Category: Art Activism


"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" inch poster.

"I AM NOT THE ENEMY"- Mark Vallen 2001 © 11" x 17" poster.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I created a street poster widely distributed in Los Angeles titled, I Am Not The Enemy.

The poster was derived from an original pencil drawing of mine created in part as a reaction to the murder of a Sikh American man in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi; the killing would be the first post-9/11 violent attack against an innocent civilian on U.S. soil thought to be “the enemy.”

Mr. Sodhi owned a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, and he was shot while arranging U.S. flags in front of his business. When arrested, his killer yelled, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”

Mr. Sodhi’s murder was in the context of innocent Muslim Americans being blamed, abused, and assaulted all across the U.S. in revenge for 9/11.

When people are denied the right to worship freely, or are otherwise persecuted because of their faith, democracy is threatened. This principle is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Given the recent upsurge of racist attacks in the U.S. aimed at those perceived to be Muslims, I have decided to re-release my poster, making it available for free as a downloadable .PDF file that can be printed on any ink jet printer.

The black & white poster measures 11 x 17 inches, and it should be used in the spirit in which it was created, not for profit, but as a simple expression of human decency and solidarity. Further reasons for offering my poster as a free download are to be found in the remainder of this article.

On September 21, 2013, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a professor from Columbia University, was strolling in New York’s Harlem district near the corner of 110th and Malcolm X Boulevard. He was confronted by a crowd of some 20 young men on bicycles, who yelled anti-Muslim slurs at him, shouting “Get Osama,” and “Terrorist” before launching a vicious physical attack. The gang pulled Singh’s beard, and repeatedly punched and kicked his head and body. Singh might have been killed had it not been for the three good Samaritans that came to his aid to help fight off the hoodlums. The professor’s jaw was broken, and he suffered an injury to his lip, multiple fractures, the loss of several teeth, and a puncture wound to his elbow.

Mainstream press reports mentioned that Singh is an adherent of the Sikh faith, and that his attackers had “misidentified” or “mistaken” him as a Muslim because of his beard and turban, as if the beating would have been acceptable had Singh actually been a Muslim. The press has variously described Singh’s attackers as “a group of young men,” “a mob,” or simply “assailants.” However, when pressed by a reporter in an interview on the Huffington Post, Singh reluctantly said of his tormentors, “it was dark, but it seemed like it was young African American men.” The Village Voice and also reported that the attackers were African American. On Sept. 24, 2013 the NYPD released security video of the suspects leaving the scene of the crime, and asked for the public’s assistance in identifying those who took part in attacking Dr. Singh.

It is a great tragedy of history that on Malcolm X Boulevard, young blacks would assault a man they thought to be a Muslim; one of the most outspoken opponents of racial oppression in the U.S. during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X was a Muslim. In 1964 he embraced Sunni Islam and traveled to Mecca to participate in the Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj. That experience led him to take the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That same year he founded the political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which organized against the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of a capitalist “international power structure.”

Malcolm’s ideas were perhaps best articulated in his By Any Means Necessary speech given at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965. The oratory contained the famous words: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence - by any means necessary.” A week later Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. Acknowledging his stature in the Black community, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard by New York’s mayor in 1987.

While the involvement of young blacks in the attack against Singh underscores the tragic political and moral disorientation of a certain layer of black youth, the appalling incident points to a much larger problem in American society as a whole. Despite our being awash in information and early 21st century technology, the U.S. is not far removed from xenophobic hysteria and blind racism. These malevolent forces find expression amongst the disempowered and uneducated, which at the moment pretty much describes us all. When the economy is in the tank and the nation is at war - and yes dear shopper, the nation is at war - you can count on the flames of tribalism being fanned.

Those that attacked Dr. Singh did so out of distorted notions of patriotism, but where do these ideas emanate from? Twelve years after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, American society still produces individuals who ignorantly lash out at the innocent for the heinous crimes committed by others. Here, the words of Malcolm X come thundering in: “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”

Dr. Singh, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a practicing physician that specializes in community-based health care in East Harlem, told “This is my community, I live in Harlem, I see patients here, It’s not the side of Harlem I’ve come to know and not how I’ve been embraced.” In a press conference held after his release from the hospital, Dr. Singh said: “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) where we worship, get to know who we are, make sure they have an opportunity to move past this as well.”

