Why we are here
Artists Speak Out is a burgeoning site of resistance.
As the destructive nature of Trump’s administration becomes more obvious, so does the importance of our resistance to its hateful policies.
The so-called president flails around like a beached sea creature, incapable of getting a majority to pass a healthcare plan that he won't even put his name to. He boosts budgets for the military and "Law and Order", cuts them pretty much everywhere else, and assigns billions of dollars to his ludicrous border wall project. Meanwhile, the Director of the FBI confirms that Trump and his administration are under active investigation over their ties to Russian attempts to meddle in our election. As Federico Solmi points out in our latest update, "Like in many authoritarian regimes in the past, they will just repeat their fictional stories, and we’ll become so confused that basically we’ll lose all sense of what is real and what is fake."
In the first few weeks after the stolen election, many of us were uncertain as to how we might resist the daily attacks upon our democracy. That was when I first thought of what has become Artists Speak Out. Now things are very much clearer and I am convinced that a platform for artists – who are by their nature resourceful, innovative, and self-motivated – to express their thoughts about the new junta and how we might fight it has a key role to play in defending our constitutional freedoms.
Now that Artists Speak Out is starting to gain momentum I want to reiterate my thanks to all of the artists who have thrown their weight behind the project, and particularly to our newest contributor, Federico Solmi, for having faith in the role that artists can play. I am enormously grateful to them and proud to have provided a platform for their defiance of the current administration's evil.
March 23, 2017
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We're going to find ourselves in a fictionalized political situation in which telling people the truth is not important. Like in many authoritarian regimes in the past, they will just repeat their fictional stories, and we’ll become so confused that basically we’ll lose all sense of what is real and what is fake. Propaganda will be so widespread that people will feel so disillusioned and so powerless that they will find it very difficult even to form an opinion.
Federico Solmi was one of the standout artists at this year’s Armory Week in New York. In my review for Ocula.com, I called his Volta show on the Luis de Jesus Los Angeles booth “particularly striking”. In fact his was the only work at Volta that I discussed at any length.
Federico’s videos are made with a mind-boggling array of media from drawing and painting through 3D animation, video-game technologies, and kinetic technology. More to the point they engage with the worst aspects of contemporary societies, their histories, and the politics they have put in place or found themselves saddled with. Corruption, vanity, greed, dishonesty, and downright evil are his recurrent subjects. Though this may all sound rather depressing, Federico manages to concoct out of this material work that is at once alarming and bizarrely entertaining.
Most recently Federico has been making work about The Brotherhood, an imaginary time-traveling society of world leaders, visionaries, saviors, megalomaniacs, empire builders, despots, and dictators, “whose conspiratorial goal is to keep chaos alive in the world and promote the degeneration of human race”, and who get together for celebration and mutual congratulation. The Brotherhood’s members include Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Inca Emperor Pachacuti, Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus, Julius Caesar, and Benito Mussolini. On Artnet, Blake Gopnik called them “some of history's greatest tyrants and creeps”. Not surprisingly, their latest eager member is Donald J. Trump.
Last week Federico and I had a phone conversation about the current political crisis and I began by asking him why he’d felt moved to include Trump in the Brotherhood.
I have a history of working with political and social themes over many years, and after all of my investigations into corruption and political scandal and abuse of power, I felt that it was a natural evolution to include him. I use irony and satire and grotesque imagery in my work to show the dark side of power, and I was struck by how grotesque Donald Trump is as a character. I like to maintain the humor, but of course all the work is very dark.
How quickly did you realize the threat Trump would pose to artists?
You never know how political situations are going to turn out, but immediately Trump became president, I knew that the situation in this country with regard to censorship was going to change. And then straight away we see that the NEA is threatened.
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
I have a long history of fighting authority through my work. Sometimes I’ve had to pay the consequences. I've been taken to trial in the past for what I have done. I had to hire lawyers and defend myself in court. I don’t want to think about it happening again. It’s scary, but I can't change my work.
Where did that happen?
It was in Italy, about ten years ago. I did a video that was a kind of satirical history of the Catholic Church. The carabinieri seized the exhibition and I had to defend myself (while simultaneously I won the Guggenheim Fellowship to make the same work in the United States!). It was very scary for me because I had to go to court and defend myself. Of course it was thrown out, but it was the first time that I saw how power can be used just to scare people.
It seems that similar things are starting to happen in this country.
