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Heil to the Chief

Curators at the Arizona State University Art Museum are planning an exhibition of contemporary art titled "Democracy in America," just in time for the presidential election this fall. And, not coincidentally, just in time for the third and final presidential debate, scheduled to take place just hundreds of feet away,...
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Curators at the Arizona State University Art Museum are planning an exhibition of contemporary art titled "Democracy in America," just in time for the presidential election this fall. And, not coincidentally, just in time for the third and final presidential debate, scheduled to take place just hundreds of feet away, at Gammage Auditorium on October 13.

While the show is still being pieced together, thus far just one work in "Democracy in America" satirically lampoons John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Most of the exhibition's more highly charged pieces focus on President George W. Bush. There's a cartoon of Bush as a "poor little oligarch" in a satire of Richie Rich, standing on mounds of cash via Big Oil and the war in Iraq. A painting portrays our fearless leader as King George being coronated by the U.S. Supreme Court. And there's a sculpture of 98 papier-mch pulp United States senators, standing at attention in rows of infantry, saluting the passage of the Patriot Act with a robotic Sieg Heil!

You get the picture. The show's organizers are still trying to get more work about Kerry, they say, but there aren't so many neo-conservative contemporary artists out there.

In any case, "Democracy in America" promises to be an impressive and flat-out ballsy collection of paintings, prints, mixed-media works, ceramics, photos and documentary film

That is, if anyone gets to see it.

The show should have a wide audience. Perhaps the whole world. While Kerry and Bush might find it hard to make time to scurry over to the museum to sneak a peek at the exhibition, the museum curators can be sure that -- with the presidency on the line and the media spotlight shining on Tempe -- visiting dignitaries, high-ranking Republicans and Democrats, as well as an international press corps, will put the ASU Art Museum on their "must-see" lists.

Maybe that's why ASU administration officials are refusing to grant interviews with President Michael Crow and even threatening that there may be no show at all. University spokeswoman Nancy Neff says, "There is no 'exhibit' at this stage of the process." Stacey Shaw, the Herberger College of Fine Arts director of communications, echoes the sentiment.

"We clearly understand our responsibility as a state-funded institution to have an exhibition to reflect balance and a variety of differing points of view," Shaw says. If the show isn't balanced, she adds, "Democracy in America" will not happen.

But it doesn't appear as though "Democracy in America" was ever intended to be balanced -- at least, not according to a fact sheet museum curator John Spiak provided New Times in mid-June. At the time, Spiak also offered up a list of participating artists. New Times was able to reach 10 of the 26 artists, none of whom indicate that they were told the show was to be balanced, either. Unlike some ASU Art Museum officials, including Spiak, who stopped returning calls several days ago, many of the artists contacted provided details of the soliciting process, the work they've submitted to the museum's curators, and electronic versions of those pieces, and who frankly acknowledged their disdain for Bush, his policies, and the war in Iraq.

And their concern over what might happen next.

"If you publish your story now," says Houston artist Lynn Randolph, whose work is slated to appear in the exhibition, "I'm afraid [ASU] will shut it down before the art is even hung."

On a warm June Monday, John Spiak graciously emerges from his office in the cool concrete museum to quickly paint a picture of the exhibition he's been planning for several months.

"So, the exhibit will run in this space right here," says Spiak, tall, slim and bespectacled, motioning toward the museum's vast and southernmost gallery. Along with the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, senior curator Heather Lineberry, and the museum's ceramics curator, Peter Held, Spiak is preparing for "Democracy in America" to open August 31, as part of a "Welcome Back Students Party." They've set a date for the formal public reception -- October 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. They also have the closing date established -- November 19, a little more than two weeks after the presidential election.

"And over here," Spiak says, pointing to the foyer outside the gallery, "will be the 'Kids Voting' booth to educate kids about voting. That's really what the whole exhibit is about -- making people aware of the political process and trying to get them involved in that process."

In further detail, the release Spiak forwarded to New Times (which now has been deemed "unofficial" by ASU personnel) states that "Democracy in America" includes artists -- both regional and nationally known -- who will "explore what are current images of the United States and of democracy."

"'This is not the America I know,'" the "unofficial" release begins. "That was George W. Bush's response to the initial revelation of the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"To encourage discussion," the release continues, "raise awareness of the upcoming presidential election, illuminate some of the underlying issues, and educate visitors about the electoral process, the curators of the ASU Art Museum have curated an exhibition of work by contemporary artists. . . . Taking a broad approach to the subject, the exhibition will present a variety of media."

The release also mentions more traditional work to be exhibited, including "William Hogarth's election series; works by Henri Daumier; campaign buttons from throughout the century; and folk art commemorating traditional icons and values. Other twentieth-century works will include Roy Lichtenstein's 'Oval Office'; Julian Schnabel's 'Vote'; [and] Nancy Spero's 'Choice.'"

