Art = Politics = Art = ?
.... Phebe Shinn, Art Observer
“Many Faces of Occupy Philadelphia”
Politic - and art? Do they mix? Can they be mixed? A very timely art show at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry Sts., presents the question.
Ever since humans moved out of their caves, artists have had to integrate a number of dissimiliar influences in their work - the patron who was backing the work, the political atmosphere in which s/he was working, the artist’s own feelings and reactions to that climate. But often even the most objective reporter of current social situations - see a number of Early Renaissance alterpieces - recognize the position of the patron. No matter how piously they kneel, no matter how downcast their eyes or folded their hands, they are posed in the same (gilded) frame as the Holy Family and sundry saints, and every viewer knows whose money and connections paid for that particular altarpiece. All portraits of Kings & Queens reinforce the image of power & wealth - remember David’s portraits of Napoleon.
Some artists seem to avoid any connection between their work and the current political scene - Memling, Titian, Vuillard, Andy Warhol. Some expressions are obvious - Goya, in the 1820’s, depicting the French invasions of Spain; the Germans Grosz & Nolde foreshadowing the Nazi horrors in the ‘30’s; Picasso, also in the 1930’s, damning the Spanish civil war in his “Guernica”; Leon Golub, in our own time, giving us chilling visions of torture & chaos
Sometimes the artists simply move away - Gauguin to the South Seas. Sometimes they set severe limits on their own personal reactions -Hans Holbein in the English Tudor Court. And sometimes they express their emotions all over the nearest wall, even the Berlin Wall.
In Philadelphia, a raucous populist movement - Occupy Philadelphia- has triggered artistic movements to commemorate the individuals involved and the effects of the action. The movement here, like all the others in cities across the country, and, indeed, the world! has showed itself chaotic, amorphous, undefined, irritatingly blurry, and seemingly unable to reach any conclusions. But it has certainly aroused the interest and concern of many people who might have preferred to remain uninvolved. And a very wide variety of people have responded, become involved.
Two Philadelphia artists - Leroy Forney and Elise Luce Kraemer - independently of each other, wanted to involve themselves with the demonstrators. Forney brought his easel and canvas to Dilworth Plaza and started doing oil portraits of people at the protest - protestors, homeless persons, even a policeman. Kraemer collected statements from the occupiers, painted simple outlined figures (shades of Keith Haring!) on big sheets of mylar, and then asked people to pick out appropriate quotes and paint them on the mylar sheets. She has added to the protesters other artists and school students. She has 27 posters so far.
Forney’s nine by twelve oils, done with a muted palette, show a variety of men and women, young and old, some posed conventionally before a plain background, some in front of a significant scene - City Hall, political posters. Most of the faces are serious, thoughtful. (In fact, the only smiling face is that of a young woman who said “I just happened to be passing through....No reason.”) Several are strangely androgynous. Forney asked each subject their reasons for being at the protest, and has paired their statements with their portraits.
Forney, an enterprising sort, has also photographed each of his paintings in black and white and exhibited them as well. Surprisingly, the b/w reproductions are stronger than the colored oils; the facial structures become more defined.
This is a show which triggers reactions in the viewers. Given our current hyper-active political atmosphere, a moment or two of quiet reflection, contemplation, may help to clarify one’s outlook or reinforce one’s position
15th and Cherry Sts.
Exhibit runs through March 9
The exhibition will then move to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in Media, PA.
Leroy Forney is a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.