Six artists explain the impact of politics on their art
Most Sundays, you will find artist Abby Shahn standing on the Margaret Chase Smith Bridge in downtown Skowhegan with members of the Maine chapter of CODEPINK: Women for Peace. Whether the issue is war, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter or the fear of fascism in the wake of the 2016 election, Shahn and a handful of others are out there on the bridge with their signs witnessing for peace and justice.
Abby Shahn is one of the most dedicated artist activists I know. She is a very political person, yet her art is not what I would call “political art” in that it is rarely polemical or didactic. I, too, am a very political person, but I am not particularly interested in political, protest or propaganda art if all it says is “Oppose this! Support that!”
As such, for this Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World issue, I have elected to talk with six very politically aware artists whose art internalizes, embodies, manifests and expresses their social concerns to varying degrees and in ways ranging from the topical to the philosophical. They are, in order of appearance, Abby Shahn, Barbara Sullivan, Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Alison Hildreth and Lauren Fensterstock.
“I come at it sideways,” says Shahn of the way politics and social issues influence her work. “It’s political but at a side angle. Not topical.”
Shahn’s powerful and colorful abstractions suggest an emotional response to experience and sometimes use titles that clue the viewer in to their sources.
“Much of my art is inspired by political events, but it’s not political art in the sense of trying to move people into action,” Shahn writes in a new statement for her website. “I think of myself more as a witness.”
Shahn explains that “if I name an abstract painting ‘Katrina,’ I have offered a reference point, a point of entry. Hopefully, my abstract expressions and impressions will then have greater meaning for people. I hope to leave behind me some record of how it felt to have lived through these times. I hope to ‘bear witness’.”
Shahn returned to oil paints after years of working primarily in tempera following the election of George W. Bush. The heavier, darker nature of the medium seemed more suited to the times and her state of mind.
“We all lived through some terrible times, with war, natural disaster and political shenanigans. As I write this we are still experiencing the tsunami that followed those events. I’m not sure where my paintings will go from here. I always count on them to lead me.”
Where the act of painting has led Shahn most recently is to a series of “Ghost” paintings in which the “ghosts” are as much revenants of brushstrokes as shades of human beings. The vague figures could be victims of war and natural disaster, the dead haunting the living, messengers from the great beyond, the ectoplasm of spiritual energy or just marks on a surface.
The ambivalence in Shahn’s art may well reflect the tension she feels between being at peace in rural Maine and witnessing for peace in a troubled world.
“I’m in the studio,” she says as we talk. “There are trees all around. I just ordered my seeds. I have grandchildren I really love. My life is good here, but the world sucks.”
Artists tend to be progressive, open-minded individuals. Having written about art in Maine for 40 years, I have met hundreds of artists, only two or three of whom seemed to hold conservative political views. So the unexpected election of Donald Trump has hit the art world hard. The sense of disbelief is pervasive and the outrage palpable. The first and foremost manifestation of this outrage was the Women’s March on Washington, a national show of solidarity prompted by Trump’s virulent sexism. The fact that all six artists discussed here are women is not coincidental.
“We are a force in ourselves,” says Barbara Sullivan, Abby Shahn’s Solon neighbor, of the power of women to address injustice.
Barbara Sullivan is best known for her fresco reliefs, usually ordinary household objects rendered in a medium that merges painting and sculpture. She hadn’t worked in oil for many years until she started the portrait series she calls “Nasty Maine Women Artists.” The list of subjects currently runs to more than 50 artists, among them Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Lois Dodd, Yvonne Jacquette, Elena Kubler, Jocelyn Lee and Susan Webster.
The portraits are all being done from photographs supplied by the artists. In her portrait, Susan Webster of Deer Isle is wearing an apron with the word “Nasty” on it, one of the garments she made after Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.”
Sullivan’s “Nasty Maine Women Artists” portraits will be exhibited in July at Turtle Gallery on Deer Isle.
“I have been a maker since I was a kid,” says Sullivan, explaining how her art helps her navigate through life. “I feel it saved my life in a number of ways. I was one of nine kids, so making art gave me my own space and my own identity in hard times.”
There are plenty of anti-Trump posts on Barbara Sullivan’s Facebook page just as there are on Dozier Bell’s. Bell’s strategy for responding aesthetically is quite different however.
Dozier Bell’s art, always dark and brooding, tends to read like a visual wayfinding, the artist locating herself in time and space and memory through subtle imagery often marked with devices such as poles, grids and crosshairs. There is an implied element of threat and anxiety in many of her paintings.
“To the degree that political developments are environmental threats, they’re like other external circumstances that impinge on the internal world of my art,” writes Bell in an email. “Politics are personal relationships writ large, and the effects of public policy on the natural environment, personal safety, ability to function in the world, to communicate and be heard, all feed into much older existential fault lines in my psyche. Some of the fault lines are amplified by current events, others are stabilized by the fact that actual dangers in the outer world are now mirroring an internal sense of threat against which there has been no way to take definitive action until now.”
Bell’s art is rooted in the memories and dreams that shaped her sense of reality. Her art evokes a psychic landscape that is far more foreign and foreboding than her immediate Waldoboro surroundings.
The acrylic painting “Barbican” from 2016, for instance, depicts the remains of the outer defense of a castle or walled city as the sun rises over a ruined land. “Passage,” also from last year, conjures turbulent waters passing between the steep walls of the cliffs that divide the landscape. While it is tempting to read these images as metaphors of American dysfunction, Bell is never that literal.
