FEATURE: Art Fueled Revolution

By on October 11, 2016

A new exhibit on the housing crisis reminds viewers the integral role art plays in politics and society.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – In any fractious election year, you can be certain that artists will have a field day with controversial candidates and issues. Whether the tone is reverential, as in Shepard Fairey’s iconic HOPE poster featuring Barack Obama, or satirical, as in the guerilla art group INDECLINE’s naked statue of Donald Trump, political art is a mainstay of American freedom of expression.

Despite Jackson’s dominant provincial politesse, political art does manage to sneak under the gates of our fair town once in a while. Several years ago, an anonymous artist plastered the town with the running meth box icon, satirizing a 2010 incident when Jackson police lost a box of methamphetamine during a training exercise.

More recently, with the race for mayor becoming increasingly heated by the day, an anonymous artist known only by his nom de guerilla created a poster campaign, calling into question the issue of income inequality. “Flaunt Your Money for Mayor” read the blue and white signs, designed to mimic Mayor Sara Flitner’s original signs.

The signs coincide with a new art exhibit at the library that focuses on the housing crisis. Together, the guerrilla art and its less incendiary cousin, the exhibition, expose challenging truths about Jackson’s socio-economic landscape. Is Jackson ready for an uncomfortable direct dialogue brought about by art? Or will the point be lost, like so many missing meth boxes?

About that poster

In the tradition of the Guerrilla Girls and other artist activist groups whose chief goal is to shake up the establishment, the artists behind the Flaunt Your Money for Mayor poster prefer anonymity to personal fame.

A representative of the Council of Revolutionary Arts Publique (CRAP) spoke in confidence with The Planet about their recent poster campaign featuring a sendup of Mayor Flitner’s campaign poster. Referring to himself only as the Commissar and dressed entirely in red, the CRAP representative is as much an element of the art as the posters themselves.

“We feel that many of our politicians perhaps have sympathy for struggles endured by workers, but as members of the ruling class they can never truly empathize,” the Commissar said.

Speaking in Bolshevik-like slogans about class struggle and the need for artistic images that challenge the status quo, the Commissar said that art plays an important role in social change.

“Art will be an essential weapon in the destruction of both the bourgeoisie and ruling class,” he said. “Art is our only counter to their hegemony over media, and consequently, ideas.”

Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster became emblematic of President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Bottom: Aaron Wallis’  cardboard dream home he created for Shelter JH’s housing rally this summer. (Top photo: Shepard Fairey, Bottom photo: Robyn Vincent)

Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster became emblematic of President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Bottom: Aaron Wallis’  cardboard dream home he created for Shelter JH’s housing rally this summer. (Top photo: Shepard Fairey, Bottom photo: Robyn Vincent)

This arcane language might make it difficult for some to take the Commissar seriously, but CRAP falls into the vibrant tradition of agitprop—art forms with patently political messages. The 1987 activist group ACT-UP utilized agitprop to protest Reagan administration inaction on the AIDS epidemic. Their “Silence=Death” poster with an iconic pink triangle on a black background, became the image of a movement.

Posters have always served as an accessible medium for political art. Even cave art points to the fact that storytelling via marking on walls is intrinsic to human communication. The Commissar says CRAP chose posters precisely because they occupy public space.

“Public space is the property of all citizens, not solely the province of the ruling class and their lackeys in advertising,” he said.

Though the Commissar’s declaration sounds reflexively true, in fact, the public has very little say in most public spaces. Areas like parking lots, curbs, even public parks are curated and designed by planning commissions, public ordinances, and nonprofit public art juries, as well as by the private businesses that occupy space adjacent to public areas. Take, for instance, the town square, which is ostensibly a place for the public to gather for any reason or no reason. However, anyone organizing a gathering of people there must first apply for permits with local government to organize events or install art on the town square.

Similarly, public buildings, while seemingly ripe for public art, are in fact bound in red tape. In order to host an art exhibit at a public library, the artist has to submit an idea to be approved or rejected by a committee of library employees. Style and design guidelines exist, not to mention rules governing offensive subject matter. Hence, the kind of art available in public buildings is heavily mediated and not representative of the public as a whole.

As of press time, the Commissar said his team had installed more than 200 posters around town, but most were torn down within hours of being installed. This rapid response reveals Jackson’s naiveté when it comes to both political dissention and art. A vicious circle is created when a guerilla art campaign is squelched, ensuring that political opinions and controversial art are driven underground rather than enjoying healthy debate.

“Do the people tearing down posters not believe in free speech?” the Commissar asked.

