Friday, September 24, 2010

Just Because You're Paranoid, Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get You

One of the things I learned during the years I spent arguing on the right-wing political blogs is that misconceptions are deeply ingrained on both sides of the political aisle. Neither side has an absolute grip on the "truth." Many tall tales have been told and re-told in the service of both progress and conservatism. As such, in order to be as intellectually honest as you can, it makes sense to keep an open mind about what you "know" with regards to history, while still working toward the goals you believe in.

This notion of not quite knowing what I think I know about history is one of the things that first drew me to the work of artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who systematically sifts through the rhetorical wreckage of the Cold War with the insights (if not total objectivity [which, imo, is never quite accessible]) one could only obtain having lived in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Whether exploring Hollywood propaganda, the fetishization of Lenin memorabilia, American Communists, Cold War Veterans Associations, or Stalin's Directive on Modern Art, Yevgeniy begins by assuming there have been lies told on both sides of any debate.

A wonderful example of what this process can reveal is currently on display at the Temple Gallery at the Tyler School of Art. Tonight is a reception for the artist and curator (Stamatina Gregory). Bambino and I will be there. If you're in Philadelphia, please stop by!

Here are the details on the show:

Yevgeniy Fiks: Communist Conspiracy in Art Threatens American Museums

Curated by Stamatina Gregory
September 8 - November 6, 2010
Opening with the artist and curator: Friday, September 24, 6 - 8 pm

Temple Gallery
Tyler School of Art, Temple University
12th and Norris Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Hours: Wed - Sat, 11 am - 6 pm

In the late 1940s, Michigan Congressman George A. Dondero was an avid participant in the burgeoning McCarthy movement, a widespread cultural phenomenon characterized by the heightened fear, suspicion, and prosecution of suspected Communist sympathizers in the US. Creatively surpassing his contemporaries in the witchhunts for Red infiltrators, he became best known for his claims that the whole of modern art was a Communist plot hatched to bring down the West.

In this exhibition, named for a scrap of Dondero’s alarmist rhetoric, artist Yevgeniy Fiks operates within the mythical space of the conspiracy theory. Instead of mounting a retroactive resistance to the reactionary claims of the past (a project repeatedly undertaken in self-defense by artists, critics, and institutions since the 1940s and 1950s) he instead assembles evidence for those claims, piecing together names, quotes, and archival photographs to reconstruct a forgotten history of radical alignment and commitment to artistic agency. [emphasis mine]

Presented in the minimalist language of conceptual art, these prints, drawings, objects, and installations reduce artists and their works to specific identifying fragments: names, signatures, singular utterances, or snapshots. Here, the iconic visual language of familiar figures of Modernism—Stuart Davis, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock—is stripped away, leaving only bare markers of Party affiliation in a gesture that ironically mirrors the operating tactics of conspiratorial rhetoric.

In Dondero’s speeches, two of which have been re-recorded by contemporary actors and presented here in a sound installation, the toxic workings of Modernism itself are both withheld and aggrandized, their power evoked, but never exposed. Even figurative drawings by Picasso and Léger, faithfully reproduced by Fiks, were chosen not for their style or allegorical construction, but for their revelation of sympathies with martyrs of the Communist movement: among the depicted are Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage, and Nikos Beloyannis, who was executed in 1952 after re-establishing the then-criminalized Communist Party in Greece.

Fiks’ installation isolates and reconstructs a moment in the twentieth century in which two sides of a bitter ideological war equally acknowledged art as legitimate and potent weapon of revolution. Through gestures of subtle addition and radical subtraction, he continues his ongoing project of exploring the complex, but fundamental relationships and strange equivalencies between Communism and Modernism.
Image above: Yevgeniy Fiks, "American Cold War Veterans Association no. 8," 2009, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. (This painting is not part of the exhibition in Philadelphia.)

Labels: gallery artists exhibitions, museum exhibitions, politics

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