Political Art, Love It or Leave It

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The New York Sun

Political art is a polymorphous genre. An instrument of both independent protest and totalitarian control, it embraces everything between gentle social commentary and strident advocacy. The sense of outrage that motivated much art of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s can be traced to Goya’s “Disasters of War,” but today’s artists have long since discarded Goya’s pictorial acumen for a variety of confrontational tactics: Barbara Kruger’s tabloid-style admonitions (“Your Body is a Battleground”), for instance, or Hans Haacke’s planting of a corporate logo atop an old East Berlin observation tower.

But in recent decades, political art has tended to be more nuanced. Zwirner & Wirth’s “Quiet Politics” demonstrates the trend with a selection of works by 10 artists spanning the last 22 years. The intimate but airy installation sprinkles pieces by younger artists among some familiar efforts by veterans, and while a number of the works have a subtle bite, nowhere is there a full-scale call to arms.

David Hammons is represented by a signature piece from 1990, an American flag redone in colors associated with the black-power movement. The simple elegance of its conceit makes this work celebratory rather than truculent — though it’s also a sly rejoinder to a “love-it-or-leave-it” intolerance of dissent. Rosemarie Trockel’s five ski masks (1986), each nestled in an open cardboard box as if ready for sale, seem at first nothing more than colorful headgear with vaguely menacing eye slits. A closer look, however, suggests something far more sinister: a merchandising of abuse, signaled by multiple swastikas and Playboy bunnies incorporated into the knitting — an activity traditionally labeled “women’s work.” In Roni Horn’s paired photographs, dated 1998/2007, wildfowl are reduced to svelte but faceless phenomena. The two prints highlight the blue-green iridescence of the backs of the bird’s heads while ensuring they remain anonymous.

If these pieces speak largely for themselves, others benefit from information supplied by the exhibition’s press release, which is posted on the gallery’s Web site. Visitors unfamiliar with the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres — an artist who brought an intimate and interactive element to minimalist installations — can read how he instructed curators to decide for themselves how to arrange his piece from 1992, which consists of a single string of 42 light bulbs. This fact adds an elegiac dimension to the chain of glowing bulbs soaring to the ceiling. Robert Gober’s untitled 1991 work looks for all the world like a page from a 1960 issue of the New York Times, until one notices subtle discrepancies, such as a reference to “Beijing” (known in the ’60s, of course, as Peking) — and, stranger still, the inclusion of a story of parental torture among several wedding announcements. The gallery’s checklist discloses that this work is actually a lithograph with hand-torn edges, painstakingly stained with coffee by the artist. With oddly delicate self-absorption, the artist made one other alteration: He has inserted a small, businesslike article describing his own childhood death, and his mother being held on suspicion of murder.

Additional reading, some of it supplied by the press release, is required to fully appreciate the works of Lisa Oppenheim and Christopher Williams. Ms. Oppenheim’s four crisply geometric abstractions from 2008, all titled “Multicultural Crayon Displacement,” are in fact Cibachrome prints with colors based upon an assortment produced by Crayola. (The company touts the crayons as “an assortment of skin hues that give a child a realistic palette for coloring their world.”) Mr. Williams’s handsome, if not gripping, black-and-white photographs from 1989 are selections from a series of 27 such prints that depict glass models of plants in the collection of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. As a kind of taxonomy of human abuse, the artist selected only those plants that were native to countries with a record of “disappearing” dissidents.

A 2004 work by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla needs no accompanying explanation. It consists simply of separate containers of water and used motor oil, positioned beneath a photograph of a miniature oil spill in a water puddle. With these spare means it provokes thoughts about the incompatibility of nature’s and industry’s most indispensable fluids. By comparison, Adel Abdessemed’s “Cocktail”(2007), a collection of more than 20 music stands holding sketches of figures, each hurling a glassy nugget, seems like a gesture in search of a meaning. Michael Brown’s “In the Meantime…II” (2007), a framed section of mirrored steel shattered at the center, appears to be a rather obvious metaphor for the fragility of perception.

With a little luck, visitors may get a glance at the exhibition’s most visually seductive piece, Walid Raad’s six-minute video titled “I Only Wish That I Could Weep” (2002), which is intermittently on view upstairs. The video’s captions assert that it was recorded by a security camera and later procured by a foundation devoted to chronicling Lebanon’s contemporary history. (The foundation is itself an artistic invention.) In the video, pedestrians flicker by at high speed in front of a repeatedly (and gloriously) setting sun. Purportedly, the spellbound camera operator forgot his duty and trained the lens on the sun’s flaming descent. The exotic image appeals, but even more engaging is the artist’s playful pretext for sharing the beauty of his troubled nation. Mr. Raad avoids a pitfall of political art, which is that it tends to be a kind of hybrid — a mix of polemics and aesthetics that diverts the eye only in order to sway the mind. One has the impression there’s something bigger than politics for Mr. Raad, and it involves, among other things, visual nourishment. As it happens, this makes his viewpoint especially memorable.

Through tomorrow (32 E. 69th St. at Madison Avenue, 212-517-8677).

The New York Sun

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