Political art exhibitions in New York City

This video from the USA says about itself:

7 June 2016

At key moments in history, artists have reached beyond galleries and museums, using their work as a call to action to create political and social change. For the past hundred years, the term agitprop, a combination of agitation and propaganda, has directly reflected the intent of this work.

Agitprop! connects contemporary art devoted to social change with historic moments in creative activism, highlighting activities that seek to motivate broad and diverse publics. Exploring the complexity, range, and impact of these artistic practices—including photography, film, prints, banners, street actions, songs, digital files, and web platforms—the exhibition expands over its run within a unique and dynamic framework. It opened with works by twenty contemporary artists responding to urgent issues of the day, in dialogue with five historical case studies. A second wave of contemporary work was added on February 17, 2016 and a third will be added on April 6, 2016—with each wave of artists choosing those in the next.

These projects highlight struggles for social justice since the turn of the twentieth century, from women’s suffrage and antilynching campaigns to contemporary demands for human rights, environmental advocacy, and protests against war, mass incarceration, and economic inequality.

The first round of invited artists includes Luis Camnitzer, Chto Delat?, Zhang Dali, Dyke Action Machine!, Friends of William Blake, Coco Fusco, Futurefarmers, Ganzeer, Gran Fury, Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Yoko Ono, Otabenga Jones & Associates, Martha Rosler, Sahmat Collective, Dread Scott, Adejoke Tugbiyele, Cecilia Vicuña and John Dugger, and, in a collaborative work, The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, CODEPINK, May First/People Link, Evil Twin, Improv Everywhere, and Not An Alternative, along with more than thirty writers, fifty advisers, and a thousand volunteer distributors.

The second round of artists includes Amnesty International and El Zeft, Jelili Atiku, David Brower and Jerry Mander, Nancy Buchanan, Interference Archive, Lady Pink, Marina Naprushkina, Not An Alternative, Occupy Museums, Shani Peters, Jenny Polak, Laurie Jo Reynolds, L.J. Roberts, Huang Rui, Inder Salim, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Andrew Tider and Jeff Greenspan, and Ultra-red.

The third round of artists includes Andrea Bowers, Combat Paper (with Kevin Basl, Drew Cameron, and Nathan Lewis), Andy Dao and Ivan Cash, Song Dong, Enmedio, Faith47, Khushboo Gulati, The Illuminator, Marisa Morán Jahn (Studio REV-) and Yael Melamede (SALTY Features), Ato Malinda, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Pussy Riot, Rena Raedle and Vladan Jeremić, Manuela Ribadeneira, Visual AIDS (with Tania Anderson, Beverly Bland Boydston III, Jean Foos, Reina Gossett, Kia Labeija, Alice O’Malley, Morgan M. Page, Jamie Q, Elizabeth Marie Rivera, L.J. Roberts, Sue Schaffner, Sarinya Srisakul, and Jessica Whitbread), and Weird Allan Kaprow (Erin Charpentier, Zachary Gough, Travis Neel, and Sharita Towne). With an additional project by Alexander Dwinell, Noah Fischer, The Illuminator, Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), Not An Alternative, Sarah Quinter of Mi Casa No Es Su Casa and Derecho a Techo, Antonio Serna of Color Bloc and Arts & Labor’s Alternative Economies Working Group, Ultra-red, and Betty Yu.

Agitprop! is organized by the staff of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator; Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Family Curator; Stephanie Weissberg, Curatorial Assistant; and Jess Wilcox, former Programs Coordinator.

This exhibition is made possible in part by the Embrey Family Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the FUNd, and the Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund.


DECEMBER 11, 2015–AUGUST 7, 2016

By Clare Hurley in the USA:

“Political art” in New York City this summer

29 August 2016

Three exhibits in New York City this summer— Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum, Of The People at the Smack Mellon gallery, and Personal is Political is Personal at the 440 Gallery—offered a sample of what seems to be a proliferation of politically themed artwork, ranging from concerns about the upcoming presidential elections to broader issues of social conditions in the United States.

Indeed, after decades in which very few galleries showed “political” artwork, it has become the thing to do. In addition to the three shows here under review, For Freedoms turned Jack Shainman Gallery into an artist-run super-PAC for a month; CRG Gallery presented POTUS, a solo exhibition of Brian Tolle’s ironical sculptural depictions of US presidents going back to George Washington; and a group show, Art As Politics, at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington DC till August 25, included the work of more than 90 artists. Some of the more established artists and artist-collaboratives in these shows have worked in a political vein throughout their careers, but many more are relatively new to the scene.