Absolutely. But power is always hypocritical: they wouldn’t be so obvious as to cause people that sort of trouble. Their first step is to cut the funding for the arts. They try to throw obstacles in the way of artists getting access to the money they need to work. It’s a way of attempting to silence us.
But here’s another thing that I think is critical. You and I are talking about these issues now but for the ten or twelve years I’ve been working in New York, there’s never been much of an interest in political work. It’s as though there’s been a disconnect between the art establishment and the real world.
There’s never been a major New York exhibition of contemporary political work during all that time, while in South America, in Spain, in Italy, in Germany, and in France political art has been very important, and I’ve been very active as a part of that.
But now I think that there’s been a wake-up call.
Tell me, what else do you think we need to look out for with this administration?
I think we are already in a situation in where they’re making the truth unimportant. We're going to find ourselves in a fictionalized political situation in which telling people the truth is not important. Like in many authoritarian regimes in the past, they will just repeat their fictional stories, and we’ll become so confused that basically we’ll lose all sense of what is real and what is fake. Propaganda will be so widespread that people will feel so disillusioned and so powerless that they will find it very difficult even to form an opinion.
This is what happened in the Soviet Union and other regimes in the past. I think it’s unlikely that we are going to see a dictatorship in the United States, but we’re going to experience a complete loss of reality because what they're telling us is lies, so we don't know what's going on. I think we’ve already had an appetizer of the direction they're taking because Trump says one thing, and then the administration goes off to do exactly the opposite. It's creating confusion because we really like don't know where Trump stands, or where the government stands, or where we are left standing. This creates extreme uncertainty that gives the government even more power.
People make comparisons with Mussolini. Do you think that's overstated?
The times are different, but there is a lot of similarity in terms of behavior. The main difference is that Mussolini was an intellectual and he came from a well respected background in socialism, whereas Donald Trump just comes from a ruthless business background. I'm sure that in practice as a businessman he’s not unlike Mussolini. He doesn't want to be stopped.
Do you believe he can be stopped?
I hope that the United States government with all of its checks and balances can somehow block his path, but he is trying to overcome everyone and run everything by his own rules. When you allow a right wing conservative leader a free ride, of course there will be trouble, and immediately we see him accusing the press of publishing fake news. At his press conferences he says they’re all liars.
This is something that dictators all do, they take control of information and the press. We saw this during the campaign – they deliberately created confusion with their fake news. People were completely confused. I was completely confused.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
I was just in Los Angeles where ICE, the immigration force, keep saying that they’re not doing anything unusual. It might be that they’re not doing anything unusual - we have no way of knowing whether they’re being truthful or not - but at this point the fear levels are so high that what is happening is unusual. It is creating a lot of fear in people. Imagine all those families at home who are fearful. What is happening is the same, and yet it’s not the same at all.
La Cabeza Mató a Todos (2014) HD color video with sound. Courtesy the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz's remarkable new exhibition A Universe of Fragile Mirrors is currently at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. At its heart are a group of mesmeric video works made in Haiti and her homeland, Puerto Rico.
This is what I had to say about her work in the my enthusiastic review of the show which will appear on Ocula.com shortly:
"If there is a core principal underlying Santiago Muñoz’s wide-ranging works, it is a conviction that our habits of thought keep us at a distance from reality. Such habits are reinforced by our vocabulary and assumptions, and Santiago Muñoz’s art is founded upon her attempt to subvert them. Her goal is to expand our awareness so that we might achieve clarity of thought and unfettered experience. There is thus a broad strand of the political that runs through her art, and not merely because she makes it in Puerto Rico, which has been a subjugated colony for its entire recorded history since Christopher Columbus claimed it for the Crown of Castile in 1493."
Marché Salomon (2015) HD color video with sound. Courtesy the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra
Beatriz's first one-person exhibition was The Black Cave, which was presented in London in 2013, and she has recently enjoyed wide exposure across the United States. As well as the current show, which was previously seen at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, Florida, her residency and exhibition Song, Strategy, Sign was at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art last spring, and Mouther, another new exhibition of her videos, has just opened at the Institute for New Connotative Action in Seattle, Washington.
While I was preparing my review of A Universe of Fragile MirrorsI spoke to Beatriz on the telephone about her work. Our conversation turned to the political calamity that has befallen this country, and Beatriz was happy to have this part of our exchange appear here on Artists Speak Out.
Tell me Beatriz, do you think of your work as political?
