Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Art for a change

Central Connecticut State University: Samuel S. T. Chen Fine Arts Center
1615 Stanley St., New Britain, (860) 832-2633
Painting with Fire: Agitprop Murals from Around the World
Feb. 8—Mar. 10, 2007

Curated by Central Connecticut State University associate professor of art Mike Alewitz, Painting With Fire: Agitprop Murals from Around the World is a small but stimulating sampling of art in the service of politics. These works build on a tradition that first found mass expression in the heady early days of the Russian Revolution. This display of contemporary agitprop—for agitation and propaganda—is meant to spark social change around issues of imperialism, war, corporate domination, sexism and racism.

Much of the exhibit consists of photos and digital prints of artworks, necessitated by the fact that many of them have been painted on buildings that could neither be moved nor fit in this gallery. There is an especially striking image of a mural painting "When Women Pursue Justice," painted by Artmakers, Inc. On the wall of a four-story building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, it depicts 90 women who led or participated in U.S. social change movements over the past 150 years.

The 3,300 square foot Artmakers project was executed by nearly 50 women—13 professional artists, five interns and 30 volunteers. It has a lively background featuring silhouettes of demonstrators in multiple shades of red. The background is overlaid with painted images of such notable activists as anarchist Emma Goldman, Catholic Worker pacifist Dorothy Day, farmworkers union leader Dolores Huerta and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, in whose former district the mural is sited. The imagery is eye-catching and colorful. That it's painted on the mottled concrete wall of an old urban building makes it that more striking.

These creations are works of the moment, intended for display in the streets or during mass protest actions. An example is David Solnit's "mural flip book" on the World Trade Organization. Solnit was a key organizer of the Nov., 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Painted on a big piece of canvas, the top page reads "Whose Trade Organization?" The center image shows the earth as viewed from outer space, while in the foreground an archer fires arrows into a sign reading "World for Sale." Other pages use simplified imagery to critique a global order based on war, corporate governance and the privatization of life's necessities.

This pedagogical intent is especially notable in the works of the Beehive Design Collective. Based in an old Grange Hall in eastern Maine, the collective creates intricately designed, richly sourced allegorical posters about issues such as biotechnology and corporate globalization. They use these images—printed as posters or on giant rolls of fabric—as educational materials in schools, before activist groups and at demonstrations.

On their own, posters such as "Plan Colombia" are deft works of almost psychedelic intensity, packed with obscure but compelling drawings of insects, mammals, plants and mechanized mutants. Explicated by one of the "bees" through a narrative picture-lecture, they become a fascinating hybrid of visual poetry and radical socioeconomics.

Doug Minkler creates poster art with garishly colored cartoon-like graphics. These broadsides excoriate homophobia, imperialism, war, arms sales and police brutality. In a note on the wall, Minkler writes that the posters that have drawn the most contention have been ones calling for cutting off aid to Israel in protest of the occupation of Palestinian territories.

The Israeli occupation is the subject of John Pitman Weber's "Bulldozer Triptych," two panels of which are exhibited here. These acrylic paint and acrylic pen works on large canvas were done for Piece Process 3, a joint Palestinian and Jewish art group. The stark designs counterpose the looming brutal image of the Caterpillar bulldozer, used in the demolition of Israeli homes, with the supplicating form of a woman standing in its path. On the bottom of each panel a hand holds a dove, a symbol of peace. In the left panel a sketched image shows a woman holding her head in grief. In the panel on the right, a repeated image depicts hands embroidering a piece of cloth.

The display of work by CCSU faculty member Cora Marshall differs from much of the other art exhibited. Marshall documents the "Day of Prayerful Protest," which occurred on Sun., Feb. 27, 2000. The protest occurred two days after a jury acquitted four white New York City police officers who killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets.

Over 100 women assembled in a circle, dressed in black, faces covered by black veils. Each held a wallet-size picture of Diallo. Written on the back side of the photo:
Women in Mourning & Outrage
We stand in solidarity
with Mrs. Diallo
and all who have
lost children to
the brutality of
the police

Together, the women held up the photo of the slain man and counted to 41. Marshall documents the protest with nine powerful photographic images of mourning and determination.


On the Saturday afternoon I visit, two CCSU students are at work in a room off the gallery on some agitprop of their own. Chris Hutchinson is a 24-year-old junior in the CCSU art program. Erin Kenney is a graduate student in the mental health program, with an undergraduate art degree. They are painting large banners for an upcoming march on the Pentagon in protest of the Iraq War.

Hutchinson says that being in Alewitz's painting classes—as well as reading on his own—politicized him. He recently painted a banner for "Free the Danbury 11," a campaign on behalf of undocumented workers hauled in by the Feds as part of a national campaign of repression. The banner, he says, has been used at a couple of forums and protests. Hutchinson was also among a group of CCSU students who painted a series of placards for the mammoth Feb. 15, 2003 pre-war antiwar demonstration in New York City.

The banners are intended, says Hutchinson, both to buck up the spirits of activists as well as catch the attention of the wider public.

"When we do these things we hold them high in the air so they can be caught on TV and be visible," he says. He gestures to one reading "No War in Iran." "If people see a banner that says 'No War in Iran,' it might spark conversation" among people inside and outside the movement who may not be contemplating the potential for such a conflict.

"I think this is a great exhibit, and needed, too. Most times art is kept in the galleries and away from the public. This is art that is meant for the streets, to be utilized," says Hutchinson. It is not art meant to make thousands of dollars. "What makes it important and vital is that it shows the tradition is still alive and functioning in this country."


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