It is welcome that so many visual artists are registering an awareness of today’s unprecedented level of social upheaval and political crisis in their work. It is unfortunate that as of yet much of the artwork is so unsatisfying. Despite the relative strength of some individual pieces, taken as a whole the artwork in these shows was hampered by simplistic political conceptions, inadequate aesthetic qualities, or both. The limitations are not entirely the fault of the individual artists. … Furthermore, there is a preponderance of gimmicks, performance pieces and “socially engaged” art practices, which often have little actual substance, and hardly any aesthetic component at all.


These qualities were particularly apparent in Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum (December 11, 2015–August 7, 2016), which as an institution has played a longstanding role in promoting the politics of race and gender, through its curation of shows such as Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, among others. Organized by the staff of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Agitprop! was installed in gallery spaces around that icon of feminist art, Judy Chicago’s 1979 The Dinner Party.

Agitprop! (short for Agitation-Propaganda, the term originally used for Soviet propaganda art), while including some work that sprang from the Russian Revolution, ran the gamut of radical protest movements of the 20th and 21st century, “from women’s suffrage and anti-lynching campaigns to contemporary demands for human rights, environmental advocacy, and protests against war, mass incarceration, and economic inequality.” Selected in three waves, with an initial group of 20 artists choosing a subsequent group, and then that group adding a third, the show came to include almost a hundred artists and collectives, and felt very much like a protest rally with everyone waving different placards. Groups like Amnesty International, CODEPINK and Occupy Museums have in fact been active in political demonstrations. Not surprisingly, posters, banners, videos and installations were predominant, with the overarching political message that collective, grassroots “communities” of color, gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc., are advocating for social change by making their voices heard and pressuring the political establishment.

The political outlook of these groups was exemplified by a wall-sized display by MTOPP, the Movement to Protect the People. It was self-described as “a group of women (tenants, homeowners, businesswomen) led by Alicia Boyd who have organized, educated, investigated and pushed back successfully against rezoning of Crown Heights/Flatbush for the past two years.” Colorful graphics described how the “Black Population of Brooklyn has declined by about 60,000 since 2000, displaced by the Agents of Gentrification – shown as cogs in a wheel – who are Real Estate, Politicians (including supposedly pro-affordable housing Mayor Bill de Blasio), the Department of City Planning, Police, Non-profits, and White Folks” …

The Brooklyn Museum itself was a target of MTOPP’s protests for hosting a forum for real estate developers last year and for what is seen as its role in the gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood. …

Tina Modotti (Italian, 1896-1942). Woman with Flag (1 de Mayo, Muher con Bandera), A-I-Z, Iss. 17 (1931). Rotogravure, approx. 15 1/8 x 11 1/8 in. (38.2 x 28 cm). The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase funded by Max and Isabel Smith Herzstein

The limitations of the exhibition’s organizers, perhaps due to historical ignorance or political obliviousness, are indicated by their inclusion of the work of photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942) without further explanation or comment. Some of Modotti’s photographs of Mexican workers and peasants are noteworthy, but more must be said.

Modotti arrived in Mexico in 1922 with her lover, the photographer Edward Weston, and became active in the left-wing bohemian circle of the Mexican muralists, many of them in and around the Mexican Communist Party. From 1924-28, she photographed Diego Rivera at work on his murals at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. … She was expelled from Mexico in 1930, traveling to Germany and then to Moscow. Her activities in Spain during the civil war … and her death in 1942 in a taxi on her way back from the poet Pablo Neruda’s home in Mexico City, remain the subject of some speculation.

Of the People

Of The People at the Smack Mellon gallery (June 18-July 31, 2016), curated by Erin Donnelly, focused on the “of-the-moment political opinions shaping the 2016 presidential race in the United States.” Including video, drawing, photography, painting and sculpture, as well as socially engaged projects and site-specific installation, the artwork again displayed relatively simple content in conceptually elaborate forms.

So there was site-specific wallpaper, Dark Money Damask (2016) by Lauren Frances Adams, which inserted phrases about the influence of big money into the pattern of traditional colonial wallpaper. A large corrugated sheet of steel rigged with speakers and audio, Line of Breath (2016), by Isabella Cruz-Chong, referenced the wall to be built between the US and Mexico.

Other pieces took up issues of privacy and state surveillance.

Installation view of ‘Of the People’ featuring Sheryl Oring’s “I Wish to Say” (2016). consisting of note cards suspended between pillars (Photo by Etienne Frossard, courtesy of the artists and Smack Mellon)

It was noteworthy that a few of the pieces attempted to give voice to the experiences and political opinions of ordinary people. Sheryl Oring’s piece I Wish to Say dominated the gallery space with a double-sided, 30-foot-long array of index cards strung on wires. The cards had been typed out by a team of interns on manual typewriters in Bryant Square Park behind the main public library in Manhattan. Oring, dressed in a red-white-and-blue “campaign” outfit, asked people what they would like to say to either the current president or the 2016 presidential candidates. Over the course of her 12-year project, Oring has mailed thousands of such letters to political figures.