It doesn’t deal with political language, so it’s not political in a direct way, but yes, I think it’s political. I feel that trying to think outside of the language that we already have for politics and recognizing other things that are going on – thinking through form and material, in other words – are really important aspects of political thinking. It’s politics that comes out of what is real, rather than out of the political categories that we might imagine we are operating under.
Do you think that is particularly relevant in today’s political circumstances, when everything seems so have been thrown up in the air?
Even though this time might have similarities to other times, it is a new time, a new moment. We have to look very clearly at this new moment, even though we may not have words or concepts for what’s taking place. There needs to be a process of apperception – of perceiving anew – so that we can work politically but with our senses open to what is actually taking place.
I’m wondering how the imposition of Trump’s policies is seen from Puerto Rico ...
It’s very confusing. On the one hand there’s a sense among a lot of people that things haven’t changed: we were a colony before and we are a colony now. It’s the same. But on the other hand something has changed. There is something new and we’re still trying to understand what it is.
One thing that’s happening is that the local government – which is very conservative, even though it’s aligned with the Democratic Party in the United States – feels that it has a lot more freedom to enact the policies that the Trump administration is pushing. Suddenly there’s a mirroring happening here. For example, they’re pursuing legislation that will criminalize protests, in the same way that there are a few states in the U.S. that are doing this. (I swear it’s a copy of the legislation from one place to the other.) Puerto Rico is a place where the most effective way of protesting has been putting your body where it matters: stopping developments or stopping expropriations by physically putting your body in the way. So they are passing legislation that will make it very difficult for people. They could be charged with a felony.
I’ve been thinking recently about the choice that artists make, either to incorporate their politics into their art, or to let the two things exist separately ...
I guess I have different ways of thinking about that. I’m an artist but I’m also a member of civic society. I go to the protests but I certainly don’t think that that is the only way of being political.
I admire Tania Bruguera's work - she has been working more and more within what she calls the real, as opposed to the symbolic, sphere. But the symbolic is real. When Trump sits there and talks about how he’s going to get rid of gangs, and how he’s going to get rid of bad people, this is symbolic speech. This is happening in the realm of the symbolic, and I think that this is a really important place for an artist to work.
We can either transform things brick by brick or we can take up the space that artists can take up in the realm of the symbolic. That’s where politics works most effectively. I think it’s important to use a different set of practices. Political language has its own structures but thinking materially is really good at destabilizing those.
Then there are dreams. I don’t want to overemphasize the place of the unconscious but I think there’s what happens when we’re analyzing things politically and there’s what happens when we’re not in control. I think that’s a very important place to work in and we can’t abandon that space.
I wonder how many people around the world are dreaming about what’s happening in the United States right now. How many people close their eyes at night and all this takes up space in their unconscious. It occupies a lot of space in their ways of thinking and it’s making them fearful.
For example I was just in Los Angeles where ICE, the immigration force, keep saying that they’re not doing anything unusual. It might be that they’re not doing anything unusual – we have no way of knowing whether they’re being truthful or not - but at this point the fear levels are so high that what is happening is unusual. It is creating a lot of fear in people. Imagine all those families at home who are fearful. It’s another way in which what is happening is the same, and yet it’s not the same at all..
La Cueva Negra (2013) HD color video with sound. Courtesy the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra
Once I discovered the details of Trump's policies, the ways he treats ethnic minorities, Muslims, immigrants, and women, I realized he is quite capable of turning the United States into a dictatorship like China.
Trump is alive and well today, and he has called the media the “ENEMY of the American people” on February 17, 2017!
A dictator controls the media not merely to control the media for its own sake. By controlling the media he rapes and kills people’s freedom to discover the truth, and their freedom to express themselves. My experience is that when this control takes place in a dictatorship, I feel helpless; when it happens in a democratic society, I feel ridiculous and fearful because it should not happen here.
Last Banquet, Laser prints, pages from the Red Book and acrylic on canvas, 60 x 168 inch, 1989
Now based in New York City, Zhang Hongtu was born into a traditional Muslim family in Pingliang, Gansu Province, China, 74 years ago. His has been a remarkable journey.
In 1957, in the Maoist purge that he refers to in his comments below, his father was branded a Rightist. Of this moment he recalls realizing “there was also this thing called politics in life; moreover, this thing was like your shadow, following you everywhere you go.”