However, he did not appear to be daunted by the damage to the CRAP campaign. “The voice of the artist cannot be silenced,” he said. “Even in its destruction our campaign is a victory, for it forces the ruling class to confront the inadequacy of their espoused ideals.”

The politics of shelter

When Lyndsay McCandless set about curating an art show on housing to be exhibited at Teton County Library, she had to take multiple perspectives into concern. “As a curator, my responsibility to the public depends on location and scope of a project,” she said. “You do have to think about if the art will inspire or make people inquire. It’s the role of that curator to merge public sentiment and what it will evoke in a space.”

Images of the Commissar’s play on Mayor Sara Flitner’s campaign signs.

Images of the Commissar’s play on Mayor Sara Flitner’s campaign signs.

Opening Monday, October 17 at the library, “House, Shelter, Home” features more than a dozen local artists and architects, and takes a look at Jackson’s housing crisis through creative lenses.

There’s no denying that housing is a political issue, locally, nationally, and internationally. For instance, sociologists David Madden and Peter Marcuse wrote in Jacobin magazine recently: “Nationwide, nearly half of all renting households spend an unsustainable amount of their income on rent, a figure that is only expected to rise. This is not only a big-city issue. Around 30 percent of rural households cannot afford their housing, including nearly half of all rural renters.”

But while the topic of the “House, Shelter, Home” exhibit is highly politicized, not all art about housing is political.

A team of architects at Carney, Logan, Burke were invited to participate. The group decided to focus on one idea: temporary shelter for seasonal workers during the summer. They threw practicalities like zoning and permitting out the window to create drawings and models of possible shelters.

“The art piece we are submitting is a collaborative piece using our sketches and study models,” said CLB architect Sam Ankeny. “You will see ideas ranging from glorified camping pavilions to a retrofitted parking garage.”

Some “House” artists, like Emily Bloespflug, submitted pieces that are open to interpretation. Her painting, “Anywhere Alley,” refers to what she said is one of the worst places a person might have to use as a home: an unsightly alleyway.

“An unforgiving alley, a dumpster, dirty pavement are often where the homeless can be found,” Bloespflug said.

Though not obviously political, the painting contains layers of thought and meaning, according to Bloespflug. Harsh realities spiked with a little bit of home, as plants grow up from cracks in the concrete.

“Like in a big city, there is a great separation between economic classes in Jackson,” she said. “Young working class people are doing anything they can for as long as they can in order to make a living here. This painting is pushing the boundaries of that message, telling of such desperate living conditions and means of survival. Yes, food from the dumpster, it happens.”

Other artists in the “House, Shelter, Home” exhibit, like Aaron Wallis, present overtly political images. Wallis made a collage including a newspaper article featuring his impromptu cardboard box home that he used in the Shelter JH housing rally in June. In the image, captured by Bradley Boner, Wallis sits in the box below a flap that reads “Sotheby’s Luxury Property.” The collage includes a copy of the $500 check Wallis unexpectedly received from Sotheby’s after the photo ran in the paper.

“I believe that good art asks questions of the viewer but doesn’t necessarily provide answers,” Wallis said.

For Wallis, whose “Street Bible” print series recasts drug dealers and gang leaders as saints, making art is his way of questioning sanctioned societal morality. “Silence is complicity,” Wallis said. “It’s a small town and there is a certain way things are done in small towns. If you speak out against injustice or corruption, you will be marginalized. But an artist shouldn’t just make pretty pictures. There is a moral imperative to stand for social justice.”

For the “House, Shelter, Home” show, McCandless invited artists whose work she was familiar with and gave them free reign over what they submitted. “We wanted the artists to take the directions they wanted,” McCandless said. “We just gave them the title and asked them to delve in, however they were inspired.”

Photographer Anne Muller, the co-curator of the “House, Shelter, Home” exhibit, said art can tell stories about social issues, helping to create awareness. Muller is also co-founder of The Awareness Project, which uses art to raise awareness about hidden social conditions in Jackson, with the intention to incite action. Muller’s work can currently be seen at the St. John’s Hospital professional offices building.

In 2015, Muller made a video about the evictions that took place at the trailer park that was razed to make room for the Marriott hotel. A friend warned her that the work would be too controversial. Muller was undeterred.

“These stories are real and they are part of our fabric in Jackson,” she said. “To cover them up is not the way to solve the problems.”

Muller has since documented the evictions at the Virginian Village apartments. She says it’s not enough to simply state the numbers of people losing their homes. She felt it was important to show their faces.

