While contemporary art has long inclined toward personal expression and individual concerns, current events have inspired many artists to politicize their aesthetic and conceptual approaches. These artists, moreover, have gone beyond exploring subcultures and bringing little-recognized wrongs to light. Now they've taken up unswerving, no-holds barred criticism of the prevailing socio-political system. We haven't seen this kind of concentrated anti-war effort in the art world since Dada. While this is a strong statement to make, Fe Gallery's exhibition Pinky Swear: A Political Exhibition Addressing Promises is worthy of it.
The Urban Dictionary defines a "pinky swear" as an eternally binding promise made by two people hooking pinky fingers together. Breaking the promise is supposed to result in the offender losing his or her pinky. Curator Vicky A. Clark unites this concept of pledges with political commentary. The exhibition features works by members of Group A, an association founded in 1944 and credited with establishing the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
While all of Pinky Swear's works speak out against America's present political course, some are more searing in their condemnations than others. Perhaps the most conceptually compelling is Bob Ziller's 2007 sculpture "Trophy." It directly addresses the issue of broken promises, particularly those relating to the Geneva Conventions and the writ of habeas corpus, meant to prevent unlawful detention. Composed of a rusty shovel head mounted on a concrete cylinder, "Trophy" bears the scratched silhouette of the now-iconic hooded and wired Abu Ghraib prisoner Satar Jabar. The aggressive method by which the image was created -- by scraping away the shovel's surface -- and the conceptually shrewd use of the shovel itself contribute to the work's power: Shovels are funerary implements crucial to burial. They also imply hole-digging, both ideological and literal.
Hagit Barkai's oil on canvas "The Waiter" (2007), which depicts a near-faceless, naked figure apparently bound and seated on a wooden bench, and Judy Charlson's undated raku bas reliefs "Hanging Out in Baghdad" all deal with confinement, torture and the paradox of "forced democratization" on a more visceral level.
Another conceptual jewel is Wendy Osher's "Invisible Bridge," made from wire, rubber bands, chewing gum and newsprint. These materials, respectively associated with quick fixes and propaganda, would not bear the weight of a toy soldier. Yet the construction lingers above viewers, presenting letter-for-letter the Bush administration's comfortless message: "Stay the Course."
Paula Weiner's mixed-media work "Sedition Flag" depicts an American flag behind Plexiglas on which she has written: "Our Country 'tis of thee has secrets thou shalt never see." Alongside are citations from the 1917 Espionage Act -- implying the 1918 Sedition Act, which made speaking out against the government treasonous. Although the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, Weiner points out that parts of the Espionage Act remain law.
Ultimately, Pinky Swear speaks to more than broken promises. It also reflects our tendency toward continuous, soul-sedating consumption. Witness Steve Hasley's "Toxic Iconography #1," featuring pretend explosives sheathed in Wal-Mart bags, and Jennifer L. Dinovitz's mixed-media medicine cabinet in "Hard Pill to Swallow."
There is much food for thought in Clark's exhibition and more complexity than can be explored here. Because the artists' passion is obvious, their messages compelling and their political engagement genuinely exciting, the exhibition is certain to stay with visitors long after they've left the gallery. The show's value, with its implicit call to think critically, goes beyond political appraisals. And while there is certainly the aforementioned whiff of Dada -- which revolutionized how art was used as a means of constructive dissent -- in Pinky Swear, the artists' dissent involves no gratuitous aesthetic anarchy or baffling logic. The messages are well reasoned, historically anchored and unequivocal.
Pinky Swear: A Political Exhibition Addressing Promises continues through Aug. 1. Fe Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrencevillle. 412-860-6028
- Habeas corpus: Hagit Barkai's "The Waiter."