Red Fall

The Station Museum

Craig Bunch

Beauty bares its fangs in Red Fall at the Station Museum. This, the latest display of the Museum’s ongoing commitment to presenting aesthetically accomplished and socially conscious art, runs the gamut from the rabidly polemical to the quietly humanitarian. Curated by director James Harithas, Rosalinda Gonzalez and Donna Huanca, the exhibition was inspired “by the election, the inauguration and the war.” Red Fall intended to be as timely after the inauguration as before the election. At its start, the election outcome might have been an uncertainty, but the war in Iraq had already taken a toll—one that was sure to continue.

Martin Zet’s Red Flag sets the stage for the exhibition. Zet doesn’t like to think small; for one performance he fasted for forty-one days—a day longer than Christ. For another project, he cheekily offered to redesign the Cuban flag. Zet is back in the banner business with Red Flag, presenting the Stars and Stripes as a blood-red palimpsest, drained of purity and justice. Confronting all who enter, it is an apt symbol for the overall exhibition.

Zet’s other inclusion, Revolution Comes from Libuín, is a monumental digital self-portrait. The title refers to the artist’s home in Libuín, outside Prague. Legend says Johannes Kepler, upon being struck by the glorious night sky of Libuín, was the first person to utter the word “revolution.”

Hungarian intermedia guru János Sugár presents The Typewriter of the Illiterate (2001)—a video that morphs dozens of gun-wielding warriors into one another, punctuated by the typewriterlike rat-a-tat-tat of machinegun fire. Though a machine gun is the focal point of each image, the context differs: guns are held by both the barefoot and the uniformed—by boys and men. Guns lie on the ground above the heads of the dead; in one image, a crawling Nebuchadnezzar is reincarnated in robes.

Sugár’s wall text reads: “With a single loading, one can kill twenty people, and in societies where ambitions cannot have other safety valves, it is an option for expressing oneself. Aggression is a status symbol, even in the poorest countries.” Sugár makes a valiant—if ultimately vain—attempt at pitting the power of the pen (or its computer-age counterpart) against the sword.

Forrest Prince, Whores, Thieves, Liars, and Murders, 2004
Mixed media
Courtesy of Laura & John Fain
Photo: Michael Stravato

Appropriation is also key in Forrest Prince’s Whores, Thieves, Liars, and Murderers. When the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency issued a deck of “Iraq’s Most Wanted” playing cards in 2003, a cottage industry of parody decks was not far behind. Prince used the Oakland-based Ruckus Society’s Deck of War Profiteers as the focal point for his construction. He arranged cards in a swastika, with George W. Bush positioned at the axis of this symbol of evil. Among those occupying the “Murderers” arm of the swastika are Henry Kissinger, “Architect of Evil,” along with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and other top military and security advisors. Presented under glass atop a card table, complete with seating and a magnifying glass, the setup invites a closer look.

Mel Chin, S.O.S. (Straight Off the Street) Moment, 2004

Mel Chin and his collaborators took a more neutral approach to the war and related issues, allowing eighty-four respondents in the Bronx to speak for themselves in SOS (Straight Off the Street) Moment (2004). People pose for the camera while their statements run like tickertape across the screen. The soundtrack, which mimics the roar of a commuter train, is actually each respondent’s amplified heartbeat. Subjects—their voices unheard—express thoughts on everything from the war to the domestic economy. This video, admirably in my view, does not betray political bias. Yet, despite the small numbers polled here, it provokes wonder at the President’s alleged “mandate” and “political capital.”

Ilkka Uimonen’s Statue (2003) is a series of thirty-nine photographs taken before, during and after the occupation of Baghdad in March 2003. They are purposefully small, says Harithas, because they beg to be seen up close. Uimonen captures Iraqis in emotional states ranging from nervous anticipation to agony. Each photograph is hung askew, as if to echo the turmoil and disorientation it portrays or replicate the effects of a nearby bombing. In the room’s center is a projection of stills. While individual photos freeze moments, the loop reveals a sequence of events, forcing both subject and viewer to relive tragedy.

Religion (and its implied destructive potential) rears its head in Sacred/Profane—Houstonian Amita Bhatt’s large suite of small paintings. Bhatt melds sexuality, violence and the cycle of nature into a satisfying whole. In It’s Not What it Seems, Bhatt depicts the Hindu god Vishnu and his consort Laxmi riding the cosmic bird Garuda. An Internet search revealed a number of ways of portraying Laxmi (goddess of auspiciousness and fortune) and the blue-skinned Vishnu (god of moderation, prosperity and traditional values) riding atop the Garuda. In India, this must be an image that inspires hope in the devout. It is the least overtly violent of Bhatt’s images, but the association of slavish obedience to tradition seems something she is not entirely comfortable with.

David Krueger, Bringing the War Home, 2004
Installation and mixed media
Photo: Michael Stravato

Ernesto Leon and David Krueger swerve critique into the realm of the news media, both old and new. Leon combines Internet-gathered news with the art of colonial and revolutionary Latin America, exploring themes of protest and disenchantment in gold leaf and paint on panel works. Oil derricks spew smoke or blood; protesters carry a banner that reads “¿Tienen Precio Los Periodistas?” (Do journalists have a price?); the Internet Explorer icon sprouts horns. Nearby, David Krueger’s walk-through installation Bringing the War Home juxtaposes a ransacked Iraqi room with an American equivalent, the latter’s occupant having exercised excessive freedom of the press.

Speak Truth to Power (installation detail), photographs by Eddie Adams, 2000
Exhibition in conjunction with the Rothko Chapel
Photo: Michael Stravato

Lingering, like the cigarette smoke that swirls about the subject’s face, is an image of Chinese activist Wei Jingsheng—the most dramatic and quietly powerful selection from the late Eddie Adams’ Speak Truth to Power series (2000). Presented in conjunction with the Rothko Chapel, these posed, large-scale photos are portraits of human rights activists, Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel included, as well as lesser-known activists like Dianna Ortiz and Gabor Gombos. The photos shine; lengthy bilingual wall texts by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo add welcome context.

Quivers, the title of Richard Mock’s series of post-9/11 linocuts, describes the source of poison arrows aimed largely at George W. Bush and the tremulous motion implied by the artist’s incisive line. In WTC Under Attack (2002) the towers collapse like a house of cards, caught in the pincers of jetliner-sized scorpions. The work resembles a Keith Haring painting rendered in one of his darker moods.

Leon’s small panels are arranged against a red expanse of wall within a flag-shaped perimeter, radiating and converging attention. The paintings, strangely quiet and adjacent to Eddie Adams’ calming photographs, extend the war zone when juxtaposed with Mock’s linocuts. The paintings also color one’s view of Krueger’s installation—and vice versa—depending on which door one enters.

Mock’s linocuts were recently paired with work by José Guadalupe Posada and the Taller de Gráfica Popular at the Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn. Posada (1851–1913), the Mexican maker of exquisitely macabre, satirical prints, inspired the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco—and, I suspect, Richard Mock. The Taller de Gráfica Popular, a collective founded in 1937, owes a profound debt to Posada as well. Not yet hung but bursting through their bubble wrap at the time this review came due, a roomful of Posada and Taller posters and prints speaks powerfully through the layers of plastic and time. The work will hang in Part Two of Red Fall.

James Harithas has never been afraid to court controversy and this exhibition is no exception, crossing continents and striking poignantly close to home. A strong bias against Bush administration policies and values is infused in the work, but there is also an overwhelming sense of sympathy for those who bear the brunt of political decisions. This makes for a moving—albeit politically imbalanced—exhibition.

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