- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

“Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement,” an exhibit at the American University Museum and organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, poses more questions than it answers.

Designed to survey what the curator calls “the first comprehensive look at the key role of California’s art and artists in politics and culture since 1945,” it picks up about 50 works by 40 artists and throws them as a curve ball at District viewers.

However, the artists’ oil paintings, found objects, drawings, prints, sculptures, ceramics, installation, performance art and collage don’t always connect. Ambitiously designed to survey more than nine major worldwide political movements, from images of the Nazi death camps of the 1940s to the current Iraqi war, the show is more puzzling than persuasive.

Granted, the aesthetic qualities of propaganda art are often iffy — and they’re more so here.

For example, exhibit curator Jack Rasmussen chose to lead with Helene Aylon’s “Bridge of Knots, 1982-2006” by hanging it on the museum’s curved facade — and he couldn’t have chosen a more embarrassing poor work of art.

Of course, its story sounds good on the exhibit label. In “Bridge of Knots I,” Miss Aylon — along with other women — filled pillowcases with earth gathered from Strategic Air Command military sites and traveled them across the country in an “Earth Ambulance” for the 1982 United Nations Disarmament Rally.

In “Knots II,” she subsequently traveled to the Soviet Union, where she asked women in four cities to write their personal dreams about nuclear war on their own pillowcases. In 1983, the artist carried out a similar project at the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York. In 1985, she traveled to Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where she located a dying generation of survivors to write about their continuing nightmare.

Here, neither message nor matter succeeds.

But, don’t walk away — there’s a good selection of both aesthetically fine and persuasive art inside. Mr. Rasmussen divided the show into four sections, titled “Against War and Violence” (the most effective art); “Toward a Sustainable Earth”; “On Racism, Discrimination and Identity Politics” (the worst segment); and “Countercultural Trends.”

Visitors see he placed the best images at the show’s third-floor entry. They first see Frank Lobdell’s gory “Ascent (Red)” (1962), next turn left to view David Best’s huge, mixed-media “Berlin” (1989), chortle over Robert Arneson’s glazed ceramic “Colonel Hyena” (1985) and pause longest at the late Irving Norman’s “Rebellions and Revolutions” (1970), a powerful visual protest against the Kent State University killings.

In “Rebellions and Revolutions,” four black arms raise the corpse of a student covered in a red flag as fire erupts. The artist painted an even larger, exploding fire in the background while a threatening group of armed people surge against an I-beam structure.

David Best runs a close second with his enormous, mixed-media “Berlin” that sports the marble, sculpted woman of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate who witnessed the birth and demise of the Berlin Wall nearby.

There’s much more on the third floor — Ariel’s hilarious, 80-foot-long “The Immense Deadly System of False Values” (2002-2003), in which the artist shows Americans driving tanks out-of-control, and Conner Everts’ charcoal “Cry From the Womb” (1964), which is just that.

The San Jose Museum of Art should have stopped there before — figuratively and literally — descending to the weaker, more propagandist second-floor images such as Hung Liu’s conceptual “Resident Alien” (1988) and Travis Somerville’s bombastic “Raft of the Grand Wizard” (2003), which looks as if it had been painted by an eighth-grader.

Only works truly compelling in their own right — such as Masami Teraoka’s “Semana Santa/Cloning Eve & Geisha” (2002-2003) with its strange flesh tones, and Sandow Birk’s surreally effective protest against California’s penitentiaries as “San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA” (2000) — save these exhibit segments.

Only by looking back at earlier “protest art,” such as Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” do viewers get in-timations of how propaganda art can hit your gut — which only a few in this exhibit manage to do.

WHAT: “Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement”

WHERE: American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Through July 30.


PHONE: 202/885-1300

ONLINE: www.american. edu/museum



Click to Read More

Click to Hide