Sunday, May 07, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Don't go to the new Spaces show opening tonight, which explores reactions by Northeast Ohio artists to Donald Trump's first 100 days as president, expecting a political slap in the face.
Yes, the exhibition leans left. No surprise there. Many if not most artists nationwide oppose the new administration and deplore Trump's desire to kill PBS and the national endowments for the arts and humanities.
Yet instead of venting rage and ridicule, the Spaces show is a generally subtle, witty and nuanced response to Trump's immigration policies.
Typical of the tone is a haunting video installation by Kelley O'Brien, co-director of the Muted Horn gallery in Cleveland.
It depicts Angel, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, and a federal employee, as he replaces portraits of former president Obama and vice president Biden in the lobby of Cleveland's Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building with images of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
The video of this customary act, carried out in federal buildings nationwide, makes the point that Americans value peaceful transfers of power.
The irony, of course, is that in Cleveland, it took a Mexican immigrant to hang the portrait of a president who wants to wall off Mexico.
The leader's face
On a deeper level, O'Brien evokes how Egyptian pharaohs had their facial features chiseled over monuments depicting their predecessors, and how Soviet dictators had purged leaders airbrushed from propaganda photos.
Throughout the ages, the faces of those in power always supplant those on the outs, no matter which political system is involved.
With works by eight individual artists and two collectives from Northeast Ohio, the 100 days show dovetails beautifully with a pair of companion installations by Yoko Inoue of Brooklyn, N.Y., a participant in SWAP, the Spaces World Artists Program.
Inoue's two-part exhibition focuses on Sherman E. Lee, the profoundly influential director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1958 to 1983, and on "Upside-Down Objects," cheap export figurines produced in Japan after the war to jumpstart the country's damaged economy.
New context for Sherman Lee
Inoue's installation on Lee includes a display of memoranda and newspaper clippings and photographs that explore his career, particularly his sojourn in Japan as a Monuments Man safeguarding cultural treasures under the postwar occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur.
Yoko Inoue video at Spaces
The Lee materials are flanked provocatively by a Buddhist-style prayer alcove illuminated with jingoistic U.S. newsreels from the 1940s and '50s that stereotyped the Japanese following the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the war.
In this ugly context, Lee appears as a paternalistic envoy from a victorious nation that dismissed Japanese culture as "mumbo jumbo" in the words of one racist-sounding newsreel narrator.
Whether that's cricket is up to the viewer to decide. Suffice it to say that Inoue's take won't be the last word on one of the most important museum directors of the 20th century.
Indignities of inversion
The second part of Inoue's show examines decorative ceramic objects produced in Japan after the war to jumpstart the country's damaged economy.
The figurines are known as "Upside-Down Objects" because their bottoms were stamped with labels indicating they were made in "Occupied Japan," as the requirement for importation into the American market.
Inoue's display, which inverts the objects to make those labels visible, underscores indignities imposed on Japan after the war. She also modified some of the figurines with protective coats of fired clay that evokes images of incinerated bodies in Japanese cities bombed by the U.S.
Inoue is not suggesting the Japanese were blameless in their provocation of war in the Pacific. But she is pointing out the U.S. tendency to dehumanize its foes with racist propaganda.
That's a message that connects nicely with the Trump 100-day show, curated by Spaces Director Christina Vassallo.
A show's highlights
Highlights of the Trump exhibit include a pair of large drawings by Darice Polo, an associate professor of drawing at Kent State University.
One is filled with the repeated words "Immigration" and "Mass Deportation." The other says "Resist Agent Orange," linking the Trump presidency to the Vietnam era.
The real marvel of the drawings is that Polo has drawn each razor sharp letter with infinitesimally subtle shading that lends power, intensity and presence to the words.
Thanks to a blackout in Mexico City, artist Ryan Dewey was unable to complete a Skype interview with former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who has volunteered to comment publicly through the exhibition on linguistic subtleties of Mexican jokes about Trump.
The gallery is still pursuing that project, which promises to be one of the show's most exciting elements.
Right leaning memes
For now, the most engaging work in the show is "Phoney," by Oberlin College Associate Professor Julia Christensen.
At first glance, the work is simply a wall-size compilation of newspaper headlines and photographs highlighting the impact of Trump's restrictive approach to immigration, which has spread fear through Latino and Muslim communities.
But when viewed through the photo app in a pair of i-Phones provided by the artist, the original images - which would be viewed as products of the liberal media by Trump supporters - turn into a collection of hard-right memes attacking immigrants and promoting the president's line.
Christensen's work is a painful reminder of how the 2016 election left the country bitterly divided and distrustful of authorities and institutions, including the media.
How to fix that is beyond the show's scope. But it certainly gets you wondering where we go from here.