But Dr. Prabhjot Singh’s ordeal was not an isolated incident. This past January, Mississippi Police accused a Sikh truck driver of being a “terrorist” for not complying with an order to remove his sacred Kirpan talisman; Sikhism requires male devotees to wear a Kirpan and a turban. When appearing in court Jagjeet Singh (all Sikh men carry the last name of Singh, which means Lion) was told by a County Judge that he would have to remove “that rag” from his head or leave the courtroom. Singh eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of “refusing to obey a command” and had to pay a fine. This is not an example of the American “Religious Tolerance” that U.S. citizens take so much pride in, but an instance of xenophobia and ignorance displayed by the state.

Singh and others of his faith have every reason to expect acceptance in the “Land of the Free,” Sikhs first came from India to the U.S. over 130 years ago. Because of the oppressive colonial practices of the British in India, thousands of Sikhs emigrated to the U.S., with most coming to California to labor as agricultural workers. The oldest Sikh temple in the U.S. was built in Stockton, California in 1912; Sikhs have been contributing to the American family ever since.

I have never been a fan of the Miss America contest, since I oppose the sexual objectification of women, but I must bring up the competition in the context of racial bigotry and the attack on Dr. Singh. On Sept. 15, 2013, Nina Davuluri won the Miss America crown at the pageant held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Born in Syracuse, New York to parents who came from the Republic of India in South Asia, the 24-year-old Davuluri was beset with a torrent of xenophobic comments on social media immediately after her win. Online comments against Ms. Davuluri included the likes of: “Miss Arab wins Miss America,” “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America,” “Miss America is a terrorist,” “Congratulations Al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you,” and “How the f**k does a foreigner win Miss America?” That Davuluri is an American citizen means nothing to such people.

U.S. history is replete with “nativist” individuals and organizations that favored “true Americans” over immigrants, and sadly, nativism continues to run through the fabric of American society. In the early 1800’s Irish immigrants in the U.S. were considered to be uneducated brutes, lazy, criminally minded, and hopeless alcoholics; the Irish were systematically denied employment and forced to live in slums and were in fact referred to as “white negroes” by those who detested them. Likewise, Italian immigrants in the U.S. also occupied the unenviable position bestowed upon the Irish. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891 when thousands of upright citizens broke into a prison to seize 9 Italian men just found not guilty in the murder of the city’s Police Chief. The Italians were beaten and shot, and dragged into the streets where they were lynched. Two additional Italians imprisoned on unrelated charges were taken from the prison and hanged for good measure.

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans suffered through a wave of humiliating and violent racist hysteria that culminated in all people of Japanese ancestry on the West coast of the U.S. being rounded up by presidential order and forcibly shipped to isolated concentration camps. These U.S. citizens were stripped of their possessions, homes, and businesses simply because of their skin color.

On Sept. 9, 2010, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles conducted a candlelight vigil against the scapegoating of Muslim Americans. I participated in that vigil of some 200 souls on the steps of the museum, and I was honored that copies of my poster, I Am Not The Enemy, were unreservedly and fervently utilized as statements against racist bigotry, religious intolerance, and national chauvinism. I hope that my current offering will be used in the same manner.

Big Brother Is Watching You

the_stars_and_stripes“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” - Edward Snowden.

As of today, this web log will go on hiatus for an indefinite period as a silent protest against the colossal spying operation the Obama administration has unleashed upon the American people.

On June 9, 2013, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA employee working for the National Security Agency (NSA), was identified by the Guardian as the whistleblower responsible for exposing the massive police state surveillance now aimed at every American.

PRISM, the surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) for the Obama White House, collects the phone records of most U.S. citizens on a daily basis; the spy operation also monitors all internet activity conducted by Americans, extracting their photographs, e-mails, audio recordings, videos, documents, chats, instant messaging, and connection logs from nine separate internet companies - AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube. In essence, the intelligence program snoops on the daily routines of hundreds of millions of Americans.

