Entering the exhibition, you immediately stepped gingerly along a short footpath, past stones that suggested rubble and past a tiny, disfigured doll — "American Victory Garden, Baghdad" — and at once knew this was something decidedly different for Cincinnati.
From the banner outside, an American flag draped across the eyes of President Bush, to the silkscreen and mixed media inside — coupling an image of American POWs returning from Vietnam in 1973 with the image of the bombing that sent Vietnamese children, one naked, fleeing down a road — this was an exhibition with something to say, a uniformly political message.
The S.O.S. Art show last weekend at SSNOVA was apparently the first of its kind here. Fifty-eight local artists presented, in variety of media, their reaction to local, national and international political events and upheavals.
"This is more of an experiment,'' Eric Triantafillou explained as the exhibition was being assembled. "Nothing like this has ever happened before, at least that we know of. So we didn't have any goals or expectations in terms of what we wanted this to do for the city or the arts community. We just thought, 'Let's give it a shot and see what happens. If it's well received, let's do it again and build on it.' It's a venue for a socio-political voice.''
That it was.
With more than 150 works, the political themes touched on everything from peace and justice to the deaths of black males in the city at the hands of police to the war in Iraq, much of the work displayed on stone walls thick with white paint.
The range of expression ran from the gentle, such as Mary Ann Lederer's painting, "Holding Hands for Peace," to the in-your-face poignant, such as Csilla Kosa's "Are the Children All in Bed?" The latter, an installation piece, featured the raised graves of three children. Assembled at the foot of mounds of dirt were pairs of tiny shoes.
Phyllis Burgess of Middletown viewed the controversial work "Justice," an illustration showing a mound of human skulls beneath a Cincinnati Police badge. The artist, Steve Fox, is her nephew.
"I've seen him grow,'' Burgess said. "He feels these issues.''
Triantafillou created the installation "Patriotism, a Menace to Liberty." The piece consists of two squares of sod on opposite sides of the room mounted with yard signs. One says, "Peace is Patriotic.'' The other sign says, "Proud To Be an American.'' What was the impetus?
"Driving down the streets of Cincinnati when the war was going on and seeing these two different, opposing voices or values and representing them through the same iconography, which is the U.S. flag and this notion of patriotism,'' Triantafillou said. "So it's sort of competing patriotism, if you will: 'Hey, I'm the real patriot! No, I'm the real patriot!' I think this thing of patriotism is what gets us into a lot of these problems. I wanted to pose that dichotomy for people.''
Joe Stoner's work, "The Unconcerned," has chickens unsuspectingly foraging about a bloody tree stump, where others of their species have been beheaded. Douglas Paul Smith's "Pieta Americana," mixed media, shows the "Pieta" with warplanes overhead. Another shows warplanes over Over-the-Rhine, where Timothy Thomas was shot and killed in April 2001.
"I'm pleased with seeing all of the artists coming together,'' said Dr. Saad Ghosn, a local artist and pathologist who organized the exhibition with Triantafillou. "It's not only about aesthetic art, but it's about where we're living, where we're going and what are the issues we're facing every day. We wanted to find a venue for artists who live in Cincinnati to use their skills and their talents to reflect on what is going on. We're trying to raise awareness and not just preaching to the choir.''
Thomas Deri of Wyoming visited the show June 7, and he is hardly part of the choir.
"I like a lot of the art, but for me some of it is too biased,'' he said. "I guess I'm not radical enough. But there's room for this. I think that's what's great about this country.''
His daughter, Ellie Deri-Sproul, who is 12 and lives in Pittsburgh, was more sympathetic with the message.
"I thought it was sad, especially the kids dying,'' she said. "I thought it was very bad to have the war.''
Another father, Roger Owensby Sr., whose unarmed son was killed in November 2000 by Cincinnati Police officers, narrated the video Blue Wall of Silence by local artist Patrick Mills.
"It was very hard for me to do this,'' Owensby said. "But I thought it was necessary. Who better to do this than the father who raised him and loved him?'' ©