“Of the People,” an off-site project organized by Lauren Gentile of 14th Street NW gallery Contemporary Wing, is a politically minded exhibit that addresses democracy, civil liberties, and American identity. The show is the gallery’s biggest to date, and it succeeds despite the heavy-handed arguments of some of its inclusions; they’re mitigated by a strong selection of open-ended works that engage ideas, rather than point fingers.
Take the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “We Love America and America Loves Us,” an acclaimed video that was projected on the Ghostbusters hearse during the 2010 Whitney Biennial. In “Of the People,” the video is shown on a wall, next to a Hudson River School painting resting on the floor—as if the painting was removed to unveil the video behind it. It shows segments from news broadcasts, movies, and television, with narration that personifies America as an overbearing mother, a girl we ignored, the boy that broke our heart. It raises questions about the ever-shifting identities of America and Americans—important concerns, or at least timely ones, as the presidential election nears.
Other artists skip right to the statements. Street artist Shepard Fairey, known for his “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama, turns in prints of presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon holding signs that reveal corporate influence on policy, taking a straight shot atsome conservatives’ seemingly cushy relationships with the 1 percent. The Guerrilla Girls’ “Estrogen Bomb” adopts a similar open-and-shut approach: a pill of estrogen hurdles toward Earth, aimed at “the super rich”—Karl Rove, Foster Friess, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson—“trying to take over our country.” Politics is about positioning, and both Fairey and the feminist art collective’s positions are clear and quickly read.
A quick read, of course, can be both an aim and an unfortunate byproduct of graphic art. But the works of D.C. native Elizabeth Catlett, who died in April, are exceptions. Her work is rooted in social realism, a movement in which graphic art was a popular vehicle for social criticism. Her linocut print, “Civil Rights Congress,” from 1949, depicts a member of the Civil Rights Congress restraining a hooded Klansmen from lynching a black child.
Kareem Gouda “Dokhan” and El Teneen, two graphic designers who became famous for their Cairo graffiti during Egypt’s 2011 uprising, borrow a page from British street artist Banksy. Though most of their works are fairly ambiguous, deploying coy, tongue-in-cheek devices, one work is very direct: El Teneen’s “Muslim Rage is not Arab Spring.” The poster is a reminder to Americans that Muslims in the Middle East are not a monolithic bloc.
Ralf Schmerberg’s film, “Problema,” is less declarative. In a Berlin public square, he gathered 100 people from 50 countries to answer 17 questions posed by people from five continents. The questions range from “Does our wealth depend on the Third World being poor?” to “What is God’s religion?” Because those questions are, obviously, huge and perhaps unanswerable, Schmerberg’s goal is not to offer definitive statements but to illuminate and ponder—a pleasant respite from the contention and division of the lead-up to the election, not to mention some of the more pointed works in this show.
“Of the People” shows that political art at its best serves as an antidote, providing thoughtful perspectives that reach beyond this time and this place. In this exhibit, luckily, there remains plenty of room for thought.