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Art That Looks Political but Really Isn’t, and Art That Doesn’t Look Political but, Cast in a Certain Curatorial Light, Could Be

Artists: Kevin Regan, Leigh Wells, and Ariel Zakarison

Presenting three contemporary artists within a political framework is but one of many ways to position their work. In fact, politics is hardly a dominant, preferred, or encouraged interpretation, but since it’s possible to do so, as I propose, what does that mean? The artists may not conceive or create their work politically but nevertheless use provocative imagery that tantalizingly lends itself to this idea. Thus, the cumbersomely named Art That Looks Political comments on dogmatic curatorial agendas that bend the meanings of works of art—sometimes in tandem with artists but often against their stated intentions or implicit wishes—to fit a particular goal. Indeed, in recent years critics have complained that curators upstage the artist, becoming creative authors of exhibitions whose individual components are subordinate to the grander scheme. In this way, Art That Looks Political indicates an awareness of this critique while simultaneously acknowledging the guilt of complicity.

Kevin Regan’s work comes closest to having explicit political meaning because he persistently uses pictures of the late American president Ronald Regan in his collages and sculptural installations. Might this strategy reflect the political hall of mirrors indicative of the covert operations of Reagan administration during the 1980s, especially with the Iran–Contra Affair and the Invasion of Grenada—not to mention the former cowboy actor’s Wild West–like standoff with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? Possibly, but Regan’s sardonic presentation belies a serious attempt at a coherent statement.

In recent collages, Leigh Wells cuts and arranges images from decades-old books, focusing on clothing and fabric as depicted in marble, engraving, and photography, often combining the three in the same piece. Carved stone statuary carries myriad connotations with suggestive historical readings: ancient Greek democracy, Roman imperialism, and a Renaissance Italy ruled by a wealthy merchant class in perpetual conflict with the Catholic Church. Engraving is most recognizable when depicting leaders and politicians on US currency, itself a symbol of power and value. And elegant robes are, of course, commonly associated with kingly authority. The strange forms in Wells’s paper constructions, however, possess an eerie silence that confuses direct readings.

Working in abstraction, Ariel Zakarison is harder to place. Her acrylic paintings of billowing clouds, sinewy webs, and rolling landscapes, with their rich, ominous, and seductive colors, evoke formidable feelings of the sublime: awe, fear, terror. Is it not unrelated, then, that the United States publicly hyped its 2003 invasion of Iraq using the military doctrine of “shock and awe”? Zakarison’s monochromatic etchings may visually resemble “cult” or “fantasy” art, but they also reference American artists from the 1930s—in particular Joseph Stella, Louis Lozowick, and even Thomas Hart Benton—whose careers intersected with the Federal Art Program of the Works Progress Administration. A decade or two later, as the story goes, the CIA used Abstract Expressionism to promote American interests in Europe following the Second World War. But is the artist herself thinking about any of this when in the studio?

Political art doesn’t always address a government, its leaders, and its policies. Instead, the subject comprises larger, weightier issues of rhetoric, persuasion, and the exercise of power—not insignificantly important tools of the curatorial trade. Above all, though, the primary intention of Art That Looks Political is to present amazing work by three incredible artists to a larger public.

Submitted in April 2012 to Young Curators, New Ideas IV, to be held at Meulensteen Gallery in New York during summer 2012.