Stephanie Robison at Marrow Gallery, San Francisco (published in, 2/12/22)

Stephanie Robison
by DeWitt Cheng
Marrow Gallery, San Francisco, California
Continuing through March 5, 2022

Midway through Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2019 anti-heroic film “Sin,” we see the haggard, driven Michelangelo alone in his studio, caressing the marble knee of a draped statue. Pope Julius enters, demanding to see the Moses destined for his tomb, and pulling off the sheet to reveal that only the knee, emerging from the huge white stone block, is finished, he thrashes the artist. It’s actually a humorous take on artistic obsession, and if historically inaccurate, it is indicative of the seductive mystique of marble-made-flesh in classical statuary. That seductiveness has not gone away.

The Oakland sculptor Stephanie Robison juxtaposes polished marble, worked into Arp-like biomorphic shapes, with patches or three-dimensional shapes of colored felt that contrast humorously with the marble, suggesting, variously, fungi, anemones, foliage and even hairpieces. “Close Contact” comprises twenty-odd wall reliefs and a trio of freestanding sculptures set atop custom-made steel bases. The works, to quote her website (which features a photo of the artist happily “hugging rocks”), “synthesize and fuse: organic and geometric, natural and architectural, handmade and the uniform industrial.” The exhibit follows by a year the Portland-born artist’s “Cloud Construction,” a Christo-like wrapping of the interior space of the San Francisco Art Commission’s Grove Street Window Installation Site in white fabric. The effect was to mimic the fog banks that descend from Twin Peaks into Hayes Valley: terrestrial clouds, “seemingly innocent, perhaps even magical” that can “conceal, fog or obscure the world around us.”
Stephanie Robison, “Squeezing Blood from a Turnip,” 
2017, marble from CA on custom steel base, 33 x 13 x 7”
Fortunately, viewers of “Close Contact” can get up close and personal to the work, as they could not with the Grove Street installation, which was visible only through the window due to earthquake-safety regulations. The one-on-one relationship with Robison’s quirky creations, which change and metamorphose as we circumnavigate them, is a joy. Robison’s allusive/elusive imagery never coalesces into a single interpretation or reading.
Stephanie Robison, “Heart of the Matter,” 2022, 
reclaimed Italian marble, wool, 13 x 7 x 3”
Says Robison: “Sculpture for me is about tangibility and transformation … I have always been attracted to forms that are in direct opposition to each other or challenge their final aesthetic/functional appearance: I have intentionally carved stone to appear soft or sewn fabrics to appear rigid and architectural.”

“Heart of the Matter,” for example, appears to be a carved marble knee or elbow, but unaccountably endowed with a pink eye and a gray toupée. Move a bit to the right, however, and it reads as the head of a pensive white carp or beluga whale. “Division,” “Underbelly,” and “Niche” are vertical wall reliefs bisected by a horizontal axis or horizon line, with the felt-wrapped upper parts mirrored below by similar yet inexact ‘reflections’ in marble that anchor the lighter superstructures like ballast in a ship. “Desire” and “Spirit Rack” follow this bipartite structure more loosely, with the former suggesting the claw of a red sloth, and the latter the hybridization between an elongated heart, replete with ventricles, and a benign Edward Gorey creature. Two of the large sculptures, “Yellow Plague” and “Squeezing Blood from a Turnip,” take the form of blocks of white marble masterfully carved into indeterminate organic shapes suggestive of excavated dirt or mud, from which truncated roots or tentacles emerge. The tall “Merger,” with its accordion-bellows feet and cactus-pod head, is more overtly anthropoid, a descendant of de Chirico’s ironic, disquieting muses from a century ago.
Robison’s mastery of materials combined with her impeccably ambiguous humor may be seen as continuations of raucously iconoclastic Bay Area Funk Art, but her vision is generationally distinct, demonstrating anew that fresh, original art is possible even in the often-derivative Crazytown of the digital-era art world.
Stephanie Robison, “Desire,” 2020,
pyrophilite, wool, 12 x 6 x 4”
Stephanie Robison, “Niche,” 2021, Persian 
travertine and wool, 15 x 5 x 4”

