Political artwork at Edge tilts to the left

There has never been an election cycle during which Colorado has been as much in the spotlight as it has this time around. It's been so exciting. Not only was Denver the site of the Democratic National Convention — when Barack Obama addressed the world from a photogenic neo-mod ern stadium that was filled with tens of thousands of cheering people — but Colorado is also one of those super-glam battleground states.

Though Denver has been a reliably Democratic town for many years, the rest of the state tends toward the Republican. Still, it's not that hard to imagine the Centennial State going for Obama. Of course, if you live in the world of modern and contemporary art, as I do, you might think Obama was going to take more than 90 percent of the vote, because just about everyone — from the artists and curators to the gallery owners and even the rich collectors — is left-leaning, politically. This makes sense, because social conservatives have declared war on the public funding of artwork. But also, people who are interested in progressive aesthetic strains — abstracts, non-narrative DVDs and the like — could also be expected to embrace progressive political strains.

In light of this, it's interesting that there is so little in the way of political art around town, especially of the agitation/propaganda type. The exception is a quartet of solos at Edge Gallery that take on politics in pointed and unequivocal ways. This isn't surprising, as Edge is the most politically involved co-op in town, and three of the four featured artists have created political work and exhibited it there many times before.

The first of these is Edge co-founder Russell Bay McKlayer, whose recent paintings are displayed in I never said that I was brave, in the gallery's front space. The paintings have a pop-art character with a whiff of neo-expressionism. McKlayer has written that he heavily works his surfaces, scraping away the paint in places and then retouching them with graphite or charcoal so that each piece reveals its own history.

McKlayer doesn't refer to the impending election directly, but rather broadly, as in "A moral hazard," a small study depicting a flattened conventionalized elephant, the Republican logo. Nearby is "Welcome brother," which sports another appropriated image, Mickey Mouse. The theme here is American imperialism, and the chirpy Mickey (here called "El Rey") is wearing striped shorts and a policeman's hat and brandishing a machine gun. At the top is the motto "Policeing the World," which has been misspelled on purpose; below Mickey, written graffiti-style, is the continuation of that sentiment: "Be nice to America, or we'll bring you democracy." "Welcome brother" is a study for "Welcome Hermanos," a larger rendition of the same concepts and imagery. But whereas the preparatory piece comments on the Arab world (there's some Arabic writing on it), the full-blown piece comes back to the Americas. These paintings are interesting and successfully convey their political messages.

Proceeding to the middle space, we find Susan Goldstein's Hijacked, made up of a small selection of pieces — a surprise, since Goldstein is ordinarily so prolific. The main attraction is "An American Quilt," an installation comprising a bed made with a quilted cover in an all-over pattern of coat hangers; on the floor are shards of shattered glass.

Goldstein said she knew more than a year ago that she wanted to do a show about reproductive freedom right before the election, in light of the anticipated vacancies on the Supreme Court. If he is elected, John McCain could be expected to appoint judges who would want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and that worries Goldstein. The wire hangers in her piece refer to the instrument used in the bad old days before abortion was legal. Goldstein made the quilt by scanning a coat hanger and then building the pattern using Photoshop. To complete the process, she had the pattern printed onto cotton fabric; quilters Jane Dumier and Deborah Geissler did the needlework.

The inclusion of the shattered glass came to her more recently and was motivated by the ascension of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate; Palin has appropriated Hillary Clinton's reference to cracks in the glass ceiling for women in politics. Explaining why she didn't include any images of the governor, Goldstein says, "I didn't want it to be about Palin, but about her far-right agenda. I was so furious when Saturday Night Live had her on that I had to turn it off."

In addition to the bed, Goldstein has covered one wall with small framed pieces, some with tiny wire hangers and others with chunks of broken glass. On the other wall, she included some of her signature collaged images, including the title piece, "Hijacked," which shows an elephant climbing over the Capitol Building while holding a cross with its trunk. The meaning is obvious: The Republicans have used fundamentalist Christianity to take over the government.

At the other end of the middle space is Enough, featuring works by Gayla Lemke. The show is dominated by "The Great Divide," an enormous installation. Lemke began "The Great Divide" by laying in a circle of concrete rubble. In the center is a huge ceramic column. The surface of the column has been detailed with evocations of different materials. At the bottom is a pattern that looks like stone; above that is brick and then vertical grooves rising to the capital at the top with a copper dome (made by Lemke's partner, Tim Flynn) and a found finial capping the whole thing. The column, made in several separate pieces, was stained with black before it was fired to pick out the carvings on the surface. Lemke executed the piece at Peter Durst's studio because it was too big for her own kiln. Surrounding the column in lines that radiate out from the base of it are conventionalized renditions of houses cast from concrete. Some of the concrete houses are pristine, but others are starting to crumble.

Lemke says the piece is about the difference between the richest 1 percent of the U.S. population, symbolized by the copper dome at the top of the tall spire, with the little houses at the bottom standing in for the rest of us. Unlike the other artists, Lemke is up front about her support for Obama, and the show's title, Enough, is taken from the senator's acceptance speech at Invesco Field at Mile High. Then there are "Hope Stones," small ceramic stones adorned with Obama quotes; "Life of the Party," which includes ceramics bottles of Obama brand champagne; and "Transition," which brings together quotes by Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Obama incised into large ceramic stones.

The last of the four shows at Edge, Picture Peace, is in the back room and is made up of a group of square panels by Virginia Unseld. What Unseld has done is to combine painted backgrounds with found objects and quotes about peace. The title work has a brushy white ground with the title also done in white. In the bottom center is a small cut-out chamber in which Unseld has placed a sand dollar. Rather than point fingers, Unseld's pieces simply express hope for peace.

Speaking of hope, that's what this election is partly about; the hope for change, the hope that we'll throw out the bums and find a better future. The artists at Edge are doing their part to pull off this lofty goal; on Tuesday, it will be up to the rest of us.

I never said that I was brave; Hijacked; Enough; Picture Peace

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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