On June 7, President Obama defended his sweeping surveillance program, referring to media reports as “hype”. He depicted the spying as a “modest encroachment” on the rights of U.S. citizens. Just prior to Edward Snowden’s identity being made public, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said of the whistleblower, “This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country”. I beg your pardon Mr. Clapper, but the only sacred trust that U.S. citizens have is to their Constitution. As an American artist I treasure that document - all of it -  because it not only guarantees my right to free expression, it secures all of my rights as a citizen. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”.

I have just acquired a copy of David McCullough’s 1776, which recounts the history of the American revolution. McCullough’s fascinating book describes the struggle as seen through the eyes of those American patriots who fought for independence from the British Empire, as well as from the perspective of the King’s men, who saw the “riotous rebels” of America as little more than “rabble in arms”. The hoi polloi of course won the cause of liberty, imperfect as it was, but today our freedoms are in extreme danger.

How ironic that democracy is imperiled by someone who promised “hope”, “change”, and “transparency”, but instead delivered a surveillance state of unprecedented scope and power; it is not quite George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, but it is very close indeed. The U.S. has reached a point of no return, it shall either advance as a democratic society or it shall descend into the abyss of authoritarian rule; it is all up to America’s “riotous rebels”.

This is undeniably a time for active protest against an imperiously intrusive surveillance state, but it is also a period for contemplation and deep reflection. Once I have finished reading McCullough’s 1776, I shall return to writing and posting commentary to this web log.

Meanwhile… in Guatemala

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

On May 10, 2013, former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Guatemalan court. Specifically, he was found guilty of the murder of 1,771 indigenous Maya civilians. The 86-year-old Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. When I received word of Montt’s conviction I cried aloud, “Oh my God!”, hardly believing that justice had at last prevailed… at least, in part.

In the 1980’s I met a number of Guatemalan refugees that had fled the terror in their country for the relative safety of Los Angeles, and I was profoundly disturbed by the harrowing tales they told me of their homeland - stories regarding the torture, mutilation, and murder of friends, family, and associates back home. As a result, I spent a good portion of the 80s creating posters, flyers, and drawings that were opposed to the bloodbath then occurring in Guatemala and the rest of Central America; my artworks were circulated all across L.A. and beyond. The drawing pictured above, “Meanwhile… in Guatemala“, was one such artwork (view a larger version).

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. ©

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Offset flyer. 11"x14" inches. One of many street flyers designed and published by the artist that announced antiwar protests in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

While hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens joined me in protesting the wars in Central America, it was not a popular thing to do. The Cold War hysteria of Ronald Reagan’s America designated such activists “un-American” and “un-patriotic”. In short, making art in solidarity with the Guatemalans was not a path to career success. Now that Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, I feel vindicated and joyful.

Montt was not the first nor last military despot to brutalize the people of Guatemala; he was from a long line of murderous thugs and assassins that throttled civil society and butchered Ixil Maya communities with impunity.

One could say it all began in 1954 when the U.S. government and the C.I.A. engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1950-54), but that is another story.

In announcing the Guatemalan court’s decision, Judge Yasmin Barrios stated that “The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide”, and that “We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide… Rios Montt knew everything that was going on, and he didn’t stop it, even though he had the power to do so.” Barrios added, “We the judges are totally convinced that the goal was the physical destruction of the Ixil area.”

In March of 1982 Montt staged a coup d’etat that toppled the brutal dictatorship of President Lucas García, and Montt ruled until the next totalitarian goon - General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores - overthrew him in a 1983 military coup. It was simply a falling out among thieves. Being a faithful servant to Guatemala’s oligarchs and Uncle Sam (he was a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas), Montt came to no harm after being overthrown, in fact he was “elected” to the nation’s congress in 2007.

All the same, Montt’s 14 month military rule became infamous for the most vile abuses, including widespread torture and rape conducted by state forces. Montt launched a scorched earth military campaign meant to destroy the rural support base of the country’s left-wing guerilla movement. Making no distinction between the Maya civilian population and combatants, Montt’s campaign obliterated over 600 Maya villages and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasant farmers.