Ai Wei Wei @ Large at Alcatraz (originally published in Arte magazine)

@ Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz

By DeWitt Cheng

In the 1950s, the cultural critic Alfred Kazin predicted that art would decline in cultural importance and that it would be regarded art with the same interest as, say, shopping or sports. It would forsake any claim to transcendent meaning.  That prophecy seems in some ways to have been prescient. Contemporary art, democratized and globalized, now enjoys a mass-market prominence undreamt of in Kazin’s day, but the esthetic epiphanies and moral authority of the past were largely jettisoned. 

But not completely. The art of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei demonstrates that conceptually based art can be beautifully crafted, accessible to a large audience, and extraordinarily successful. Even more noteworthy is Ai’s focus on moral and political issues, a stance that links him more appropriately to crusading novelists like Zola and Solzhenitsyn than to the darlings of the international art circuit—or, rather, the other darlings, for Ai is surely a star of the first rank both in spite of and because of his inveterate insubordination.

The son of a prominent Chinese poet who supported the 1949 Communist revolution but later ran afoul of it, Ai grew up in poverty and disgrace—and, literally, a hole in the ground—in remote, freezing Heilongjiang province.  He once said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve become more radical. I was born radical.” As a young artist in post-Mao Beijing, Ai helped to inaugurate change in an art world dominated by party orthodoxy and careerism both before and after his decade in New York City, promulgating the avant-gardist ideas of Duchamp, Warhol and Rauschenberg in capitalist but still undemocratic China. Ai’s impassioned protests over the deaths of five thousand schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which he attributed to official corruption resulting in “tofu-dregs schoolhouses”) earned the artist a severe beating by police, causing a nearly fatal cerebral hemorrhage and, in 2011, a punitive three-month detention, accompanied with prosecution for tax evasion, bigamy, and spreading pornography. He was also forbidden to travel outside of China, a draconian punishment for this internationally known artist.

His San Francisco gallerist, Cheryl Haines, stepped in at this point, beginning the massive project that became @Large. Haines’s FOR-SITE Foundation had previously partnered with the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy on art installations (including one by Ai) set in other public properties, so when Ai asked for help in getting his work abroad, Haines thought of Alcatraz, the boat-shaped island in San Francisco Bay famed for its Civil War fortress and military prison and, after 1933, an escape-proof federal penitentiary housing infamous criminals like Al Capone. Less known but thematically relevant to @Large are Alcatraz’s detentions of Communists, anarchists, wartime conscientious objectors, and Hopi Indians who challenged government attempts to Americanize and deracinate their children. A picturesquely decrepit tourist attraction since its decommissioning in the 1960s, occupied by American Indian activists from 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz was an inspired choice. With its haunting, grim carceral history, embodied in rusted bars, shattered windows, crumbling concrete, and peeling paint, all contrasting with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, The Rock serves as a poignant backdrop for Ai’s seven installations, all concerned with the issues of freedom, authority and human rights, not just in China, but around the world, i.e., at large—and all planned remotely, from Beijing, and installed by volunteers.

The seven installations are dispersed throughout two buildings on the island: the New Industries Building, a long warehouse built in 1939 where prisoners made clothing and did laundry overseen by guards patrolling an elevated “gun gallery”; and, uphill, at the top and center of Alcatraz, the Cellhouse, the largest concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1912, with artworks in its Dining Hall, Hospital Wing, Psychiatric Observation Rooms, and Cell Block A.