Hongtu was caught up in Mao’s cultural revolution, learned socialist realist painting at Beijing’s Central Arts and Crafts Academy, and first came to this country in 1982. Ever since then he has made a remarkable body of art that has been politically, culturally, and intellectually engaged. Among his best known works are the Material Mao series, his monumental Last Banquet which was removed from an exhibition in Washington DC in 1991, andhis remarkable Repainting Shan-shui series. Most recently he has focused upon the complex relationships that exist between ancient Chinese traditions and the realities of life in the contemporary West.
Zhang Hongtu has exhibited extensively. Recent shows including Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a retrospective at Queens Museum in New York and solo show at Tina Keng Gallery in Taipei. His website is www.momao.com
Thanks to Cheryl McGinnis.
Quaker Oats Mao from Long Live Chairman Mao Series, Acrylic on Quaker Oats box, 1987
I first wrote about Hongtu's work here in 2008. When I started building this site I was certain that his experiences would give him a very particular perspective on the policies being imposed by Trump and his cronies. I was right. Here is the remarkable statement that he wrote for Artists Speak Out:
When I first found out that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States, I wasn't really concerned. After all, the United States is a democratic country, and I didn’t imagine it was about to become a dictatorship. But once I discovered the details of Trump's policies, the ways he treats ethnic minorities, Muslims, immigrants, and women, I realized he is quite capable of turning the United States into a dictatorship like China.
I got goose bumps when I heard that Trump had said recently that the media is the “ENEMY of the American people”. After Mao Zedong seized power, the first thing he did was to take control of the media. All the radio stations, newspapers, and magazines were owned by the Communist Party. Even worse, even if you had a job in the government, you still could not speak with a different voice. During the “Anti-Rightist Movement” in 1957, millions of people who knew how to speak and write were labeled the “ENEMY of the people”. As a result of this movement many of the so-called “enemies of the people” were assigned to the frontier, were put into prisons, and some even died there. Those who survived became slaves to the party, and until the day they died they did not dare say what they wanted to say.
Yes, Mao in 1957 was a long, long time ago, but in today’s China under the rule of Xi Jing Ping, the control of the media is exactly the same as Mao’s. The only difference is that today's rulers not only control everything Mao did, they control the internet as well.
Trump is alive and well today, and he called media the “ENEMY of the American people” on February 17, 2017!
A dictator controls the media not merely to control the media for its own sake. By controlling the media he rapes and kills people’s freedom to discover the truth, and their freedom to express themselves. My experience is that when this control takes place in a dictatorship, I feel helpless; when it happens in a democratic society, I feel ridiculous and fearful because it should not happen here.
Yes, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In facing up to fear we must continue to say the things we want to say, continue to write the words we want to write, and continue to make the art that we want to make.
America is America! 34 years ago I immigrated to the United States of America. I do not want to move again!
After Dong Qichang - 092, Shan Shui Today Series, Oil on canvas, 66 X 54 inch, 2009
"For those who do not see it on a daily basis, the concept of abject poverty in the United States is too horrifying and becomes an abstract notion that 'someone will deal with'. For those who do see it on a daily basis, there is willful ignorance, dismissal, and pity. It is too easy to deny our collective shame as those on the streets unnecessarily suffer the gravest injustice of life."
I have known Alice Teeple for less time than anyone else here on Artists Speak Out. She and I ran into one another at the "Dear Ivanka" vigil outside of the Puck Building in SoHo at the end of November. Since then however I've had the opportunity to see the remarkable photographs that she has been taking and posting on Facebook. The honesty that she brings to these images of New York City's dispossessed makes them painful to look at, though at a time when our so-called president clearly finds it so easy to lie, it is good to be reminded that honesty is often a kind of courage in itself.
Alice Teeple's art is wide-ranging. She is a photographer, a writer, a performance artist, and a filmmaker. Recently her essay What I Learned At A Pro-Trump Rally appeared on The Upstander and demonstrated that she has more than one kind of courage. She earned a BA in Integrative Arts from Penn State University and studied improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. Her conceptual work incorporates performance art, pantomime and dark psychological exploration. She cites William Blake, David Bowie, Anton Corbijn, Frank Tovey, and David Lynch as major artistic influences. Her website is here and she says that in all her work, "emotion takes the front seat, opening doors for experimentation and exploration." Most of her photographic work is shot and edited on iPhone, and all of the images included here were made in New York City within the past year. I am enormously grateful to her for allowing me to share them.
