‘Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics’ at PAFA

Back to the future in politics and art

Political conventions got you down? Take a friend and your political angst to the best show in town, Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). No matter your political or other orientations, this exhibition drives home an important point: Our outrageous political landscape is nothing new. It’s happened before and artists have recorded it.

Linda Chunn's "Land of the Stupid." Oy vey, indeed. (Photo courtesy of PAFA)

There is a question mark in the exhibition’s title for good reason. How does art created 10, 20, or even 50 years ago speak so loudly to issues that dominate today’s headlines?

While this exhibition was intended to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, it serves a much higher purpose. The artists on display are diverse and speaking truth to power.

Beyond Red Grooms

Although the main exhibition space is dominated by Red Grooms’ farcical “Philadelphia Cornucopia,” featuring Macy’s parade-sized images of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, other works have much stronger resonance.

I stood transfixed in front of English artist Sue Coe’s “Thank You America,” a black and white graphite and gouache painting of Anita Hill being interrogated during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Created 25 years ago, Hill’s vulnerability and indignation speak louder now than ever, as the future of the Supreme Court remains a top issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

The most prophetic works are those that draw comparison between the past and the present. You think America is polarized now? This exhibition illustrates that all of our current political dramas are merely recycled. Take Herbert Johnson’s WWII-era anti-immigration cartoon urging Congress to “Make This Flood Control Permanent.” It depicts a gigantic wall to keep out a rising tide of “alien undesirables.” Those undesirables were my ancestors, Holocaust refugees. Today, they are Mexicans and Muslims.

Fear and loathing

Another standout is Nancy Chunn’s “Land of the Stupid,” a candy-colored, acrylic on canvas painting of what appears to be our present political crisis (though it was created in 2001). She gives us a sea of pink elephants, suited Wall Street sharks carrying briefcases and the Supreme Court silhouetted in black, looming menacingly over the painting. Atop her figurative images, Chunn places glaring stop signs, the TV Guide logo, and exclamations such as “Yuck” and “This stinks.” Who hasn’t shouted those epithets at their television screen in the past week?

Perhaps the most provocative piece is Katherine Wirick’s “No One is Safe.” The title alone captures our current national mood. In over 150 comic-book-sized storyboards in ink wash on watercolor paper and charcoal, Wirick examines the Kent State massacre. The fact that the artist was a child when the event occurred only serves to make her work more compelling. It reads like an investigative report. What happened? Why? To whom? Can it happen again?

Overall, the exhibition’s curators did an impressive job of representing a wide range of artists, issues, and eras. And, yes, there are not only famous portraits of George Washington, but a cunning photo op that allows visitors to stick their heads through an image of our Founding Fathers for Facebook and Snapchat fans.

A few of the exhibition’s pieces, including Elaine de Kooning’s “Portrait of JFK,” are to be found in PAFA’s main building. Plus, don’t miss the companion exhibition by PAFA students on the Hamilton Building’s lower level. The most moving is “Ground Hero,” a painting in oil on canvas by MFA candidate Mari Elaine Lamp depicting an eerie unmarked grave. Her brush strokes go from photographic precision to dreamy softness. If you’re a collector, grab it now before Lamp is discovered by New York galleries and museums.

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