With Wind, Trace and Refraction are installed in New Industries. With Wind is a large group of handmade paper, bamboo and silk kites suspended from the ceiling, in the traditional dragon, bird and hexagon shapes, bearing screenprinted digital designs of flowers and birds, along with the symbols of nations with questionable human rights records; interspersed with the festive stylized patterns on the disk-like ‘vertebrae’ of the hundred-foot-long coiled dragon are quotations about freedom of expression from Edward Snowden, Ai Weiwei and others. Trace is a group of portraits of 175 political dissidents from 31 countries taken from Amnesty International records; the portraits, derived from pixelated photographs and executed in colorful LEGO blocks in Beijing and San Francisco, lie scattered in six clusters or zones, resembling, from a distance, baseball cards or stamps—an honor roll of dissenters accompanied by brief explanations of their offenses in binders at several podiums; included are the anti-Putin protester Andrei Barabanov, the CIA leaker John Kiriakou, the Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee,  the Tibetan singer Lolo, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the Tibetan Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, named by the Dalai Lama as his successor, who disappeared in 1995 at age six. Refraction is a monumental sculpture composed of curved polished-metal plates or shields, originally manufactured for Tibetan solar cookers, attached to a steel framework; taking the shape of a gigantic wing, the piece—which is not accessible to visitors, and is visible only in glimpses from small shattered windows in the gun gallery above—has a grandly absurdist quality, ponderously earthbound yet glittering and majestic.

The remaining pieces in the Cellblock building are less spectacular as autonomous art objects, deriving some effect from their appalling settings, but they are no less forceful as pieces of engaged political art. Blossom comprises a number of onsite plumbing fixtures that have been filled with scores of intricate handmade porcelain flowers that transform these porcelain sinks, tubs, toilets and urinals into humble memorials. In Illumination, the observation rooms used for mentally ill inmates are filled with recorded chanting by displaced Tibetan Buddhists and deracinated Arizona Hopi Indians, both groups marginalized by dominant majorities. Yours Truly, located in the Dining Hall, is a collection of postcards that have been addressed to political prisoners; visitors may select one or more from the racks and sit down at long writing tables to send messages of condolence or support. Finally, Stay Tuned, in Cell Block A, fills twelve small ground-level cells with the sounds of resistance poetry or music; viewers can sit on a small stool, imagine themselves confined to a 4x8 area for years on end, and listen to the Nigerian Fela Kuti singing Sorrow Tears and Blood (“Police dey come / Army dey come”); to the Iranian Ahmad Shamlu reciting In This Dead-End Street (“Danger! Don’t dare think. These are strange times, my dear.”); to the Chilean Victor Jara singing Manifesto (“My song is of the ladder / We are building to reach the stars.”); or to the New Czech Chamber Orchestra playing, six decades after the composer’s death, Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra (Terezin 1943).

@Large is a collaborative art project that rivals in complexity in ambition two other grandly scaled artworks shown in the Bay Area in the 1970s: Christo’s Running Fence and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Is it time once again for art to aim at social change? Ai would say that it has always been time: “I live in a society where freedom is incredibly precious. We strive for it daily and put forth a great amount of effort, sometimes sacrificing everything to protect this value, to insist on freedom. Freedom for me is not a fixed condition, but a constant struggle.”

GARRY KNOX BENNETT: Time, Containment and Bling @ Transmission Gallery, Oakland

GARRY KNOX BENNETT: Illumination: Time, Containment and Bling
Transmission Gallery

Illumination: Time, Containment and Bling is an exhibit of twenty-three table lamps, boxes, clocks by Garry Knox Bennett, the legendary Bay Area artist and craftsman, renowned for chairs, tables, sideboards, desks and jewelry —several pieces of which are installed in a gallery vitrine—that match exquisite craftsmanship with Dadaist/Funk humor and wit. If the Bauhaus, that German academy of modernist style, was originally intended to marry traditional guild-based craftsmanship with modern technology and a machine esthetic, Bennett might be said to embody the Bauhaus beau idéal—that is, if Bennett had studied at the Bauhaus or any of  the postwar American institutions that followed, and if Bennett, who considers himself mostly self-taught (despite a stint at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts). Had there been “Alumni Bauhaus” (or “Alumni Black MountainCollege”) bumper stickers, it is pretty certain that the self-directed artist—who hated high-school academics and preferred the solitude of shop class—would have laughed uproariously at the absurdity of the idea. In an interview, Bennett recounted his entrance into grad school: “I’m generally the biggest guy in any factory, and they’re going to give me all the hard work. And I said, ‘I think I’ll go to art school.’  So I went to Arts and Crafts. And it was the best thing I ever did.” His exit was equally fortuitous: ‘But, yeah, it was good, man. I mean, it was a good environment. They didn’t have any goddamn English classes. When I left, the rumor was they were starting an art history class. I said, “I’m outta here. I’m outta Dodge.’

