above: Matt Blackwell, “Devil On a Leash”, oil on canvas,
Visual Essay: Matt Blackwell
As the presidential election ended I was encouraged by several recent exhibitions I saw here in New York City. One of these was the Philip Guston show at Hauser and Wirth in Chelsea, of the satiric and biting drawings of Richard Nixon. Guston’s statement circa early 1970’s, “What kind of artist am I if I’m just changing red to green” struck a nerve with me in these times, and I decided to press on harder with a day to day account of what is unfolding before our eyes. I believe what I see, and I want to bear witness, as it is unprecedented in its dire consequences to our lives and civil liberties. Around the same time, I also saw the Max Beckmann show at the Metropolitan Museum. Beckmann is a personal hero of mine. ( In North Carolina I studied with Walter Barker who was Beckmann’s interpreter and student at Washington University in Saint Louis in the late 1940’s.) I’ve always admired Beckmann’s spirit, showing the rise of fascism in Germany in a sort of mysterious, coded way. His paintings are staged in a theatrical manner, dense , dark and full of mystery. He lets you know how it felt to be alive in those times, both in 1930’s Germany where he was stripped of his professorship (you can bet Bannon has a plan about this] and while he hid out in Amsterdam through the war. He laid it all out on the line for his work, risking internment and death. There is also a connection between these two as Guston studied briefly with Beckmann, as did many other artists.
On a more personal note, my father Richard Blackwell fought against the Fascists from North Africa to Germany in World War II as an enlisted Canadian with the American airborne. I am very lucky to be here as was he to survive. Even as a child, I was a student of the war and how Fascism arises, so who am I not to speak up when I see scare tactics, vilification of immigrants and people of color, as well as the annoying repetition of untruths (outright lies, alternate facts—Fascist tactics) on a daily basis. “If you see something say something”, as they say.
It pains me greatly to see the stripping away of safeguards and civility in our society. It pains me also to see people seduced by these liars and con men. There is nothing more that I would like to see than people working and prospering, especially in small towns and rural areas. I grew up in rural Western New York. I spent fifteen years in Maine in the 1970s and 1980’s where I have worked and made work about rural people and their concerns . Factory jobs are simply not coming back. The only way I see economic recovery is through small start-ups given tax breaks and most importantly free education at community colleges and job training programs. I doubt this current administration can get this done. Only imagination, skill and hard work can save local economies.
I have been a teacher at all grade levels for over 25 years now. I currently teach at a community college in Queens. My classroom is full of students from everywhere. They are hard working, hardly ever a prima donna. I concentrate on fundamentals: drawing, design, sculpture, painting and some basic art history. My students come from Tibet, Columbia, the Philippines, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Hungary, China, Poland, via Brooklyn and Queens. These kids are respectful, hungry for Knowledge, curious, and focused on their art and their studies. Once they realize their teacher has no other agenda, then they enjoy their efforts, and their interest and skills grow with every lesson. No matter from where they came, they are all American kids. It is an affront to me to see these students characterized as something other than American .They have the he same desires and wishes we all have. So basically I am not having any of this racial purity line. My students are now fearful of their place in America , while two years ago they were not. I owe them to speak up, and to say it is great to be a New Yorker! I wish I could say it was safe to take a road trip and see the country.
These days, nearly every day there is a new outrage, more lies, more outrage, more stupidity. “ But when the right time comes”, to quote the great musician Bob Marley: ”Why boasteth thyself oh evil men, playing smart but not being clever. If you are a big tree, we are the small axe, sharpened to cut you down, ready to cut you down.” Resist and support each other. We need to look out for each other, if I’m preaching to the choir so be it. We need courage and humor to see us through to a better future.
I don’t want my axe to get dull, so I shift in and out of political subject matter. Some days changing green to red is appropriate.