Art: Hitting the Low Notes

The University Galleries on Sycamore's SOS Art needs to narrow its net

Aug 16, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jared M. Holder

Stephen Geddes' "Cylinder Head"

Art and politics is by now a straightforward dyad. Many artists, and most all those deemed "important" by critics, use their work to dialogue with their culture — fair or unfair, beautiful or ugly. As such, to gather politically-charged work into one room under a model so general makes the exhibition seem one-dimensional and conceptually simplistic.

Unfortunately, this stratagem is precisely what the University Galleries on Sycamore has been using for its exhibition, SOS Art, "an annual art event of sociopolitical expression for peace and justice."

This year, SOS Art is a retrospective of the past three annual events. Collected together, the work is all flatly political, with little humor, little more than generalized attacks on one thing or another.

Let's not over-react. I agree that socially conscious art is essential to art itself. But to shelve it and narrow it down, to turn "political art" into a genre is almost as naive as calling something "pink" or "yellow." In other words, as we all live in a world that includes other people, we are all subjected to that world and its people.

None of us is without culture. All art deals with that fact in one way or another.

Nonetheless, some excellent work is included in the SOS retrospective: Stephen Geddes' sculpture, "Cylinder Head" (2005), transforms the high art staple of a bust (think Roman senators) into a machine of destruction — a gun. Geddes says that his work shows "the least imaginative form of self-esteem": trigger-happy violence.

Mark Patsfall's "A Close Shave for Osama" (2004), a mixed-media assemblage that includes very ordinary items — a razor, a toothbrush, and a bathroom mirror — along with a perfectly sketchy image of Osama bin Laden on the mirror and a hand-towel covered in blood. As viewers, Patsfall puts us in bin Laden's place. He implicates us, while also focusing on the banalities of a life lived — any life lived.

Rhonda Gushee's crackle-glazed baby, "Baffle," is not an obvious work. The sculpture is mixed media, a child with a blank face, an amputated leg, scratches and sutures. And yet it still looks like any doll in our epic American toy stores.

Geddes, Patsfall and Gushee aren't the only standouts in the exhibition. Daniel Higley, Paul Mitchell, Sandra Small and Andrew Au all work with the dedication and focus of great artists. Perhaps it's necessary to note that each of the works to which I found myself relating were multimedia. Each included a place for the viewer — I knew my role, whether as conspirator, as victim or as spectator.

So while the art is, on the whole, not bad, the curatorial concept needs some work. Next year, perhaps the gallery could narrow its net, or simply ask artists the question, "What is political?" Grade: B

SOS ART continues at University Galleries on Sycamore through Sept. 8.