Montt’s counter-insurgency policies did have its supporters. On December 4, 1982, President Reagan met with Gen. Montt at San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Reagan gave his assessment of the fascist dictator to the gathered international press:

“I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the President that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”

Only two days after Reagan made his statement, U.S. armed and trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, raided the Mayan hamlet of Dos Esses, where they massacred nearly 300 villagers… mostly women and children. It was not an isolated incident; the slaughter of innocents had become government policy for Guatemala’s generals, and yet the U.S. government continued to pour millions of dollars worth of lethal military aid into their hands.

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other corporate newspapers have all mentioned the Ríos Montt conviction, few if any made mention of Montt’s crimes being facilitated by the extensive military, economic, and political backing of the U.S. government. In his 2003 book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum noted that the Reagan administration supplied Montt with “$3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies.”

What doubt is there that U.S. military aid was used by Montt and his death squads to slaughter Maya peasants by the tens of thousands? Blum also noted in his book how covert U.S. military aid was provided to the Montt dictatorship; “the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala”. In a October 21, 1982 Washington Post article, journalist Jack Anderson reported that “Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare”.

The question remains, if the former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, what can be said of those in Washington D.C. who willfully supplied the dictator with the means to carry out his butchery?


UPDATE: Guatemala’s highest court overturned the guilty conviction against Rios Montt on May 20, 2013, only ten days after the former military dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. Guatemala’s “Constitutional Court” cited procedural errors for canceling the verdict. Montt is to be “retried”. It is uncertain when that might occur. Have the good people of Guatemala not suffered enough torment? Where is justice?

The Burning Palm Tree Epiphany

"Burning Palm Tree" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 30" x 40" inches. 2008 ©.

"Burning Palm Tree" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 30" x 40" inches. 2008 ©.

Brothers and Sisters… this errant one, whose feet have trod along Hollywood’s golden starred paths of sin, and whose lips have tasted the many bitter fruits of lasciviousness so common to my City of Lust Angeles… this willfully disobedient soul has had an epiphany!

Ah yes! I was walking in the desolate wilderness of the San Fernando Valley, plodding along one of the ugliest streets in all creation, cast down by billboards that assailed me with wicked images of corporate death cheeseburgers and loathsome CGI action movies - all the works of the Devil - when the divine truth was revealed to me.

I was standing on the forsaken neon boulevard with thorn-pierced feet, when a palm tree - thousands of rusty nails and staples fastening cheap advertising flyers to its trunk - suddenly burst into flames before me! A great stillness came upon the land; I could no longer hear the gangsta rap blaring from passing cars; I could no longer see the buses - filled with unhappy people and covered with gigantic advertisements for Desperate Housewives - barreling down the street; there was only the burning palm ablaze with a mighty spiritual fire. The tree spoke, its voice a gentle benediction, like the wind in a vast wild place; the fiery palm whispered…

“The good Rev. Billy & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers will appear with Sister Exene Cervenka at The Echo in the downtown Echo Park district of Lost Angeles. Go forth in righteousness and spread the blessed truth to the teeming masses. Shun the path of synthetic pop stars and their killer drones; turn away from the creeping virtual meatball’s race towards bigger and better flat-screen televisions. Remember - Rev. Billy, Exene, The Echo, Sunday, 2:00 pm. March 3, 2013. Be there or be an apostate Republocrate.

UPDATE: Review
Rev. Billy & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers
with Sister Exene Cervenka at The Echo in Los Angeles, March 3, 2013.

"Speaking In Tongues" - Photograph by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Photo of Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles. The good Rev. appeared with Sister Exene Cervenka & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers on March 3, 2013.

"Speaking In Tongues" - Photograph by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Photo of Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles. The good Rev. appeared with Sister Exene Cervenka & the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers on March 3, 2013.

Cries of “Earthaluya!” shook the rafters when Reverend Billy of The Church of Stop Shopping preached from the stage at The Echo.

A small crowd of sinners had gathered to hear the good Reverend’s sermon, and they yelped in spiritual joy as Rev. Billy spoke in tongues; the messianic leader punched the air with his fists and danced in jubilation as he spoke against the sins of apathy, complacency and mindless consumerism.