Bennett’s larger-than-life personality is evident throughout out the lamps, witty sculptures more appropriate for  sculpture pedestals than surrounded by utilitarian iMac bric-a-brac on desks or nightstands. Bennett’s stunning mastery of a variety of materials and methods deserves to be appreciated as art, the expression of a creative sensibility transforming and transcending there purposes as utilitarian objects—and contravening the recently popular (and maybe only partially ironic) notion of art as futilitarian “useless work.”

Five of the lamps seem to me to derive from Surrealist sculpture, wherein various biomorphic characters (personnages) engage in mysterious doings: think of Tanguy, Ernst, Arp and Mirò. “Sergeant Pepper Lamp” (1996) the fanciful psychedelic Art-Nouveau vibe of its Beatles namesake, while “Cloud and Lotus Lamp” (1997), based on stylized motifs from Asian art, resembles a crouching cat or monkey from whose head a golden parasol emerges. “Blowtorch Lamp with 4 Lights” (2013) suggests the non-functional. absurdist human-machine hybrids of Dada,with its coffeepot/torch powering flame-shaped a quartet of Christmas-tree lights; the similar “Three Arm Lamp” (2014) employs the same flame-like bulbs, but here they emerge from the he'd of a simplified human or robot form who stands atop a blocky trident-shaped pedestal.  “Flowers” (2009) is an exotic garden of four or five varied lightbulb flowers—round, flame-shaped, mushroom-shaped, and tubular—that unite botanic with luminous efflorescence.

Other lamps are cleverly subversive variants of traditional lamp forms. “Paper Coffee Cup Lamp (2014) and STDBA #43” (2016) employ a paper coffee cup and a tuna-fish can as substitute reflectors, with hefty bases serving as sculptural pedestals. “Column with Dome Lamp” (2017) and “Post-Memphis Lamp” (2007) are such elegantly idiosyncratic that they might have come from the Memphis Milano design studio of the postmodernist architect Michael Graves. Postmodernist borrowing of architectural motifs for domestic objects and vice versa can be seen in Bennett’s small but monumental boxes and cylinders, which might almost be maquette for colossal monuments.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted the there are two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. The apotheosized furniture of Garry Knox Bennett shows that he is clearly with the stubborn resistance.

Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

Published in, August 2021

Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and is he refuses, kill him, shoot him down. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns. —Alfred Waddell

If the name of Alfred Waddell does not ring a bell, his sentiments certainly do. Waddell and his fellow white-supremacist Red Shirts initiated the massacre of blacks and a political coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August,1898. Brandishing a White Declaration of Independence, they stormed and destroyed a black-owned progressive newspaper; murdered perhaps three hundred blacks; and invaded City Hall, threatening elected officials there with summary execution, and leading them to the train station with nooses tied around their necks and promises of certain death if they returned. They even threatened the governor with lynching, forcing him to hide in a train baggage car. A local historian praised the new Waddell administration:  “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office … were men of property, intelligence, culture …. clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” State officials appalled by the massacre tried to prevent a recurrence—by further disenfranchising the black vote.

