Cover Story - Friday, November 16, 2007
Open to debate
Bold exhibit on war, politics gets people talking
by Rebecca Wallace
It's not what you expect at your quiet neighborhood art gallery.
Glass pumpkins no longer line the Forest Avenue windows at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto. Instead, passers-by see bold images on canvas inside: George W. Bush holding a gun dripping with red; a dove with a dead X for an eye; the American flag made with Stars of David; crosses hovering in red and white.
The images are part of two mixed-media works by San Jose artist Karen Gutfreund, titled "Mission Accomplished" and "We Believe." Behind them, the rest of November's exhibit fills the ground-floor gallery, with photomontages, sculptures, paintings and other works exploring such firebrand topics as war, race, religion and gender issues.
Art League Executive Director Stephanie Demos says she's thrilled with the way the exhibit transforms the room.
"I hear again and again (from visitors) that we look like a gallery now -- like a New York gallery," she said.
In contrast to past exhibits, which have had such themes as "Fun and Fantasy" and "Delicious, Divine, Decadent Still Life," the current show has been notably controversial among visitors since its Nov. 2 opening, Demos said. Gutfreund's work has been criticized on two fronts. Some say it is anti-Semitic, while others say it blames Christians for the Iraq War. But it has also been praised for depicting commonalities among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For her part, Gutfreund said: "I'm excited that my work is causing such a stir. Makes people think and feel."
In an artist's statement, Gutfreund said her works are intended to explore "the juxtaposition of the Mid-Eastern philosophy 'There is No God But God' versus the Judeo-Christian 'We Believe in One God.'"
She added, "Both of these mantras are so very similar, yet we are in another holy war, trying to prove whose God is God."
The work "Mission Accomplished" also makes a strong statement about war, with its images of Bush and the dove. "The burning crosses give the message 'Thou Shall Not Kill' while President Bush ignores the message and destroys peace," Gutfreund wrote.
In "We Believe," the American flag with the Stars of David "symbolizes the solidarity of the USA with Israel, almost as if Israel was an additional state in the US," Gutfreund wrote. Shadowy figures hover above, looking like people in Ku Klux Klan robes, and beneath these painted symbols are pages from a 1906 Bible study book.
This is definitely art that can spark reflection and debate -- just what you'd expect from an exhibit called "Opposite City Hall: Art and Politics in Silicon Valley."
"We had a desire to do something different," Gerald Brett said. A former member of Palo Alto's Public Arts Commission, he co-curated the exhibit with current commissioner Paula Kirkeby.
Kirkeby is director of the Palo Alto fine arts press and gallery Smith Andersen Editions. Brett, director of the Language Pacifica school in Menlo Park, is also CEO of Site Creations, a Menlo Park nonprofit working with governments and companies to produce public art.
Why a political exhibit at the Pacific Art League? Partly because the art league is across the street from the Civic Center, literally "opposite City Hall." Also, both co-curators are drawn to art that is contemporary and "cutting-edge," Brett said.
When assembling artists for the exhibit, Brett first talked to San Francisco artist Erik Bakke, who had done a series on the execution of Saddam Hussein. Those works were promised to the University Gallery at UMass Lowell, so instead Bakke is locally showing paintings of people who were somehow involved with the federal government following the Sept.11 attacks. His plan is to cover the six years following the events, ultimately creating one panel for each month.
The first three wooden panels are in the art league show. Each is a composite of faces painted in acrylic on the radial lines of a compass. There's one face for each day, starting with presidential counselor Karen Hughes, who gave the first press conference after the attacks. Bakke chose people who were visible on these days, who popped up on Google or in the New York Times.
The result is a motley crew: Bush, Arafat, Putin (who looks like a Russian icon), Kenneth Lay, Vicente Fox and many others. The portraits are clustered at various distances from one another, inviting visitors to speculate about relationships and motives.
But Bakke says he was simply "playing with patterning" when arranging the faces. Visitors are left to speculate about the huge and confusing mass of people who make up the world's power structure. We are told who is important when; it's up to us to decide why.
Of course, the composites could be fuel for conspiracy theorists. Standing next to his works at the exhibit opening, Bakke grins at the prospect. "I hope so. If anyone bothered, I would be thrilled."
As if on cue, a visitor nearby squints closely at one of the panels. "McCain looks like Cheney," he muses. "That's interesting."
Nearby, "Travel Posters," an acrylic painting by Joe Santandrea, also draws eyes. Its slogans shout "COME TO IRAQ" and "STAY FOR THE CIVIL WAR."
Some visitors have said the exhibit is mostly left-wing, and one remarked that "this isn't a place for moderate Republicans," according to Stephanie Demos. But Demos said the league had put out a call for works representing all views and didn't receive anything that seemed right-leaning.
Several local artists are in the show, including Palo Alto resident Kathryn Dunlevie, whose photomontage "Beyond Manhattan" mingles high-rise buildings and traffic with splintered images of plants, water, flags.
"It's apocalyptic," Brett says at the opening. "To me, she does things that are unintentionally political, and often that's the most powerful."
Brett also points out "Soldiers in Trench I" and "Soldiers in Trench II," acrylic paintings by Palo Alto resident Lucy Traeger. The gloomy images of soldiers in gas masks, huddling in gashes in the ground, recall World War I.
But he says the paintings can also represent the tragic timelessness of combat. "I think young people might think it's of Iraq."
In a corner by the window facing Ramona Street, artist Ally Richter has drawn a small crowd around her 80-pound, 14-foot-tall mobile structure hanging from the ceiling. "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" combines dangling panels of wood painted with beeswax, pigments and resin.
Richter calls the work more pro-peace than anti-war, pointing out a photo of Buddhist monks. The piece is crowned by waxen images of the Stars and Stripes, and also includes photos of a Sudanese child with a gun, and a wounded Iraqi girl.
This is Richter's first three-dimensional work -- she typically makes flat encaustic paintings with wax -- and, she says, "I was painting day and night" to prepare for the exhibit.
She's also left space for other contributions. At the bottom of the mobile are bulletin-board panels with pushpins, inviting viewers to add their thoughts on war and peace.
"Someone said they didn't see enough conservative in here (the exhibit)," Richter says with a smile. She taps the board. "There's room."
What: "Opposite City Hall: Art and Politics in Silicon Valley," an exhibit by 17 artists in various media
Where: Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto
When: Through Nov. 28. Exhibit hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: Go to www.pacificartleague.org or call 650-321-3891.