I asked Alice to prepare a statement to accompany her images on Artists Speak Out. This is what she wrote:
The homeless population in New York City is currently hovering at rates unseen since the Great Depression. Over 70,000 people are estimated to be living on the streets, in shelters, or temporary housing.
The Coalition For The Homeless cites the following as the immediate causes:
• Overcrowded housing
• Domestic violence
• Job loss
• Hazardous housing conditions
Other factors that contribute to the epidemic are high rental costs, incompatible wages, school loans, and rising health care costs from unchecked insurance companies; people losing jobs with no warning or preparation; mental health obstacles, including drug addiction; and mothers fleeing with their children from terrifying abuse situations.
My work is a documentary of the problems facing New York City on a daily basis. During the last Gilded Age, photographers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis took to city tenements and streets to document the situations and bring public attention to the dire changes needed in society. Upton Sinclair visited slaughterhouses and documented the horrors of pure, unregulated capitalism. There is always collateral damage to this, and as we move forward into a dark era of political strongarming, I sense a swift return to this nightmarish hellscape. The political climate currently fans the flames of selfishness, greed, and inhumanity.
For those who do not see it on a daily basis, the concept of abject poverty in the United States is too horrifying and becomes an abstract notion that "someone will deal with". For those who do see it on a daily basis, there is willful ignorance, dismissal, and pity. It is too easy to deny our collective shame as those on the streets unnecessarily suffer the gravest injustice of life.
As my predecessors did during the Gilded Age and later the Great Depression, I strongly believe documentary photography can be a vital tool to incite social change. My goal is to be the messenger and spark action through empathy.
Photo: Nadya Wasylko
"My feeling is the election was a wake-up call about how fragile this democracy is. A lot of people who aren’t as old as we are have never had to do anything like this before. So I’m encouraging everybody to get involved. I’d like to see us become the tea party on steroids! That’s my goal, and that’s why I say yes to everything!"
Marilyn Minter, Orange Crush, 2009. Enamel on metal, 108 x 180 in. (274.3 x 457.2 cm). Private collection.
Marilyn Minter is one of the most visible artists in New York City just now. The coincidence of her wonderful and deeply political retrospective Marilyn Minter: Pretty/ Dirty at the Brooklyn Museum (through April 2) and the upsurge in activism following the disastrous election results means that she has been thrust into the public eye. Brooklyn Museum hosted an evening with Marilyn and no less a figure the Madonna on January 19, her Cold Spring home is featured in the March issue of W Magazine, and this coming weekend (February 19) she will feature in the New York Times Magazine's one-page interview. She deserves no less.
I have known Marilyn for many years. I have interviewed her twice for publication. Once for ARTINFO in 2007, and much more recently for Ocula.com just before the election. In my introduction to that piece I wrote this
"The images in Marilyn Minter’s paintings, photographs, and videos are among the most immediately recognisable being made today. They are also among the more politically charged. Minter drags together the clichés of fashion photography and soft pornography in an amalgam that is as troubling as it is alluring.
Despite the stylistic changes in a career that now spans more than four decades, Minter's perennial subject matter has been the complex networks of relationships that exist between women’s lives and the world that surrounds them. From frankly disturbing photographs of her drug-addled mother that she took when she was still a student, through her series of infamous paintings based on hard-core pornography, through her Plush photographs that glamorised pubic hair, to her most recent large-scale high-keyed paintings of women licking steamy glass, Minter has never shied away from the paradoxical nature of sexuality."
Looking back on that interview now is a little unsettling. We were both convinced that Hillary would be our next president, and we almost discussed Trump in the past tense. Many of Marilyn's comments now seem prescient. however: "There have always been dark days," she told me, "but Trump has released what was repressed. And this shines a light on the underpinnings of right wing politics. Misogyny is so prevalent right now, but people use the excuse of saying, ‘I don’t hate Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. I hate her because you can’t trust her’. I always want to say to these people, ‘Tell me again what the Clinton Foundation does. What do they do exactly? Tell me what they do about AIDS and drugs and hospitals’."
Earlier this week, Marilyn and I talked on the telephone specifically for Artists Speak Out. This is how our conversation went -
Marilyn, I’ve been really impressed by how active you’ve been in the groups like We Make America that are resisting the administration ...
No, I can’t claim to be active. I just say yes to everything. I wasn’t active in We Make America at all. The only one I’ve been active in is HALT. On the other hand I’m a part of all of them. I just say yes to everything.