The dark side of white supremacy that shocked the nation on January 6 is no longer hidden, no longer rationalized away as excess zeal by “good people” upset with bad economics or the theatrical she toys promulgated by right-wing think tanks: fake news, enemies of the people, caravans, the China virus, the ‘stolen’ election, critical race theory, etc. The demographic change now under way, the browning of America, has brought to light the fraud and corruption of those benefiting from America’s systemic racism and classism, and the lawless violence from those already exploited, fearful and angry, who are cleverly misdirected to seek out scapegoats. Current attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting rights for minorities replay the measures taken by the Democratic South after Reconstruction to preserve white dominance and dominion from the egalitarian reforms promulgated by the Party of Lincoln. We are repeating the sad history of the late nineteenth history, with the parties’ roles reversed, and many Republican voters ignorant of the great polarity change in the late 1960s.

The Republican Party, for a century the party of Lincoln and Emancipation, reversed course in the tumultuous year of 1968, wooing the southern white vote that had deserted Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats after passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That bipartisan legislation, which passed with the votes of moderate and liberal Republicans, attempted to restore the minority-voting protections instituted after the Civil War, that had ben sadly eroded over time by state government houses, a complaisant judiciary, and the KKK—not a mob, of course. Now, two generations after Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has chosen to pursue and retain power without the ideological-cover code words employed by Nixon, and later Reagan.
Reagan, you may remember, began his 1980 campaign in Oxford, Mississippi, near the Philadelphia site of the infamous 1964 murder and mutilation of three civil-rights workers, with a speech championing states’ rights, the Confederacy’s genteel euphemism for its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The historically ignorant Trump has cynically returned us to the 1850s, and, to paraphrase The Great Emancipator, now we are again engaged in a great civil war, testing whether our democratic nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

What has this tragic and unfinished history got to do with Norman Rockwell, the artist-illustrator of homey Americana whose name was a mass-audience byword for half a century, and a joke for art-world sophisticates? Rockwell’s art has become associated with the glorification of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, partly fairly, because his myth of a benign and gentle small-town America proved so endearing to tens of millions, for decades, a gently humorous Dickensian prettification of the less attractive realities; and partly unfairly, because the artist was liberal in his personal convictions, although he did not always make them public, preferring to be considered an independent, and largely eschewing politics. “I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate,” he said. “I am angry at unjust prejudices in other people or myself.” He voted in 1948 for Socialist Norman Thomas—Thomas’s platform sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’—and preached through his paintings the New England virtues of tolerance and humor, avoiding the dark side of things because of his own predilection for the healthy and happy moments of daily llfe, and the dictates of George Lorimer, his longtime editor at The Saturday Evening Post, a self-made man who promoted individual self-reliance to an audience eager to believe in the American dream.

Over his long career, Rockwell produced 4000 images, including 800 magazine covers and paintings for 150 corporate ad campaigns. His laborious process involved creating a narrative idea and then outfitting it with props and posed, paid models—“real people” whom he scouted out among family, friends and even strangers on the street, who were happy to pose for the famous artist. He amassed props and costumes as had the illustrators he adored in his youth; when his studio burned down in 1943, he consoled himself for the lost art and artifacts with a characteristically wry sketch, impeccably rendered. Rockwell worked seven days a week and always had a considerable backlog; this seems to have been necessitated by his financial situation and his psychological conviction that unless he worked ceaselessly he would revert to the graceless, awkward ‘lump’ he had been as a child. 

All I had was the ability to draw…. I began to make it my whole life.I drew all the time. Gradually my narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes became less important to me. My feelings no longer paralyzed me. I drew and drew and drew.

A friend joked that “Rockwell’s hobbies are work and work.” Rockwell took pride in his hard-won fame and success as America’s supreme mythographer, succeeding his idols, Howard Pyle (whose work Rockwell would have selected for potential desert-island exile,along with a couple of Rembrandts); and his friend and colleague, Joseph C. Leydendecker, to whom he paid understated tribute: “Apart from my admiration for his technique, his painting, his character and his diligence, he didn’t have that much impact upon my work.” But while Rockwell's artistic superpowers and stamina granted him rewards, he never took success for granted, conscious of illustrator colleagues who had committed suicide when their work lost popularity; a younger colleague even telephoned his idol Rockwell after he had shot his family, only to shoot himself later despite the older artist’s pleading. So Rockwell took commissions that may appear to us unworthy of his developing talents, and always felt overworked and harried by deadlines (though he took a perverse New Englander’s pleasure in frugally not charging corporate clients what they thought he was worth).