Demons of materialism were exorcised from the hearts of those gathered at The Echo revival meeting.

It was a fortuitous and historic occasion, given that just around the corner the Angelus Temple could be found - the very place where evangelical sensation Aimee Semple McPherson (”Sister Aimee”), used to preach to the sinners of Lost Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s! My own mother visited the Angelus Temple as a young girl. Sister Aimee was the first mass media preacher and the first woman to receive a broadcasting license for religious programming on the radio. For all of today’s televangelical “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are savage wolves” (Matthew 7:15), it is the Reverend Billy that truly stands with the poor and the meek against the greed and violent cruelty of the powerful - and here I do not blaspheme.

"Sister Exene Cervenka" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Sister Exene Cervenka" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

The faith healing event opened with an old spiritual sung by Sister Exene Cervenka and the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers. The members of the group found one other in the Devil’s playground of Lost Angeles, and they only came together as a gospel choir to support Rev. Billy’s visit to the Sodom of the West Coast. The evangelical song sparrows performed a total of three rousing gospel numbers during the revival, two of which I caught on video. My favorite song by the Goddess Gospel Singers was a cover of the late 1950s song, Mean Old World, by Marion Williams & the Stars of Faith.

When not singing with the Triple Goddess Gospel Singers, Sister Exene took to the pulpit to do a bit of evangelizing on her own, proving herself to be a formidable new voice in The Church of Stop Shopping. She sermonized that the faithful should turn their backs on Beyoncé, Lady GaGa, Nicki Minaj and others of the Jezebel spirit for serving power and the Golden Calf; called for people to smash their televisions; and preached that parents should “dress their children in corduroy pants, give them bowl haircuts, and teach them carpentry, soldering, or gardening” instead of allowing them to become consumer society trendoids.

"Exene and The End Of The World" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene with Rev. Billy's "The End Of The World" book at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Exene and The End Of The World" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Exene with Rev. Billy's "The End Of The World" book at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Sister Exene took on an apocalyptic tone as she reminded the flock of how the U.S. Constitution has been eroded since 9/11, with government security forces now able to watch Americans via domestic Predator drones, or even by sending hummingbird-shaped and sized surveillance drones through your open front door. Citing Sandy Hook as a pretext, she prophesized that the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens would be limited even further in days to come.

Sister Exene confessed having been seduced by promises of deliverance made by the false prophets of the Democratic Party, but as a born-again acolyte of The Church of Stop Shopping, she has seen the light - Praise Be! - and now warns the faithful against believing the words of Follyticians. It was all fire and brimstone from Sister Exene, but she was just warming up the congregation.

"Preaching" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Preaching" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Reverend Billy took the stage and speechified on how war is crucial to consumerism, while inveighing against those who reap the super profits:

“No wonder they are so powerful! The shopping is evolving us into a single personality! The constant monetizing… we’re suffering from thousands of advertising events every day. Increasingly were getting militarized advertisements. I just refer you to the Super Bowl. When you have that experience, you’re watching the game - the slow motion, the projectiles, the armoring - and then you go to a video game and… it’s the same thing. And then you go to a Be All That You Can Be Army ad, and… it’s the same thing. And then you’re back in the football game and… it’s the same thing.

Militarism and consumerism are utterly enmeshed at this point. That was always the plan. Professors call it a ‘totalizing’ system… they are trying to get into every nook and cranny of our lives. If there is any part of our lives that is still outside of the impact of their commodification, of their making us that one personality - anything dark, anything far-way from that apparatus - they’ll find you there!”

Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

The day after Rev. Billy’s fiery sermon, it was reported that President Obama had nominated the head of the Wal-Mart Foundation, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, as the new director for his Office of Management and Budget (OMB); Burwell will assist the president in making budgetary decisions. That Wal-Mart now has a new big box store called the White House will no doubt weigh heavily upon the good Reverend’s mind. At one point during his sermon Rev. Billy intoned; “Is Obama the best we can do? Forget about gun control, we need some Drone control!”

"Earthaluya" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

"Earthaluya" - Photo by Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Rev. Billy at The Echo club in Los Angeles.