And is that because you feel that unless we do something quickly we’re not going to have the opportunity much longer?
I don’t know that we’re not going to have the opportunity. My feeling is the election was a wake-up call about how fragile this democracy is. A lot of people who aren’t as old as we are have never had to do anything like this before. So I’m encouraging everybody to get involved. I’d like to see us become the tea party on steroids! That’s my goal, and that’s why I say yes to everything!
I think it’s particularly encouraging to see how many young people are involved ...
They just got woken up – particularly the millennials, and they are the least racist, and the most accepting of the diversity of others, of any generation that’s ever been produced. The millennial map is all blue, and they’re the future!
Do we have a part to play in the future?
We are the new majority. Feminists, and people of color, and woke males – feminist males.
Feminism really is at the heart of it, isn’t it?
Feminism is rationalist. Nothing else makes any sense – equal rights, equal pay for equal work, and ownership of your own reproductive rights, those are the basics of feminism. It’s better for everybody.
What do you make of the women who support Trump?
The ones that yelled, “Oh, I want to be grabbed by my pussy!”? They are women who want to be taken care of by the patriarchy – what Gloria Steinem calls colonization – and they’re just going to be so disappointed. They really want somebody to take care of them. And nobody can take care of anybody. That’s not real life.
I’m not sure that the so-called president has any connection with real life ...
I think we’re dealing with somebody who has malignant narcissism. I think it was a fluke that he even went into this whole thing. And now he’s been hijacked by Breitbart ...
I can’t make any sense of Steve Bannon at all ...
You’re trying to make sense of Breitbart?! Bannon is really frightening. He’s malevolent. He’s tapped into a real ugly strain that was simmering underneath the surface, and it’s really all about misogyny and racism.
Yes, the scary thing is that these instincts are so deep rooted ...
I’ve been watching the far right undermine reproductive rights in the red states for the last few years. I’ve watched them turning over legislatures and chipping away at the laws, and trying to police women’s bodies. That was my wake-up call.
So why do you think that we were so unprepared for the election result?
Because we’ve been so complacent. And I think we were done a real disservice when we read the newspapers and they made us think (myself included) that Hillary was a shoo-in. (Although I did have a nagging suspicion, but only because I was in London when Brexit happened. I saw that everybody in London was gobsmacked. The day before the vote they all said, “Oh, there’s not a hope in hell that they’re going to win.” Just like we did.)
Still, I think the tide is beginning to turn ...
There are glimmers of hope and I can live on those. I’ve been protesting since the second week after the election, and that’s made all the difference in the world to me. Resistance - it makes you feel as if you can live in this world.
And there are more of us than there are of them.
I really do believe that we are the majority. The Republicans really don’t know that they aren’t the majority of the public. They aren’t going to know what hit them!
Marilyn Minter, Black Orchid, 2012. C-print, 86 x 57 in. (218.4 x 144.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. collection.
When I last wrote about Carolee Schneemann in 2011, I introduced her like this:
"Carolee Schneemann was one of the first artists I met when I arrived in the United States in 1979. I was 25 years old, and I am ashamed to admit I knew little about feminist art in those days, or about Schneemann herself. As I have told her on many occasions since then however, so profound was the impression that she made upon me back then that it is no exaggeration to say that she changed my life.
Carolee Schneemann has maintained a career of heroic independence since the late 1950s, declaring the vital – though perennially understated – significance of the feminine in all aspects of our lives and the lives of our ancestors through all recorded history. Along the way she has created some of the most important works in contemporary art. Eye Body (1963), Meat Joy (1964), Interior Scroll (1975), and Terminal Velocity (2001) are crucial works to any comprehension of art’s relationship with history and culture in the last half-century. She has also been a visionary writer, and an inspirational teacher and lecturer, and her collections More than Meat Joy (1979) and Imaging Her Erotics (2002) are recognized as essential volumes in any serious library of contemporary thought."
All I would add now is that Carolee's most recent New York exhibits were at P.P.O.W. and Galerie Lelong at the end of last year and that she will finally be acknowledged with a full U.S. retrospective when Kinetic Painting (which was organized by the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria) opens at MoMA PS1 in October.
When I asked Carolee for a contribution to Artists Speak Out, her response as brief as it was eloquent:
I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts around all this yet.
Will I ever?
