The Art of Politics

DAM director Lewis Sharp shows that there's more to the job than knowing what to hang.

Still ahead is a film series, Advise and Dissent, which will run through May. The series, a screening of four protest-theme films, is being presented in cooperation with the Denver Film Society. And on June 4, the MAC will host a symposium titled "Limits of Dissent."

The visual-art component of the project is a two-part exhibition with the quasi-biblical title of Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: Jewish Artists of Conscience in the 20th Century. It's on display through June in the Singer Gallery. In the main space, gallery director Simon Zalkind has assembled prints, photos and paintings concerning social commentary that date from the 1930s to the present. In an annex to the Singer, a room that at times serves as a nursery for toddlers, he has put together a show of posters, an art form particularly rich in political and social imagery.

Zalkind started by compiling a wish list of artists he wanted to include in Justice, Justice. "At first there were a few key people who I knew had to be included," he explains. "Ben Shahn, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero were automatically on. In a sense, they suggested themselves through their work. Raphael Soyer, as well." Along the way, he discovered other artists as he ferreted out relevant work from local collections and galleries.

"The Plow," by David Fredenthal, painting.
Balvis Rubess
"The Plow," by David Fredenthal, painting.
"Pieces of Silver," by Hugo Gellert, lithograph.
Mark A. Manger
"Pieces of Silver," by Hugo Gellert, lithograph.

Details

Through June 11

303-399-2660

Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts Center, 350 South Dahlia Street

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In contacting artists, Zalkind was struck by the kind of people who do political art. "They were mostly completely free of postmodern irony. They were absolutely genuine; they didn't have cleverness. It was refreshing. It was very nice to be in touch with artists who are sincere."

As word traveled about the show, more artists contacted Zalkind. "Leon Golub -- Leon Golub! -- called personally to make sure he was in the show and to make sure we had something right for the show," Zalkind says. "He wanted to send a large painting, but we couldn't afford the insurance." But that kind of commitment was common among the artists, collectors and dealers who cooperated with the show.

Zalkind believes Justice, Justice taps into an important part of Jewish American history. "Social activism is something noble that Jews are associated with. Every Jew, even the most privileged and well-to-do, can identify with this, because political allegiances are informed by being Jewish," he says. "My own parents are Holocaust survivors who taught me to support the underdog."

The show has not been arranged in a strict chronological order, but Zalkind has separated the historical material from the contemporary pieces. Basically the large front section of the Singer is given over to the work of the social realists of the 1930s and '40s, while the two smaller spaces are filled with more recent pieces in a wide variety of styles. Special attention has also been given to lithographs and photos, each of which have been exhibited in their own distinct sections.

The show begins with a jewel of a small painting, "God Bless America," by Philip Reisman, from 1940. The expressively painted scene captures a gaunt, elderly man in ragged clothes walking against a cold winter wind. He clutches a banner that reads "God Bless America," below which hangs a price tag that reads "50 cents." The painting is about poverty and the loss of values.

The suffering of others was a dominant theme among the social realists. But other works depict the nobility of labor and laborers, such as Harry Gottlieb's pair of studies and his pair of screen prints that concern two rock drillers at work side by side. In all four pieces, conventionalized figures have been caught in candid poses; Gottlieb uses modernist compositions and colors while retaining literal and narrative representation.

William Sanderson's "Le Comedie Human," from 1961, is done in a similar style, but the topic is human foibles, not the dignity of work. The painting reveals a cross-section of a house with four rooms. In each of the rooms, some drama is unfolding. In one, a child is being spanked on his mother's knee; in another two lovers embrace.

Sanderson, who died in 1990, spent most of his career in Denver. He's one of a handful of local artists included in this nationally oriented show. Another artist with ties to Colorado is David Fredenthal, who was associated in the 1930s and '40s with the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School, the successor to the Broadmoor Academy. Zalkind has included two Fredenthals, "The Plow," an oil on board from 1941 that depicts a muscular farmer mopping his brow, and "Men Playing Cards," a lyrical watercolor of farmers at play.

Opposite these paintings are a group of black-and-white lithographs. Notable among them is "Dress Circle, Carnegie Hall," a 1936 print by Minna Citron. The regionalist-style scene shows those in standing room only, sitting on the stairs and leaning against the walls. In contrast to this lively group are the dour faces of those in the dress circle of the title placed at the bottom left of the picture.

The same cartoonish approach is seen in Hugo Gellert's "Pieces of Silver," also from 1936. The subject is Father Charles Coughlin, an infamous anti-Semite who had a national radio broadcast in the 1930s. Standing behind a microphone on which Christ is crucified is Coughlin, his hand raised in a pastoral gesture of blessing. There is no mistaking to whom Gellert is linking Coughlin: Hitler himself. Notice that Coughlin's eyes are blank and that he holds a money bag in one hand.

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