Rockwell was often restless in what he saw as the subservient role of illustrator, even as he lent his magic touch to Hallmark cards, Boy Scout calendars, Sun-Maid raisins and McDonald’s hamburgers. He occasionally hankered for art-world respectability even though painting had long since eliminated drawing, which he saw as the touchstone of art, a dilemma which he neatly captured in a 1962 work, Art Connoisseur, with its well-dressed bourgeois viewer, his back to us, like the figures in a German Romantic landscape painting, contemplating Rockwell’s well-executed pastiche of Jackson Pollock. He also played with ideas about representation that artists and art critics might have accepted had they been less middlebrow and folksy and more ironic, as in Framed (1946), with its portly museum guard carrying an empty picture frame, and being framed by it; or Triple Self Portrait (1960), a reps of an earlier painting, Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline) (1938), with the artist at his easel. Here, seen from behind, he contemplates his reflection, while his charcoal sketch avatar regards us quizzically, all three Rockwells equipped with painted pipes. If Rockwell considered himself primarily an illustrator, he occasionally referred to himself as an artist, or, more specifically, a genre artist; “that’s spelled g-e-n-r-e,” he explained to an interviewer. Critics have pointed out his stylistic ties to Dutch genre painters, especially the humorous ones, and to the realists painters of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. That humor and realism became taboo after World War II explains some of the disdain by the art world for Rockwell. Classism and snobbery may be a factor as well for some of the scorn and vituperation that they unleashed (“Gee-gosh-shucksism”) on the people’s-choice painter. Another factor is Rockwell’s determination that his works speak to the viewer immediately, without the need for intermediaries. The historian Paul Johnson speculates: “Critics dismissed Rockwell for the usual trade union reasons. They have nothing to say about pictures which explain themselves. Rockwell gave them no intermediary function.” Rockwell’s summation of his position: “I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.”

But occasionally Rockwell was able to escape the confining bonhomie of Pleasantville (Dave Hickey’s term, I believe) and his own desire to gratify his audience and employers. He painted the portraits of four presidents: Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. His stunning painting of John F. Kennedy exemplifies the energy and promise of the 1960s, as well at Kennedy’s cool intelligence; while his Nixon portrait, which he conceded was “no Rembrandt,” probably reflects Rockwell’s distaste for the candidate whom he had observed wheedling votes from two maids in a hotel hallway. Rockwell's hankering to tackle “big ideas”—like paintings a black man for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post—usually met with objections from his immovable editor, but World War II provided challenges to the illustrator’s ambition. Rosie the Riveter (1943) celebrates the heroism and character of American working women on the homefront who helped win the war of attrition against totalitarianism;  its mixture of admiration and humor—and Michelangelo—make this an icon of democratic and feminist pluck and determination. The Four Freedoms (1942) paintings illustrating President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union goals, i.e. freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear, were printed as Post covers, with accompanying texts by eminent magazine authors, and then went on to be republished as postage stamps in 1943, 1946, and 1994, Rockwell’s centenary; to aid the wartime effort,  they were published as posters, raising $133M in war bond sales. The most familiar of the four is Freedom From Want, its multigenerational-family Thanksgiving dinner so optimistic even in the dark years of the war, and so enduring — when we are in a hopeful frame of mind. Almost as well known is Freedom of Speech, with its young Lincolnesque worker, standing up to voice his opinion at a town hall meeting, with his neighbors neighbors respectfully hearing him out; all the models, by the way, were Rockwell’s neighbors. In the 1960s, as Rockwell was entering his seventies, he started working for LOOK magazine, which afforded him more creative latitude. In 1954, the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools; in 1960, Louisiana was compelled to comply by federal marshals, who escorted the six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class at Willam Frantz Public School in new Orleans; in Rockwell’s 1963 painting. published in 1964, she is shown dressed in white, toting pencils, books and a ruler surrounded by burly men wearing armbands, none of whose faces is visible; behind them is a wall defaced by a racist epithet and a smashed tomato. Bridges was the only student at the school for a time, the white students having been kept at home in protest. The painting was exhibited in the White House during the Obama administration. A year later, in 1965, Rockwell painted Southern Justice (Mississippi Murder), a passionate denunciation of Mississippi Burning murders by white supremacists of the young civil right workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, whose bodies were buried in an earthen dam by a mob sworn to secrecy on pains of murder for informers. Rockwell. who had often disclaimed his inability to paint “evil sorts of subjects,” channeled his rage into the tragic yet heroic depiction of the secular martyrs’ last moments. Andrew Goodman stands, illuminated by car headlights, facing the mob, which is invisible but for metonymic shadows and sticks, while a wounded James Chaney sags to his knees; the dead Michael Schwerner lies at their feet. Goya’s nocturnal execution scene Third of May, with its dramatic lighting and its angrily expressionistic paint handling is an obvious influence on this stark and nearly monochromatic image from which every trace of ingratiating humor has been banished; it’s a worthy successor to Goya’s masterpiece, and superior in its strong feeling to Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), painted a decade earlier. (Rockwell, incidentally admired Picasso.)