In the meantime, for an instant response, I offer you a relevant image.
"I understand why fascistic governments hate art. The reason they hate art and feel so threatened by it is because art demands that you look closely and think about what’s in front of you. This is what they don’t want. They don’t want people to think for themselves, they want people to follow with blind faith. You’re not supposed to question, you’re just supposed to accept whatever they tell you. You just say yes. And art is the opposite. Art is more like philosophy - you’re supposed to question. It doesn’t tell you the answer, you have to come up with the answer on your own. All great art does that."
L.C. Armstrong, Moon Over Monsoon (2016) Acrylic on linen on panel
I first met L.C. Armstrong back in 2007 when I interviewed her for ARTINFO.com. The subject of our conversation was the industrial fume extractor that she had installed in her studio so that she could burn bomb fuses to draw lines in her pictures. I knew straight away that this was a woman who was serious about her work! In the years since then I have followed her painting closely, had the opportunity to interview her for a New York exhibition catalogue, and been delighted to witness her emergence as a virtuoso colorist.
L.C. Armstrong had her first solo show at Galerie Sophia Ungers in Cologne in 1990 and since 2007 she has shown regularly at Marlborough Gallery as well as across the country and around the world. Her latest exhibition Signals at Sunset is at Marlborough 57th Street, February 8 - March 4, 2017
Though she acknowledges that she is not a political artist, L.C. Armstrong has been active in the resistance to Trump's fascism. She has been a key figure in the group We Make America and was one of the principal artists on the 12- and 24-foot parachute banners that they took to the Women's March on Washington and then to the rally against the Muslim Ban in Battery Park. I am proud to call her a friend and I have taken great encouragement from her commitment to our cause.
I spoke with L.C. Armstrong specifically for Artists Speak Out. This is what she had to say in our fifteen-minute, off the cuff conversation -
I have never been a political artist or one who addresses political concerns in my work. I always felt that the best way to achieve change is by direct action. I admire people like Greenpeace who put their lives on the line. I was never motivated to do that, but I always thought that if I were to do any political action it would have to be direct.
The Women’s March on Washington was too important to sit out, and I had to get over my fear of crowds. I wanted to be down there in DC rather than here in New York because I wanted to be right in his face! (I can’t even use the person's name!) I think it was an illegitimate election and so I think we were right to voice our indignation and outrage.
I feel especially put upon by his attack on women’s rights, and I knew there was going to be a big crowd of women there. At one point we could not move, and it was kind of scary. I’m a little claustrophobic but I knew that I was surrounded by women and that they weren’t going to get crazy. In fact it was very peaceful – there was not one incident of violence, and there was not one arrest.
I’ve been listening to everything that’s been going on, and every day you wake up to another nightmare. One of his first funding cuts was to Planned Parenthood and anything to do with women’s health initiatives around the world. The next was the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Next was the Environmental Protection Agency.
And why? I understand why fascistic governments hate art. The reason they hate art and feel so threatened by it is because art demands that you look closely and think about what’s in front of you. This is what they don’t want. They don’t want people to think for themselves, they want people to follow with blind faith. You’re not supposed to question, you’re just supposed to accept whatever they tell you. You just say yes. And art is the opposite. Art is more like philosophy - you’re supposed to question. It doesn’t tell you the answer, you have to come up with the answer on your own. All great art does that.
If I were to focus on one thing that can draw everybody together, it’s the fact that we have a thin atmosphere. There’s only two miles between us and outer space, and we’ve been polluting it for years. And now we’re being passed by India and China in initiatives in alternative energy sources. That’s what we should be focusing on.
I’ve been called a cockeyed optimist. We have to have hope. I always try to find a silver lining, and if there’s any silver lining to what’s happening now, it’s that we are now awake. We are out of our bubble. We have a whole new generation of feminists who weren’t even aware before. I think we’re putting in place now a really amazing coalition of people who are going to stay politically active. They are not just going to be voting in presidential elections, they’re giving money and they’re doing everything they can until we get this person out of office. And beyond.
L.C. followed up our conversation with an email. This is what she wrote:
We are all immigrants.
I just had my DNA done by two separate labs. For me it wasn't a question whether I was part Cherokee, only how much. It came back zero percent in both tests. I was shocked!
