. “Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica” is, in the artist’s words, “an acoustic portrait of a rapidly transforming continent made of ice and condensation.”

Miller recorded the ice using a portable studio. Every miniscule timbre and crackle has been amplified and tweaked to emphasize the earth’s “response” to history’s events, both weather and man-made. Sounds of silver these are not.

Miller captured the environmental shifting of a continent whose future rests on man’s relationship with nature. Antarctica’s landscape goes unclaimed, it represents a region rich with potential oil harvesting and, of course, it’s melting and shrinking in size.

This “Antarctic Suite” is a dialogue between man and nature, with each composition layering and weaving sonic walls both digital and elemental. Miller’s first-person encounter with the ice reveals music that could be considered the soundtrack of geography. His graphic art accompaniments cast a blue pall over Irvine’s space.

“Regime Change” is an enormous undertaking, and there’s already a demand for purchasing pieces on display. But, to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, you need a prominent commission or your work won’t get much exhibition.

Written by Express contributor Christopher Correa
Images courtesy Irvine Contemporary