When I think of the Center for Visual Arts, Metropolitan State University’s off-campus art center, I think of contemporary art because that’s what’s typically shown there. So I was surprised to find the place decked out, in part, in James Gillray’s hand-colored etchings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Cecily Cullen, the exhibition manager and curator at the CVA, felt the same way she agreed to meet with University of Denver professor Arthur N. Gilbert, who owns an enormous collection of Gillray prints; she didn't believe a show of such material would be a good fit with CVA’s contemporary program.
But then she saw the work, all done in England, and realized immediately how well Gillray’s approach meshed with that of political artists working today. The result is Under the Guillotine: James Gillray & Contemporary Counterparts, which supplements scores of Gillray prints (selected by Gilbert) with the efforts of three contemporary political artists, Molly Crabapple, Chris Dacre and Deb Sokolow.
And don't be misled. Despite the great age of the Gillrays, these pieces aren't not demur still-life scenes or stately portraits ordinarily associated with this period. Rather, they are raunchy and raucous, irreverent, often vulgar and filled with the cruelest depictions imaginable of the actual people of the day. Gillray was especially mean to the members of the British Royal Family, prominent figures in British politics, and Napoleon. Fat people are fatter, thin ones thinner, their noses are hooked and their eyes are bulging. These are not pretty pictures — funny at times, yes, but pretty, no.
With these kinds of works Gillray became a pioneer of caricature (he was a couple of generations older than Daumier) and ultimately a part of the development of the political cartoon.
Gilbert points out that Gillray lived at precisely the right time to avoid censorship, something that would happen to his work after he died during the Victorian era. And it was only in the last few decades that his oeuvre has been rediscovered. Fortunately he was so popular during this lifetime that large editions of his prints were made — many still survive. For this show, Gilbert bracketed the Gillrays by subject matter, with sections devoted to things like “Food Glorious Food," “Scandal” and “Art for Parody’s Sake."
The three contemporary artists are each given their own individual sections and, seeing how compatible their work is with Gillray's, it’s easy to understand the logic behind the selections — though, of course, the issues they raise are completely different.
New York’s Crabapple shares much with Gillray, most especially a shared taste for grotesquery exquisitely rendered. She is represented by a couple of drawings depicting Raqqa under the control of ISIS, and a wicked caricature of Donald Trump.
Dacre, who lives in San Francisco, does post-pop work that’s completely unrelated stylistically to Gillray’s work, but both artists do share an interest in critiquing the military.
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Finally there’s Chicago’s Sokolow who, among other things, explores the conspiracy theories about DIA and mounts an imaginary political campaign devoted to People’s Temple psycho, Jim Jones. Her obvious link to Gillray lies in her interest in combining drawing with extensive text, just like he did in his prints.
In association with the show, a panel will be presented at CVA on March 2 at 6 p.m., moderated by Gilbert, and including three Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists, Jim Borgman, Mike Keefe and Signe Wilkinson. On March 16, Sokolow will discuss her work and career at 5 p.m.
Under the Guillotine runs through March 19 at the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art Center at 965 Santa Fe Drive. Call 303-296-5207 or go to msudenver.edu/cva for more information.