War & Empire Opening in San Francisco

The Meridian Gallery

[ The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

All three floors of the beautiful turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building that houses the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California, were packed full of people during the September 4th, 2008, opening reception of the Meridian’s War & Empire exhibition. As the show runs until election night on November 4th, consider this pithy article to be merely the briefest of updates on what has truly turned out to be a landmark show.

War & Empire poster

[ War & Empire - Official poster for the Meridian exhibit. Designed by artist Juan Fuentes and based upon his original linoleum cut. ]

I drove up to the San Francisco Bay area from Los Angeles to attend the exhibit as a participating artist and also to assist the gallery in producing a short video documentary on the show - which should be available on my web log sometime by mid-October. As part of the video project I talked to a number of the exhibit’s other participating artists, including the co-curators of the show, Anne Trueblood Brodzky, Art Hazelwood and DeWitt Cheng, who eloquently spoke of the exhibit’s history and purpose.

Paintings by Fernando Botero

[ Abu Ghraib # 54 - Fernando Botero, 2005. Oil on canvas. 12" x 14". Collection of American University Museum, Washington, DC. "A refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

I also conducted interviews with the Director and Curator of the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., Jack Rasmussen - as well as with the respected art historian, author, and former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Peter Selz. Both of these gentlemen offered tremendous insights on the subject of contemporary political art. In the weeks to come I will also be writing a review of the War & Empire exhibit to be published on the Foreign Policy In Focus website. That illustrated article will present an overview of the Meridian’s exhibit, as well as interviews with participating artists Sandow Birk, Guy Colwell, Art Hazelwood, and Juan Fuentes.

Painting by Guy Colwell

[ Abuse - Guy Colwell. Acrylic on canvas. 2004. Colwell’s controversial painting depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers while held in Abu Ghraib prison. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

For those who thirst for press reviews of the exhibition, here is a short blurb from ArtBusiness.com, a website that covers exhibit openings in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Reviewer Alan Bamberger wrote that the War & Empire show: “(…) cries out in opposition to the catastrophic domestic disasters of recent years including war, reduced personal freedoms, the concentration of wealth among the few at the expense of the many, environmental degradation, and more. Three floors of overwhelmingly well-placed outrage exemplify freedom of speech at its finest - take advantage of it while we still have it.” Of course Bamberger is correct, but even his exclamatory remarks fail to convey the depth and breadth of this extraordinary exhibition.

Artwork by Rigo

[ Helicopter - RIGO. 2002. Push pins on wood. 45" x 45" Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. The portrait depicts Geronimo (Goyathlay - or "one who yawns"), the famed Chiricahua Apache leader who led his people in fierce armed resistance against white settlement of Apache land in Arizona and New Mexico. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

In War & Empire, one is treated to the humorous and Zen-like figurative minimalism of maverick William T. Wiley, the ominous metal and glass sculptures of Bella Feldman; which seem like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race, and the raw and inflamed Abu Ghraib canvases of Fernando Botero; which up close possess a refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix. There are many handmade prints in the show, running the gambit from Fernando Marti’s marvelous color etching, Poppies; a meditation on the linkage between the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan on the proliferation of heroin-producing poppy fields in that country - to Art Hazelwood’s devastating Fallujah, an expressionist-like woodcut that depicts massacred civilians beneath the rubble of that unfortunate war-ruined city in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

Sculpture by Bella Feldman

[ War Toys - Bella Feldman. 2003 - Present. Installation with metal and glass sculptures. "Like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race." Repeated text is incorporated into the installation, reading; "Weapons of Mass Destruction, Daisy Cutter, Water Boarding, Embedded, Neutralize, Enduring Freedom, Surgical Strike, Carpet Bombing." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

What makes the War & Empire exhibit singularly astonishing is that it so easily encompasses a diversity of aesthetic styles from artists who would ordinarily not be exhibiting together; from those whose works embody the rarified high concepts of the “fine art” world, to those “street artists” and illustrators whose works are primarily aimed at a mass audience. The exhibition unflinchingly incorporates installation, sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography to great effect, with the entire endeavor being of the highest quality and held together by a grand thematic vision - the yearning for a better world and revulsion for the way that things are. That dissimilar artists of all ages who have disparate cultural and ethnic backgrounds, working in a multiplicity of techniques and approaches, can so successfully make a collective statement regarding current political realities, indicates a new and vibrant social engagement in American art.

War & Empire opened on September 4, 2008, and runs until the evening of the U.S. presidential election - November 4, 2008.

Print by Eric Drooker

[ Slingshot vs. Tank - Eric Drooker. Undated digital print. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

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