And given how ardently Bell was anticipating, as was I, the celebration of America’s first woman president, it is easy to imagine that she must be beside herself at the triumph of ignorance, racism and sexism that destroyed that hope. But the artist says that, in strange way, the election has given focus to free floating dread.
“I have felt much steadier since the election,” says Bell. “When you have been driven by the phantom of an event all your life, then you realize it was a metaphor for something else. All of my work comes from a time of first experiences, first impressions when I was little. Trump is the perfect Bogey Man, right?”
Katherine Bradford’s paintings are, if anything, even more subliminal when it comes to social content than Bell’s, though the painting reproduced here might suggest otherwise.
Bradford, a founding member of UMVA in 1975, divides her time between Brunswick and New York where in the past year she had highly successful exhibitions at Canada and Sperone Westwater Gallery. She was also one of the stars of the #PUSSYPOWER show at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Brooklyn in December and January.
#PUSSYPOWER featured the works of more than 40 women dealing with the female body and was inspired by, in the words of the gallery press release, “a campaign filled with rhetoric of body-shaming and brags of sexual assault, and an election night that revealed the depths of misogyny.”
Bradford’s paintings of late have featured swimmers and superheroes, but the acrylic on canvas in the Brooklyn show is entitled “Supreme” and, in Bradford’s signature blunt style, pictured two women in judicial robes. Since there are currently three women on the U.S. Supreme Court, one might wonder what happened to Elena Kagan, but, as Bradford explains, she was not really painting the women of the court.
“I don’t paint from ideas. I find the image in the process of painting,” Bradford says. “I work with themes and characters. People standing up is one of them. I had little heads on top of black robes and I saw that one of them could be [Sonia] Sotomayor and one could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I made the painting into that and added the word ‘Supreme,’ but I was not intending to be political in any way. Is it political or is it a celebration? I did it way before the election.”
While “Supreme” was timely in a fortuitous way, Bradford’s enchanted existential dramas are rarely direct reflections of society.
“I want my paintings to be about large themes not topical themes,” says Bradford. “Danger is the human condition, not just a political crisis of the moment. I want a kind of epic nature to what I’m doing.”
“Subconsciously, things creep into your art, the angst, the drang, the fear,” echoes Portland artist Alison Hildreth. “For me, it’s not overt at all. I’ve never wanted to be that literal. What’s hidden, what we don’t see is what I want in my art.”
One of the ways political discord, dissonance and divisiveness play out in Hildreth’s work is in the priority she places on connectivity, the hidden wholeness of nature. Her painting, prints and drawings feature tangles of root systems, honeycombs, fungus and phytoplankton blooms.
“Paintings,” says Hildreth, “are little events that connect to other events.”
In the human sphere, Hildreth has been inspired by the ways in which natural disasters and political violence displace people, creating global population migrations as ecosystems and geopolitical entities become uninhabitable. The long, vertical hanging drawings of her “Emerging Cartographies” series explore an abstract topography based on diagrams of train stations and fortifications.
“We are so driven by fear,” says Hildreth. “He [Trump] can prey on people’s fear and our tribal natures emerge. It’s not a good thing, but it’s what we revert to.”
As a member of the tribe of artists, Hildreth takes refuge from the political storm in her studio.
“For me, just getting studio time is so important, because it’s something positive,” she says.
The studio may be where Hildreth works out her creative response to destructive times, but she was also among the more than 10,000 who answered the call of Portland’s Women’s March, as was Lauren Fensterstock.
“I see being an artist as a political act,” says Fensterstock, too busy preparing for seven shows in 2017 to stop working as she talks. “In a corporate culture of conglomerates it is difficult to have an unmediated voice. I strongly do not make art for my own pleasure. I make art for dialogue.”
Lauren Fensterstock is one of the hottest young artists in the country and her home studio in Portland is a hive of activity. Past work has focused on historical gardens created out of black and white cut paper in an antique process called quilling. These days, Fensterstock’s studio is filled with boxes of seashells and mirrors that will become black aggregates, encrustations of natural material surrounding blown glass that provide a dark vision of the world.
“Man creating systems and organizing the world is very political,” says Fensterstock, whose outrage at the election is second to none. “How man talks about the environment is political. “
Writing of Fensterstock’s “The Order of Things” installation in New York, critic Dan Kany observed that “What Fensterstock is showing us with ‘The Order of Things’ is not what we know, but what things look like before we have reeled them in with labels and encyclopedic classification.”
This visual epistemology of the primordial is like a freeing of nature from its cultural straitjacket. Fensterstock is artist-as-shaman. During a residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, she created the hand-held dark glass mirror that was featured in “Scrying,” an exhibition in March at VOLTA NY, an invitational fair of solo art projects. Scrying, she explains, is the art of divining the future through mirrors.
For the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida, Fensterstock created a shell, resin and mirror installation entitled “The Holophusicon,” a title taken from an 18th century cabinet of curiosities that billed itself as the sum of the world’s knowledge of the natural world.
“I see art as a physical manifestation of philosophy. I see making art as a touchstone, a mapping of an ethical and philosophical world,” says Fensterstock.
“These are important moments of resistance and protest, but it’s important that we remember what we are fighting for – beauty, freedom of experience, acknowledgment of history, aspirational views of our future.”
The work of all serious art is the search for truth, beauty and meaning. Perhaps that is why the artists of Maine and America take such umbrage at these dark days of lies, ugliness and meaninglessness.