“Short of actually meeting the people, that is the only way the rest of us have a chance to know how it feels to be facing eviction,” Muller said. “Learning about each other’s stories expands us and, in the end, it is the only thing that makes a difference.”

Connect or confront?

Muller says her approach is to meet viewers where they are at, rather than to be confrontational with her art. Where Muller’s intent is to connect with her audience on common ground, Wallis doesn’t mind if he destabilizes the ground under viewers’ feet.

“I don’t believe it’s the role of art to compromise to people’s opinions,” he said. “I believe the point of art is to force people to think even if they don’t want to, or if the topic makes them uncomfortable.”

‘Can Last Forever’ by Mark Dunstan (top) and ‘Ruin with Red and Black Birds’ by Amy Unfried show in ‘House, Shelter, Home’ at the library.

‘Can Last Forever’ by Mark Dunstan (top) and ‘Ruin with Red and Black Birds’ by Amy Unfried show in ‘House, Shelter, Home’ at the library.

Determining whether or not a piece of art is going to make someone uncomfortable can be a literal crapshoot. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to ban the work of painter Chris Ofili, who used elephant dung and pornography in a mixed media portrayal of a Black Madonna entitled, “The Holy Virgin Mary.” Giuliani, a staunch Catholic, sued the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 in an attempt to shut down the exhibit containing Ofili’s work. He was not successful.

Sometimes a very personal piece can read as political. In the case of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which Dancers’ Workshop has brought to town several years in a row, the work presented on stage may involve the Holocaust or gay male prostitution, but the real subject being explored is what it means to be human. In the company’s most recent appearance, the performance centered on Jones’ nephew, a black, gay, former hustler living with HIV.

“Dancers’ Workshop didn’t invite Bill T. Jones in order to be political,” DW development director Amanda Flosbach said. “We aren’t necessarily endorsing, or challenging, the ideas an artist presents.”

Flosbach said DW has dealt with the issue of presenting work that deals with sensitive social and political issues by preparing their audience ahead of time.

“When we first brought Bill T. Jones we did a lot of education about him and his work,” Flosbach said. “That was three years ago. When we announced he was coming back this summer, we received a standing ovation. That’s how far we’ve come.”

Flosbach said DW director Babs Case has worked hard to build trust with audiences. “Babs is not trying to make a particular point,” Flosbach said. “DW takes our role of connecting our community with dance seriously. We feel it’s our responsibility to present a diverse array of what is happening now in the dance world.”

Dancers’ Workshop has been fortunate to have a major donor spearhead the idea of bringing Jones to Jackson. In other situations, as in the Brooklyn Museum example, funding is sometimes threatened if an organization or institution takes a risk on political art.

Famously, on the national scene, several artists’ work was denied National Endowment for the Arts funding in 1990, due solely to content. Dubbed the NEA Four, four performance artists’ work, which included nudity and sexually explicit themes, was vetoed by the NEA director at the time.

Similarly, Ohio senator Jesse Helms forced the NEA to change its policies regarding art content, based on Andre Serrano’s image of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography exhibition featuring images of gay sadomasochism.

Locally, there have been instances when artists were asked to tone down their work for public consumption. A 2012 high school project slated to adorn a Pathways underpass ran afoul of expectations when the students included a commentary on Big Oil and war. The artists, who had been working with mentors Mike Tierney and Abby Paffrath, were asked by the town to change a few of the panels.

“The imagery could be described as somewhat dark or violent,” Pathways director Brian Schilling said. “The town felt that piece was inappropriate for a pathway art installation. It’s not to say that the mural was in poor taste or tried to make a statement and failed, but simply that the delivered product was not consistent with the approved proposal.”

The high school artists changed their work to be more in keeping with their original proposal; their new murals were installed and still hang today.

But for some artists, changing the content of their work is out of the question.

“I’ve never compromised my artistic vision,” Wallis said. “I’ve lost commissions because of that on numerous occasions. People say, ‘We love your art,’ but what they really mean is, you should change your art to fit our great idea. I think perhaps more local artists have progressive convictions but are afraid to express them because it might hurt their careers.”

Pinedale artist Sue Sommers sometimes makes political art, like ‘Power Switch,’ made by a group of artists in Pinedale. (Photo: Wyoming Aero Photo LLC)

Pinedale artist Sue Sommers sometimes makes political art, like ‘Power Switch,’ made by a group of artists in Pinedale. (Photo: Wyoming Aero Photo LLC)

One way around the fear of reprisal is to develop separate bodies of work, as in the case of Sue Sommers, an artist in Pinedale. Her abstract landscape paintings are lovely, with nary a hint of the kind of political satire she has put into other work.