Reverend Billy is not just the messianic evangelical leader of The Church of Stop Shopping, in actuality he is a character created and performed by actor Bill Talen. But Talen’s shtick is much more than satiric performance art or quirky activism, he answers an age old calling - that of Holy Fool. Much of this is evident in his just released book, The End of the World, a minuscule paperback filled with big ideas, apocalyptic visions, and achingly beautiful humanistic thought.

Talen’s love of humanity, the earth, justice, and beauty, finds expression not in dry political discourse but in artful burlesque; he speaks a language community organizers are by and large unfamiliar with, or willfully disdainful of - the vernacular of art. The conformist machine society is equally non-aesthetic, so, the Reverend Billy Talen provides us with a revelation - art and action leads to salvation!


I am pleased to announce that a silkscreen poster I created in 1987, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, is part of the exhibition, Prison Nation: Posters On The Prison Industrial Complex. The premier of Prison Nation opens on January 19, 2013 at the UC Merced Kolligian Library on the campus of the University of California, Merced. Curated by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) of Los Angeles, California, Prison Nation is a touring exhibit of historic posters that focus on the reality of the prison-industrial-complex as practiced in The Golden State. The show travels to five other venues in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire areas over the course of the next two years.

In the words of the exhibit’s organizers, “The United States has the largest prison population in the world - over 2.3 million inmates. California locks up more people than any other state in the U.S. and currently proposes to spend billions more to build more prisons and jails across the state.” Yes, we’re number one, and the tale of California’s prison population growing from 20,000 in 1980 to over 170,000 in 2007, is told in the dozens of posters on display in Prison Nation.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Mark Vallen © Silkscreen. 1987. 19" x 27" inches.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Mark Vallen © Silkscreen. 1987.

My own contribution to the exhibit, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, does of course have a unique anecdote behind it, as the print was inspired by real world events (view a larger version of my print). In the year 1987 I lived and worked in a ramshackle artist’s loft located in downtown Los Angeles - twelve years before gentrification sent prices in the decaying and abandoned neighborhood through the rooftop around 1999.

The old industrial area where my studio was found sat at the edge of L.A.’s historic Little Tokyo district, and the pre-earthquake-code red brick building that housed my second-story rented loft was constructed in 1911. The Skid Row area of L.A. was a stones throw from my studio, and the entire disintegrating zone was a magnet for the thousands of homeless people who slept on the street in every available doorway. At the time it was estimated that around 30,000 people were homeless in Los Angeles, and that some 10,000 of them slept on downtown streets.

The area was a distribution point for imported goods that came from the port city of San Pedro, and every day trucks brought millions of crates full of cheap merchandise to the small businesses operating in the Toy Town and Fashion districts. The discarded cardboard boxes became building material for throngs of the homeless, who carried off huge slats of the cast off cartons on their backs. In my neighborhood so many destitute people constructed makeshift huts of cardboard on the sidewalks that small shantytowns were formed, and the shelters in that wretched urban community were called “Cardboard Condos”. How fitting for the Reagan years.

Everyday from my studio window I witnessed a parade of poverty-stricken and disfavored humanity. Some were clearly insane, others alcoholics, but there were also many unemployed workers and war veterans who were reduced to living on the streets. On occasion I would see a pitiable family on a grimy avenue pushing a grocery cart filled with all their worldly possessions. Flop houses were so overcrowded, or filthy and infested with rats and roaches, that poor folks preferred living on the sidewalks. I once talked with a grizzled Vietnam war vet living on the street who told me that as long as he could wrap himself up in enough layers of newspaper at night, he could survive the cold. I suppose that was the proper usage for the city’s bourgeois “newspapers”, but others living on the street were not so resilient. Hypothermia plagued untold numbers of those I have so far described - it continues to do so.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

When I lived in my downtown seventh heaven, Tom Bradley (1917-1998) was the Mayor of Los Angeles and the pugnacious Daryl F. Gates (1926-2010) was the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Complaints from downtown business interests convinced Bradley to take action against the homeless; Bradley and Gates agreed to physically remove the down-and-out population from the city center of L.A.