At the end of the release is a list of artists participating in "Democracy in America," including Lynn Randolph.

Randolph fancies herself a bit of a prophet. (Others might use the word "doomsayer.") And, to Randolph at least, the Bush clan -- the one that claims U.S. presidents Nos. 41 and 43 -- represents certain Armageddon, in social, intellectual and planetary terms.

Randolph's latest oil painting, titled The Coronation of St. George, is overtly critical -- as opposed to the often scratch-your-head subtlety of contemporary art -- of the result of the 2000 election, the U.S. Supreme Court, and George W. Bush himself.

The five justices who overturned Florida's manual recount of ballots are seen on canvas literally crowning Bush commander in chief, as demons hover and an upside-down American flag waves, signaling the union in distress.

"It's medieval, but I think we're in medieval times," says Randolph in a slow and soothing Texas drawl. "This administration is anti-progressive. And Bush is staging a medieval war between my god and your god."

Randolph's piece is just one in an exhibition of more than two dozen works of art that are sure to stir the political pot, including:

• Three prints collectively titled "Be the Revolution," by L.A. artists Robbie Conal, Mear One and Shepard Fairey. Conal's rather unflattering representation of the current President Bush -- skin wrinkled fatter than a prune in the searing sun -- sets an ashen profile of Dubya in front of a mushroom cloud, with the clever and ironic play on words "Read My Apocalips" at the top of the illustration.

• Graffiti artist Mear One's Let's Play Armageddon, again with a nuclear explosion in the background, but portraying Bush as a hysterical maniac who turns the Bill of Rights into a paper airplane and gives his thumbs-up to mass genocide.

• Fairey's piece, titled Hug Bombs, which presents Bush -- in the style of Soviet propaganda -- cradling a bomb and questioning himself, ". . . Or was it hug babies and drop bombs?"

• A small army of papier-mch pulp figures by Jon Haddock, titled 98-107, standing at attention. ("98-107" refers to the 98 senators of the 107th Congress who voted for the Patriot Act.) The legislators are raising their right arms in a vote of confidence -- or are they sieg heil-ing? "The reference is pretty obvious," Haddock tells New Times.

• Three pieces by Peter Kuper, including Richie Bush, a satire of the 1960s comic book and 1980s Saturday morning cartoon Richie Rich, which has Bush playing the part of Richie gripping two wads of cash dripping with . . . oil? "Whew, it's only blood," little Georgie, er, Richie, says.

• University of Arizona art professor Alfred Quiroz's Bushwhacked, a sepia-tone and grayscale painting of Bush from the chest up surrounded by an assortment of images representing Dubya-era crises -- such as the Twin Towers, corporate fraud and Big Oil -- inside a wooden TV-like box.

• New York political humorist Larry Litt's film Before You Don't Vote . . . Advice to the Angry, Apathetic and Alienated.

As well as other works critical of the war in Iraq, conservative media (i.e., Fox News) and the religious right -- and, not to forget that solitary piece about John Kerry, Jim Budde's Kerry in Idaho, a ceramic teapot in the shape of the state famous for spuds with a bottle of Heinz ketchup serving as the spout.

"I guess it could be construed as being critical of Kerry's wealthy background," Budde says, disputing John Spiak's initial claim that the piece was a polar opposite -- ideologically -- to the pieces critical of Bush. "You should see some of my Bush stuff. It can be downright nasty! But I don't think people should have a problem with that. I think you should have critical work about whatever issues the artist wants to focus on."

One of the many points ASU spokeswoman Nancy Neff raises when trying to explain that "Democracy in America" isn't really a show is that there hasn't been a curatorial process. Museum director Marilyn Zeitlin concurs, sort of, saying, "The show is a long way from being finished. It hasn't really been curated yet," because some members of the museum staff -- including Zeitlin herself -- have been on vacation. But many of the artists were asked to submit work beginning four months ago.

Lynn Randolph says she was asked personally by Marilyn Zeitlin to create a new work for the exhibition. She obliged with The Coronation of St. George. Alfred Quiroz says he was asked by Zeitlin as far back as February to submit something specifically about Bush. And he did, with Bushwhacked. Others, including local artists Colin Chillag, Jon Haddock and Heidi Hesse, as well as Peter Kuper, Michael Ray Charles, Jim Budde and Larry Litt, all say that this exhibition has been set for several months and that they were each solicited by the curators personally.

Litt says he was surprised, but grateful, when he learned the ASU Art Museum was putting on the show.