In the mid 1990s, Sommers was part of the “Kunstwaffen Art Group,” an irreverent trio of Pinedale artists who created a Do-It-Yourself Vasectomy Kit.

The kit came in a tiny plastic box containing a handful of tiny plastic ants, a piece of sharp flint, and detailed instructions on how to make the incisions, perform the procedure, and suture the wound with the ants. One of the group members had read about an African tribe that uses live ants for this purpose.

“The ants would apparently bite the skin, then the human would pop the body off of the insect, leaving the insect surgical staple in place,” Sommers said. “The kit was not designed with mercy in mind.”

Hot topic: housing

Wilson-based artist Suzanne Morlock sought opportunities outside of Teton County to pursue the kind of socially progressive work that’s important to her. Morlock is the artist behind the giant Charlie Brown sweater knitted from mylar that hovered over its post at the ArtSpot on Highway 89 in 2011. Even that piece was political, Morlock says, incorporating “women’s craft” of knitting, and speaking up for the everyman after the economic recession of 2008.

“I’ve always had this socio-political thread that runs through who I am as a human being,” Morlock said.

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Top to bottom: A disrobed Trump statue appeared in NYC and other American cities in August thanks to INDECLINE. Suzanne Morlock’s ‘3772: Yellowbrick Road’ references the number of homeless people in Seattle. The painting ‘Anywhere Alley’ by Emily Boespflug is part of the exhibit ‘House, Shelter, Home.’

Morlock recently completed a site-specific installation in Seattle as part of a larger street fair. Her installation, entitled “3772: Yellow Brick Road” references the number of people living unsheltered on Seattle streets in 2015. It involved what Morlock called “a stinky alley” in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district.

“I decided the piece would occur in an alley that people who don’t have homes use as a bathroom and to buy and sell drugs, and have sex,” Morlock said.

She spent months researching homelessness in Seattle, an eye-opening experience that took many hours and inured her to some of the perils faced by people living without homes.

“One of the things I learned is that all it takes is one or two bad things to happen and you could find yourself in a situation like this,” Morlock said. “It gave me a new relationship to my own privilege.”

Her installation included a sculptural outline of a road down the middle of the alley using 3,772 white paper plates to delineate the road. She installed several small speakers along the road that projected pre-recorded interviews with people who had experienced homelessness. Several of those individuals stood with Morlock at the head of the alley offering to talk with passersby about their experience.

Morlock said the piece was inspired by her on-the-ground research.

“Upon seeing this human landscape that was very disturbing, I felt like I wanted to understand more about this,” she said. “I didn’t have a frame of reference for how and why this happens for people.”

A trend in crisis

The nationwide housing crisis is increasingly a topic artists are exploring; the show at the library is in good company. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art both currently have major exhibitions devoted to the subject.

If people are to believe Madden and Marcuse, the housing crisis is a cornerstone component of rapacious capitalism. Noting that nearly one billion people worldwide cannot find a decent or affordable home, the Jacobin article authors write, “The idea of crisis implies that inadequate or unaffordable housing is abnormal, a temporary departure from a well-functioning standard. But for working-class and poor communities, housing crisis is the norm. Insufficient housing has been the mark of dominated groups throughout history.”

Which brings us back to that poster.

CRAP was not invited to show the poster as part of the “House, Shelter, Home” exhibit. While the messaging of the poster does not scream “housing,” it does satirize the idea that money has influence in local politics, and politics play a big role in what kind of housing exists in any built environment.

The Commissar says he wants the middle class to join forces with the working class to stand up to moneyed interests that dominate Jackson’s economic reality.

“Because of the housing crisis, the bourgeoisie is rapidly becoming the proletariat in Jackson. The middle class must join with their brothers and sisters in the class struggle before they are exiled to Victor or the Star Valley Gulag,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at the library, viewers can ponder for themselves the meaning of shelter through the eyes of Bloespflug, Wallis, and Ankeny, as well as Bronwyn Minton, Jenny and Sam Dowd, Mark Nowlin, Katy Ann Fox, Alissa Davies, Noni Pettenger, Thomas Macker, Travis Walker, Walt Gerald, Wendell Field, Agnes Bourne, Carol Benson, Sue Cedarholm, Amy Unfried and Nancy Hoffman.

Muller hopes the housing related art will appeal to viewers’ hearts as well as their minds.

“Art is the language of emotion,” she said. “I feel personally there is power in art, and artists need to use their voices to get people to think and be provoked.” PJH

“House, Shelter, Home” opens 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday, October 17 at the Teton County Library. Tclib.org.

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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