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Sometimes political art seems too literal, lacking in subtle moves that balance medium and message. The work at the recent show, Grammar of the Elite, at the Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan does not challenge this characterization. Rather the show challenges the idea that there’s anything wrong with blatantly questioning rigid power structures. Current times of extreme divisions, and the enthusiastic response by artists to the topical theme of this show offers viewers a chance to appreciate art that attempts to take the power back.
The artists in this show are not afraid to name names. By “focus[ing] on the language, networks, and power of the informal rulers of America” as the curator’s statement claims, the gallery has invited a number of works that don’t hesitate to point fingers. Josh On’s digital piece War, Oil, and Media initially caught my eye. On reveals the impenetrable nature of the elite through a flowchart featuring the boards of directors of the world’s most powerful companies spreading like a virus across a computer screen. Each circle of chairs contains a collection of CEOs who seem to own almost every other company imaginable. Beside On’s work, we encounter two photographs from Laura Skayhan’s Masters of the Universe Series: Jeff and Will, both from San Francisco, CA. Jeff stands in an executive meeting room, looking like the stereotypical CEO, while Will sits at a table in an expensively appointed room; both men stare authoritatively out at the viewer, comfortable with their elite status, so much so one has to wonder if they knew what they posed for.
But not just the names appear striking here. Faces stare out from every direction. On one side of the room, Eric Smith’s impeccable black and white photograph asks “Who Rules America?” via headlines on a newspaper in the hands one of the photograph’s many suited men—America’s implicit rulers. Interesting to learn, too, that Smith shot this in the 80’s; apparently notions of power haven’t changed much. At the opening, I had a chance to talk to Smith who pointed out two figures in the shot: Henry Ford II and John Connelly, the former governor of Texas. The editorial point of view makes this a photograph one might expect to see on a Time magazine cover if it weren’t for its critical edge—a truly fortuitous shot by a photographer with an excellent eye.
Other familiar faces populate the gallery as well. One cannot help but notice the upturned face of Romney smiling up from a pedestal, his head an impressive assemblage of paper pieces that fragment him in a disturbing way. The artist Seder Burns makes his political leanings plain in the piece’s title Almost HUMAN: For the 47%. Romney’s quotes, or flubs, from the campaign trail, adorn the paper puzzle pieces, turning the work into a fancy bit of frank commentary. Two nearby oil paintings transform the appearance of pivotal figures as well. Boris Rasin’s oil painting Stewart on O’Reilly defamiliarizes two well known faces by deftly superimposing them, and Viktor Witkowski’s wry oil painting Defaced Rush Limbaugh features what resembles a bronze bust of Limbaugh splattered with yellow paint, or perhaps something worse. Works like these paintings temper the straightforward message of works like Seder’s and the balance between them makes this show successful. Just like the real world of media—if you get tired of the news, you can switch to John Stewart.
Or you can turn off the politics all together. Many works in the show embrace the topic more symbolically, such as Julie Renfro’s America Dreams, a gold painted grandfather clock decked out inside and out with sparkly goo-gaas, exaggerating the gaudiness of American wealth. Inspired by a combination of her grandmother’s love of quilting and the grandeur of the grandfather clock, this piece brings the message home, literally. Mike Sivak’s small sculpture Cowboy Empire appears to be a handmade ceramic work, but surprisingly, it artfully combines a collection of found items to build a symbolic story. From the many-armed baby and cowboy to the elephant and turtle, this sculpture packs cultural and religious symbols into a menacing little package. Formed of the leftover pieces of our mass consumption, both these works make cultural confusion and excess a pleasure to look at.
Such works contrast starkly with those with a more minimal approach. In the abstract drawings of Mike Tarr titled Plan 2 and Encroachment we find a simple yet sad beauty. With a series of clean abstract shapes drawn in pencil in limited perspective, Tarr captures the march of a uniform architecture ominously approaching. Gary Seltzer’s video Describe the Work also stands out for its stark focus. In a seemingly meta-commentary on the artist statement, a man stands center screen with head tipped back as he shoves plastic letters into his mouth, visually indicating the constraints artists face in making their work comprehensible. Here we see humor, but seriousness too, as the letters pile up and topple.
And then at times things get downright silly. Robin Witt and Stan Mendenhall provide a perspective from the animal world in a multimedia piece called Pecking Order. Their enthusiasm for their backyard chickens inspired them to create a bird’s eye view of the world’s power structures. Each drawing of a chicken pairs with a code to scan which brings up chickens squabbling on the screen of your smart phone—a fun feature for the whole family to enjoy. Poultry reduces the elite powers encountered elsewhere to keystone cops in the coop. And are not humans just as ridiculous? Yes and no.
The most mesmerizing works in the show present complex views of the dark side of humanity yet provide nothing to laugh at. Throughout the opening I heard visitors referring to a series of large black and white digital prints by Sama Alshaibi titled Between Two Rivers. In each print Alshaibi has altered her body in symbolic ways to represent the violence in Iraq, from a gashed finger to reflect the violence of Iraq’s first democratic vote to Razor Wire, in which her palms turn upward to reveal deep gouges. Beside these prints, in her video vs The Brother a young man does donuts in a race car while a young woman in a split screen below, his sister we presume, twists around a silk rope in time with the spinning car, a perfect contrast between freedom and confinement. These works have the power to make one forget the curatorial assignment as one contemplates power struggles that have had such dire consequences.
Through these works and the many others presented here, thirty-eight pieces all together including three well-made documentaries, the gallery has become a collection of voices rising up despite the fact that the ladder is broken. Appropriately in an installation titled Upward Mobility circa 2012 an actual ladder stops at waist level only to continue on again high up in the rafters. But the artists surrounding it have found a way to bridge this gap. Make art about it, name names, spread the word, spin yourself a way up, if only metaphorically.
Jennifer Metsker is a writer based in Ann Arbor and teaches writing at the University of Michigan. View more articles by Jennifer Metsker.