If this conjunction of the current political crisis confronting american democracy and the career of Norman Rockwell seem an odd match, they are arguably related. Rockwell’s nostalgic vision of small-town innocents was originally useful as a sort of creation myth for our polyglot country: a promise that the melting pot might result in an open,tolerant society open to all. Today, with the browning of America, we are all to aware of the dark, violent, exploitative side of WASP white supremacy, but we are also in need of a new sustaining myth to encompass the new realities rather than sugarcoat the electorate with the old fantasies of American exceptionalism. Late in his career, when he could, Rockwell moved beyond the sentimental but good-natured straitjacket that he had himself created decades ago. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had he adjusted his aim higher earlier in his career, say, during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Ultimately, however, we can’t condemn him for not fulfilling the role of our beau idéal given his immense talents in popular storytelling—for ‘’democratic history painting,” to cite Dave Hickey’s term. Can anyone alive talk sense to the Trump mob? Rockwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Rich SIlverstein's "I Read the News Today Oh Boy" at Minnesota Street Projects

Rich Silverstein: I Read the News Today Oh Boy
Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco

What did you do during the pandemic? This is what I did. —Rich Silverstein

Aside from Ward Schumacher’s political word paintings at Jack Fischer Gallery, and some low-profile shows at nonprofit spaces, the Bay Area, famed (and disparaged) for its liberal “San Francisco Values,” has mostly failed to address the Trump Follies. It’s a sleepy town in some ways. Rich SIlverstein’s recently concluded show at Minnesota Street Projects, I Read the News Today Oh Boy, came as a pleasant surprise, then, when I ran across it unawares in July. If that title rings a bell, it’s from the Beatles’ epic collage/montage, “A Day in the LIfe,” from the Sergeant Pepper album; in its range of references and associations, it’s a psychedelic updating of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” an elegy to tragicomic contemporary life.

If the name of the artist also rings a bell, Silverstein is an award-winning ad executive who went at art school at Parsons and during his career served as art director of the countercultural San Francisco rock publication of record, Rolling Stone. Silverstein was not heretofore known as a fine artist (although he did a series on the Dubya administration, which was published online). He was inspired by the first Trump impeachment to create a large series of photographic collages, nondigital, it should be noted, of New York Times banner headlines that captured not only the events of the day, but the tenor of the times (no pun intended). The dispassionate, objective sentences, the typography, the off-white newsprint color, and the torn, deckled edges of each quote, individually enlarged and framed in black, like an obituary notice, become blunt, striking metonyms and metaphors for our long worse-than-Nixonian national nightmare.