On May 28, 1987, Police Chief Gates announced at a press conference that the “so-called homeless” were being given seven days to break their camps and disperse, those who did not comply would have their properties seized and be subject to arrest. Gates said he instructed his officers to post 50 notices on streets where the homeless gathered, of course, the official broadsides appeared in my scenic neighborhood.

With nowhere else to go, many of the homeless disregarded orders to abandon their rudimentary cardboard lodgings - they vowed to resist. On the morning of June 4, the day of the looming police action, Mayor Bradley belatedly offered the homeless a forlorn empty lot as a short-term “campground”, but the site would not be available until a week after the raid. There were no takers. Finally, as late afternoon came to my beloved City of the Angels, the LAPD rolled into action against the homeless.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

"To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless" - Detail. Mark Vallen © 1987.

The sky was overcast, heightening the yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape that seemed to be everywhere in the sector; red and blue rooftop lights flashed from dozens of LAPD squad cars cordoning off the streets; groups of uniformed and helmeted officers moved from one cardboard hut to the next, rousting occupants, sending them on their way or arresting them; black and white LAPD buses were filled with detainees; ubiquitous LAPD helicopters swarmed the sullen skies. The police methodically razed hundreds of homeless shelters, confiscating or trashing the meager belongings that were found within.

I am positive director John Carpenter witnessed the June 4th raids on the camps of L.A.’s homeless, since a precise sequence from his subversive 1988 science fiction classic, They Live, mirrored the ‘87 police operations - though in a tremendously exaggerated fashion (you can see this 22:17 minutes into his film). That the scene I refer to in Carpenter’s movie was shot on the streets near my downtown L.A. neighborhood, only buttresses my opinion.

The June 4th raids provided an ominous and unsettling scene, and after snapping a few photographs I began to get the vibe that the boys in blue did not appreciate my playing paparazzi. As there was no one around save for the homeless and the police, this bohemian artist made a beeline to his shoddy yet safe garret. It was then and there that I began creating my silkscreen print, To Protect and Serve the Rich - Jail the Homeless, as an immediate response.

My black and white print depicted a line of faceless LAPD officers, with the work’s title integrated into the stark design; the image was inspired by the lines of police I saw during the raids on the homeless camps. To create the poster I quickly drew my image directly on the stretched silk screen, and from there I printed my edition of posters using oil based paint. The next day I went about disseminating the contentious print in my neighborhood, which included giving away copies to the many stressed-out homeless folks in my area.

Prison Nation runs from January 19 to March 9, 2013. The UC Merced Kolligian Library is located at 5200 N. Lake Rd. Merced, CA 95343 (directions and campus map).

“…. A Purely Artistic Government”.

When I was a 10-year-old in 1963, the very first record I purchased on my own was a recording of the Peer Gynt Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). It may come as a surprise to some but these days, more often than not, I listen to classical music while I work at my easel. Being a longtime devotee of the genre, I would like to share the following historical detail with readers. French composers Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892) worked together on Bizet’s operatic masterpiece, Carmen, a favorite of mine. In an 1875 letter addressed to Guiraud, Bizet wrote about one of his emotive dreams:

“I dreamed last night that we were all at Naples, installed in a charming villa; we were living under a purely artistic government. The senate consisted of Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Giorgione - e tutti quanti (”all of those”). The National Guard was no more. In place of it there was a huge orchestra of which Litolff (Henry Charles Litolff, a piano virtuoso, composer, and music publisher) was the conductor. All suffrage was denied to idiots, humbugs, schemers, and ignoramuses - that is to say, suffrage was cut down to the smallest proportions imaginable. Geneviève (Geneviève Halévy, Bizet’s wife) was a little too amiable for Goethe (Germany’s great literary figure), but despite this trifling circumstance the awakening was terribly bitter.”

Yes, waking reality is rarely superior to our dream world, especially in these unsettling times. In part Bizet’s dream of “a purely artistic government” is shared by this author, and it is that vision that continues to enthuse and inspire this web log.

DNC: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

"Chair" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 1888.

"Chair" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 1888.

“Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.”

Empty Chairs At Empty Tables - from Alain Boublil’s libretto
for the musical, Les Misérables.