But it is a well-known fact that the answer one gets depends on the way one asks the question, and most of the cards, replete with typos and jams from the old typewriters, had the quality of “Dear Santa” letters. Some wished that Obama could be president forever, or that Michelle could take over for him. Others thanked Hillary for running, and a few were addressed positively to Trump. Most hoped the next president would do his/her best to run the country.

A set of four photographs from a larger series by Brittany M. Powell were somewhat more successful in giving a glimpse into the lives of people in debt. These large format photographs, taken of people in their somewhat cluttered but otherwise unexceptional homes, were accompanied by handwritten notes explaining how much each owed (as high as $150K), mostly in student loans.

There is a trend in contemporary art to substitute literalism for realism. To that end, a back room of the gallery was transformed into a faux Campaign Office by Jeremy D. Olson, with desk, chairs and a podium where visitors could be filmed giving their own stump speeches made up of clips generated automatically from those of the major 2016 candidates. Gallery visitors could also make their own campaign buttons and register to vote!

While voicing criticism of aspects of the current state of the political system in the US—that it is dominated by moneyed interests and dishonest candidates, and is unrepresentative “of the people”—the Smack Mellon exhibit in the end came across as a political booster for the supposedly democratic two-party system it purports to criticize. Also, noticeably absent from the show, as from the election campaigns of the major candidates themselves, was any discussion of the ongoing and planned imperialist wars conducted by US imperialism.

Personal is Political is Personal

Finally, a more modest show, Personal is Political is Personal, at 440 Gallery in Brooklyn (July 7-August 6, 2016) exhibited much of the same weaknesses as the Brooklyn Museum and Smack Mellon shows. It did, however, include some artwork with a glimmer of higher aesthetic caliber and potential. Curated by Sue Coe (b. 1951), a British printmaker and illustrator long known for the political outlook of her work, particularly its advocacy of animal rights, the exhibit takes its title from the 1970s feminist rallying phrase, with an added emphasis on the personal.

In Coe’s statement, “no issue is off limits: billionaires, gun control, abortion, LGBT rights, our food supply, clean water, animal rights, education—whatever moves you personally and politically—this is an exhibition to make your statement.” …

Like the Brooklyn Museum Agitprop! show, it feels like the exhibit included work protesting everything from AIDS to Zika. Even work that had some appeal on an artistic basis had to include one of the preferred issues. This, in Ibn Kendall’s arresting drawing of a black woman with her arms crossed, the averted and tentative expression of the sitter is overshadowed by the slogan “You Got Good Hair” (2013), thus becoming a commentary on “race, inclusion, beauty and judgement.”

PSA-B-5 (2015) by ibn Kendal, mixed media, oil and graphite on paper (20 x 25.5 inches) at the Personal is Political is Personal exhibit at 440 Gallery, Brooklyn NY.

Serious issues were raised: Ann Stoddard’s four-channel video installation, home.land.security. (2004), records the gallery visitor as he/she enters with interrogatory questions. Bethany Taylor’s medieval-style embroidered tapestries, with slogans in English and Latin (2105), suggest today’s military conflicts. But the artistic forms employed do little to advance our insight.

Youth of Ferguson (2014) by Divine Williams, photograph (16 x 20 inches) in the Personal is Political is Personal exhibit at 440 Gallery, Brooklyn NY.

Here too the strongest work tended to be photographs, particularly Divine Williams’ Youth of Ferguson (2014) in which two kids holding handmade signs saying “Hands Up” and “Justice for Mike Brown” transfix the viewer with the intensity of their young eyes and for-the-camera smiles. Or a small photograph, Subway Sleeper (2013), by Max Alper, that shows what is an everyday sight—a homeless man sprawled on a bench—in a surprisingly intimate and tender light.

Pieta III (2015), by Nomi Silverman, woodblock print (38 x 79 inches) in the Personal is Political is Personal exhibit at 440 Gallery, Brooklyn NY.

On the other end of the scale, an impressively large (38” x 76”) woodblock print, Pieta III (2015), by Nomi Silverman of a larger-than-life dead body was less explicitly related to the themes and yet stole the show for its technical accomplishment and subtlety.

It is to be hoped that more such work comes to the fore in subsequent “political” art exhibits.

8 thoughts on “Political art exhibitions in New York City

  1. Pingback: Dictators, Trump attacking arts | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Mexican art and revolution, exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: German extreme right against ‘degenerate’ art | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Mexican muralist artist Diego Rivera | Dear Kitty. Some blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.