85 Days, a sprawling installation of these excerpts, displayed salon-style on the gallery floor, covers the process of the first impeachment, beginning on November 25, 2019, and ending with 45’s supposed complete exoneration. The pieces are nonsequenced, so they can be arranged in any order; the random element suggests the collage-and-chance techniques of Dadaist collages and William Burroughs’ cut-up writing process  (which, incidentally, influenced Lennon and Macartney). Twitter Presidency, Gut Punch, Crazy Nancy, Sleepy Joe, Little Adam Schitt, No-Nads Nadler, Human Scum, I Would Like you To Do Us a Favor—a whole disgraceful era is encapsulated in a few pithy, pissy phrases. What’s in a few ill-considered words?

After the impeachment, SIlverstein continued creating larger-scale headline pieces as well as blowups of historically significant photographs, covering the 2020 election, the stop-the-steal warning signals from December, and the January insurrection. I Read the News Today Oh Boy, for example, mordantly juxtaposes the Beatles’ mundane record of facts (“Woke up, fell out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head.”) with the Commander-in-Chief’s blithe incomprehension of the facts of nuclear weaponry (“super-duper missiles”).  

Several untitled photographic diptychs—single photos individually framed but displayed together— achieve their effect by contrasting political ideality (what we expect) and reality (what we accept). In one diptych, we see the Trumps about to step into Marine One, dressed as the affluent Manhattanites they used to be; at right, in contrast,we see the covid-masked, post-Inauguration  Bidens embrace in the cold at the White House front door, which,despite the color guard flanking the First Couple, seems to have been unaccountably left locked.

In a second diptych, we see armored, helmeted SWAT teams at a Portland or Minneapolis BLM protest, backed up by an ominous LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) sonic cannon for additional crowd control and dominating the battlefield; on the right, Officer Eugene Freeman, of the Capitol Police, covid-masked, leads the January 6 insurrectionists away from their intended targets in a cell-phone shot taken by someone in the mob—and undoubtedly immediately posted to Twitter.

In a third diptych, we see, on the left, John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for which he assiduously tracked down, over two decades, 36 of the 47 signatories,whom he painted from life; on the right, Trump exults in his escape from impeachment before an eager, jubilant White House audience of Republican allies.

In a brief interview at the gallery, Silverstein expressed hope that the show might someday be presented at—where else?—The New York Time offices. While that would certainly be fitting and poetically right, there is a better venue…. which, unfortunately, does not yet exist. In American Visions: A History Art in America, Robert Hughes describes the plight of JohnTrumbull, the artist obsessed with depicting the American revolution. By the 1820s, America no longer cared about its history, hits energies devoted to the economic development of the continent—and at the nominal spreading of civilization and liberty. John Adams, who disapproved of art as frivolous, took a pessimistic view of Trumbull’s patriotic enterprise:

I see no disposition to celebrate or remember or even Curiosity to enquire into the Characters Actions or Events of the Revolution, I am therefore more inclined to despair, than to hope for your success in Congress.

Adams was wrong, however, and Trumbull was commissioned by Congress to do four paintings, which were installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1826, the same year that Adams and Jefferson died (both famously on July 4, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration). Ironically and shamefully, they became mute witnesses to 2021’s barbarian invasion.

The historical amnesia of American culture is now at a level probably undreamed of by the Founding Fathers—although a debased version of it, in the form of white supremacy, is defended nowadays as if divinely ordained. America needs an independent museum of political art that could present work such as Silverstein’s—as well as the toppled statues of Confederate generals, and cartoons and videos by our wittiest, smartest commentators—in a historically thoughtful context; it needs a People’s Museum of History dedicated to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: warts and all, all the news that’s fit to print and illustrate. Whether the people and their representatives, or some of the billionaires with money currently burning holes in their pockets have the honesty and intellectual courage to face our national inconvenient truths and save the great experiment of self-rule remains to be seen.