Arts Listings

War, Empire, Art and Democracy

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

Not since the 1930s, facing a previous great depression and the impending danger of a fascist New World Order, and the ’60s with a previous illegal and immoral war, has there been such a great outpouring of political art.  

At the present, a great many artists, working in media old and new, have again picked up their brushes, cameras, and computers to protest against foul war, destruction of the environment, obscene financial gains and abnegation of constitutional rights to express their rage and speak to the public. 

At present 40 exhibitions entitled “Art of Democracy” are taking place throughout the country. In the Bay Area, the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco is the venue of an exhibition of about 100 pieces by 45 artists. In the South Bay the Santa Cruz Art League will present its component, called “Visual Politics, Art and the American Experience.”  

The San Francisco show is called “War and Empire.” Here the roster of artists includes Fernando Botero, represented with two of his famed Abu Ghraib series of naked prisoners tortured by the American military, and evocative pieces by William T. Wiley, Enrique Chagoya and Sandow Birk as well as Oliphant cartoons.  

This review will focus on the fine selection of East Bay artists. Pride of place belongs to an installation of a series of War Toys (2003-present). These are invented deadly weapons, made of blown glass and steel; sculptures of true craftsmanship that manage to combine grace with malice. A series of words such as “Imminent Threat” and “Weapons of Mass Destruction” placed beside the Toys complete the narration. On the wall behind this installation the viewer will see a fine digital print by Ala Ebtekar in which we see a war story painted on a page of the Koran done in a style that is in keeping with the artist’s Iranian heritage.  

On the first floor, also, there is a large evocative panting by the Chinese-American Hung Liu of two strong-armed coolies straining to pull a weighty unseen object with the pigment’s drip signifying their sweat. Connoting the class struggle, Liu has put an elegant insert of lacquered wood showing a fine old Chinese vessel in the center of the painting. 

The exhibition’s second floor is dedicated to works on paper, including two watercolors done with informed sarcasm by Ariel; Rumsfeld Bush, shows the former Secretary of Defense and Vice President Cheney above the president, all caricatured as running hogs. Dubya is an explosion with Mr. Bush as a brainless Jack in the Box, a dancing puppet from which maggots, vermin and various demons seem to emerge. There is also an exemplary drawing with a huge imaginary bust of Bush with words like War, Speculation, Profit, Pollution, Waste supplying the message. Mary Marsh has two assemblages of book covers in the show, such as The Course of Empire. which has the seal of the University of California on its cover, pointing to the Imperialist mission of this university.  

Relating to the Botero paintings, there is Guy Caldwell’s The Abuse, in which we see three hooded naked men with electrodes on hands and genitals, administered by grinning American soldiers with the Stars and Stripes prominently displayed. Jos Sanches’ DaVinciWar Machine is one of his sardonic assemblages; there is an imaginary toy tank and cartoon figures on horseback and lying in blood on the floor. A painting of a clear blue sky with a fighter-bomber plane graces the background of the battlefield.  

There are also a number of well executed woodcuts on display. Reminiscent of the political graphics of the 1930s, they are made with expertise, progressive in their message but retardataire in style, ignoring that much has occurred in the history of modern art since that time. And a fine presentation of fiery political posters on the third floor is not to be missed. 


Society for Art Publications of the Americas 

535 Powell St., San Francisco. (415) 398-7229.