"It's brave. We try to get shows at university galleries, and there has been some resistance to it," Litt says. "No one wants a student to go home and tell a parent that there were negative images about the administration or the war at the school's gallery or museum, and then have the parents question the university by asking, 'What are you doing with my money?'

"My feeling is that it's a college gallery," he adds. "They're doing something guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."

Peter Kuper, whose work has graced several covers of Time magazine and the pages of the New York Times, agrees.

"I stand shoulder to shoulder with any institution that stands up like this," Kuper says from New York. "I think that [the show] is brilliant and the university is very courageous. I'm anxious for the art to have some use socially, and I think that this is a prime example of that possibility."

Or, rather, impossibility, now that ASU officials are saying that the show must be balanced in order to run. According to all 10 of the artists who spoke to New Times, it isn't exactly an easy task to find contemporary art in praise of Dubya.

"I think it would be a delight to have anti-Kerry, pro-Bush art in the show along with whatever else is being exhibited," writes L.A. artist Robbie Conal in an e-mail to New Times. "The more the merrier. The curators might have a difficult time finding some, however, because to do this shiznit, you have to be a desperate, disenfranchised, angry artist willing to run around in the middle of the night in some of the most dangerous urban areas in the universe spattering yourself with glue and risking arrest.

"Why would beneficiaries of global capitalism . . . even bother?"

Zeitlin disagrees with Conal. She insists the alternative voices are out there and says she's on the hunt for them personally. She's been looking for pro-Bush or anti-Kerry art in New York and Chicago (although she admits that she's yet to find any). Other ASU curators, she says, are still searching as well.

"I think it's absolutely possible [to find a balance of work]," Zeitlin says. "It's not going to be easy, but it's our job.

"Regardless of our political ideologies, it would be too easy in a way to do a Bush-bashing show. That would be like shooting fish in a barrel," says Zeitlin, who, when reached by New Times, was on her way to see Fahrenheit 9/11.

In any event, "Democracy in America" could be over before it's begun, according to ASU spokeswoman Nancy Neff, who sent New Times this message via e-mail on June 24:

"There is no 'exhibit' at this stage of the process," the message begins. "Some ASU curators have simply invited artists to submit possibilities at this point. . . . There is a long way to go and no one is even sure having an exhibit to coincide with the debate is possible, since it generally takes at least a year, and sometimes as much as two years, to curate a professional exhibit. There are a number of community, academic, and/or cultural programs/events that are being discussed in connection with the debate, but nothing is even close to being finalized. Everything we do will be done in a thoughtful, professional and educational manner, and nothing will be finalized until going through a full approval process."

According to Zeitlin, approval will come via addition, not subtraction. "We won't pull any of the pieces we have already," she says. "We'll work to add balance."

Spiak originally told New Times that he sent both Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano and his Presidential Debate Steering Committee co-chair Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU's executive director of public events, information similar to the release he sent New Times weeks ago, providing the basics of the show and a list of the artists involved. Yet even though the show is in print (albeit "unofficial" by ASU's standards), the gallery has been selected, the artists have been solicited, and much of the artwork has been received, College of Fine Arts spokeswoman Denise Tanguay also says the show "is in flux."

"What you have is an unofficial release," Tanguay tells New Times. "More artists might be added, other things could change."

Stacey Shaw adds that while the show is all but up, no contracts have been signed by artists, and that Bob Wills, the dean of the Herberger College of Fine Arts, has yet to approve it.

After seeing a preview of some of the art in the exhibition, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack -- who's been busy with the committee planning security and parking issues mostly -- says a bipartisan effort is a must.

"I'd like to sit down with John [Spiak] and have him show me the entire exhibit," she says. "I would hope that [the exhibit] would explore the breadth of democracy -- not just one small corner."

For at least one of the show's artists, though, it's not the imbalance of the work that's bothersome, but rather the blatant messages in "Democracy in America." Although Phoenix artist Colin Chillag, who submitted his painting New Babel (which uses the biblical Tower of Babel as a metaphor for a "sinful society" -- an image of the work was not available), admits that he leans on the left side of the fence and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, he says that as he learns more about the pieces in "Democracy in America," he's beginning to get a little peeved.

"In a way, it offends me. It's a selective use of facts," Chillag says, once told about many of the other works in the exhibition. "It's just like Rush Limbaugh making some statement on his radio show. It's a big bold fucking statement and there's no way of challenging it.

"I feel like the show's overt Bush-bashing is going to compromise my work."

So does that mean he might pull out of the exhibition altogether? (That is, if there is one.)

"Probably not," he admits. "I know it's gonna be to the left, and that could be good. It's state-funded and that's an obvious conflict. But it's a gutsy show, and I have admiration for that. But is it fair? Maybe not."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-744-6557.

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