Then I did my ancestry. My French Huguenot ancestors came to America in the 1600s, fleeing Cardinal Richelieu, who was burning them en masse in the center of Paris. The Scots came in the 1700s, probably after the Jacobean revolution. I’m not sure about the British and Scots Irish but they were all here very early. I could join the Daughters of the American Revolution (not that I would!) as my direct ancestor Shadrach Mims fought in the revolution.
But since I'm not Cherokee, I'm still an immigrant!
L.C. Armstrong, Paradise Play: Peacocks (2016) Acrylic on linen on panel
"It isn’t only that Trump represents all that is anathema to our principles and our devotion, but that his new-found power turns our basic values into a joke and separates us even further from people we might once have thought of as fellow Americans. This is a foe of Shakespearean proportion, who isn’t so easily reducible to psychological or sociological terms like narcissist or sociopath, but only to terms that I equate with my first grade catechism: a man without a conscience. If conscience is predicated on empathy he is a man utterly devoid of imagination."
Julie Heffernan, Camp Bedlam (2016) Oil on canvas
I have been an admirer of Julie Heffernan's paintings ever since I first saw them, which must have been at least twenty years ago now. Her politics play a key though subtle role in them. Last winter I had the good fortune to review a small show of her work at Bard College at Simon's Rock for The Berkshire Edge. You can read that review here, but perhaps what I wrote then is equally relevant here:
"Heffernan is a worthy heir to the tradition of European history painting. She makes large-scale pictures packed with pictorial detail and an extraordinary density of meaning. Although she calls her paintings self-portraits, she generally pictures herself engaged in peculiar narrative episodes, and their actual subject [in this exhibition] is one that concerns us all – the threats posed to our planet and to the life it supports.
"Rather than present literal images of present day despoliation Heffernan invites us into an imaginary world that exists somewhere between romantic landscape painting, fifties fantasy comics, and our worst anxiety dreams."
Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait as Emergency Shipwright (2013) Oil on canvas
The words quoted under Julie's portrait above come from a remarkable essay that she has written specifically for Artists Speak Out. Here it is in full:
Artists spend their days solving problems and courting imagination - that is the meat, the daily bread and honey of their practice, and why making art becomes a kind of personal devotion for many of us. Good craft, an idea well-honed and enriched with vision: these are the mainstays of a rich art practice, and are all predicated, basically, on honesty - the stuff of self-critique - and imagination. An artist is only able to see what is possible, what hasn’t yet been achieved in her work through the lens of basic honesty supplemented by imaginative rigor. Imagination is one of the small miracles of a life; it is the thing that allows dreams to be realized and promotes empathy in the world. Imagination is everything.
But now we have Trump. The artists I know, faced with a president like Donald Trump, a man who is completely unable to imagine what forces of Madness he is unleashing on this country and the world, who spits in the eye of Humility and calls anyone who honors Honesty a chump, who shamelessly trumpets his “alternative facts” as Truth, and appoints to his cabinet one fox in the henhouse after another, are flummoxed. He forces us to confront, on a daily basis, not only our inability to remove or mitigate an obstacle of immense proportions but also the failure of imagination of the Americans who decided to believe Trump’s lies. It isn’t only that Trump represents all that is anathema to our principles and our devotion, but that his new-found power turns our basic values into a joke and separates us even further from people we might once have thought of as fellow Americans. This is a foe of Shakespearean proportion, who isn’t so easily reducible to psychological or sociological terms like narcissist or sociopath, but only to terms that I equate with my first grade catechism: a man without a conscience. If conscience is predicated on empathy he is a man utterly devoid of imagination.
We are on the edge of climactic times, when more than ever artists will have to recognize that their interiority must be channeled into political and social imagination, in works like Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or Nicole Eisenman’s Coping, as vivid mirrors of our times. This is the kind of work we really need right now: work that traffics in a world of rich visual complexity but that isn’t opaque in its cynical elitism. Work that speaks to everyone including those Americans who have for so long felt left out of the world we equate with high art. One great thrill of the DC March was in seeing the massive sea of creative imagination unleashed in all those home-made signs, with texts and images that people came up with on their own – none of the usual canned phrases that we equate with protest marches. People who care deeply, who have the imagination to see the consequences of Trump’s executive orders, his effect on innocent lives, made those signs and their words and images spoke eloquently. Everyone was an artist that day, their rage and worries embodied in word and image, and everyone was enabled too by the massiveness of the movement. We may feel powerless as individuals but together we are a monumental force.
Nicole Eisenman, Coping (2008)
Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)