Tate Modern Rejects “The Gift”

There are those who credit the Tate Modern in London for being in the vanguard of promoting and collecting “cutting edge” postmodern art. A 2010 installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is often mentioned in that context. Working with the Tate, Ai had assistants cover the entire Turbine Hall floor with over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower “seeds”. What it all meant was open to interpretation, but for the next 48 hours the public was invited to frolic through the thick carpet of seeds, until the museum roped off the area because of hazardous ceramic dust.

In 2012 the Tate purchased ten tons of Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds, around 8 million individual seeds, for the museum’s permanent collection. The acquisition represented less than a tenth of the seeds used in the original installation. The Tate would not divulge the purchase price of their acquisition, but at a 2011 auction at Sotheby’s the white ceramic seeds were sold for £3.50 each (around $5.00).

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

In the latest, albeit unauthorized, installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the artists and activists of the Liberate Tate art collective delivered an artwork titled The Gift to the Tate Modern on July 7, 2012; the gift being an enormous 54 foot, one and a half ton wind turbine blade. Over 100 Liberate Tate group members carried the leviathan blade, disassembled into three huge parts, to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Getting the blade past the panicked Tate security guards was difficult enough, but once inside the hall the group reassembled the blade under the watchful eye of museum guards and police officers.

Think of Liberate Tate’s wind turbine blade as a gigantic Duchampian style readymade, but one with a clear and timely message. The windmill blade, icon of renewable energy, is placed inside the Tate, recipient of major funding from the international oil company, BP. Conceptual art with an actual concept! There is no small irony in this, since the Tate has in its collection a replica of Fountain, the porcelain urinal Marcel Duchamp submitted to an exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.

The Tate website describes Fountain with the following: “Fountain is an example of what Duchamp called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art. It epitomizes the assault on convention and good taste for which he and the Dada movement are best known.” The Tate understands “readymade” and “assault on convention” in a purely academic way, but fails to comprehend any contemporary real world application. Can anyone really explain why a urinal is a “work of art” but a windmill blade is not?

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012 Photo by Ian Buswell.

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Ian Buswell.

The Liberate Tate art collective put forward their wind turbine blade as a “gift to the nation” under the provisions of the UK government’s Museums and Galleries Act of 1992. This requires the Tate to officially consider accepting the work as part of its permanent collection. Liberate Tate formally submitted their artwork as a gift to the nation in an official letter to Sir Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate. The letter in part read: “We gift this artwork with the intention of increasing the public’s understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art.” Liberate Tate spokesperson Sharon Palmer told the press:

“For more than 20 years Tate has been used by BP to present an image of corporate benevolence while the oil company has been involved in environmental and human rights controversies the world over.

We’re approaching an irrevocable turning point in our ability to address the climate crisis, so now is the time for Tate to look to the future and remove itself from the destructive heart of the fossil fuel economy. Liberate Tate has created this artwork using an icon of renewable energy with an express wish that Tate will have the courage to take leadership in addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change and end its relationship with BP.”

In a separate public statement, Communiqué #3 The Gift, Liberate Tate offered a rather poetic explanation of The Gift, and what motivated them to bequeath their giant wind turbine blade to the nation. An excerpt from the message reads as follows:

“Despite recent reports that our biosphere is approaching a ‘tipping point’ where ecosystems are close to a sudden and irreversible change that could extinguish human life; despite years of creative protest and thousands of signatories petitioning Tate to clean up its image and let go of its relationship with a company that is fuelling catastrophe; despite all these things, Tate continues to promote the burning of fossil fuels by taking the poisoned ‘gift’ of funding from BP. This is why today we have given you something you could not refuse.

The law of this island requires that all ‘gifts to the nation’, donations of art from the people, be considered as works for public museums. Consider this one judiciously. We think that it is a work that will fit elegantly in the Tate collection, a work that celebrates a future that gives rather than takes away, a gentle whispering solution, a monument to a world in transition.

Resting on the floor of your museum, it might resemble the bones of a leviathan monster washed up from the salty depths, a suitable metaphor for the deep arctic drilling that BP is profiting from now that the ice is melting. But it is not animal, nor is it dead, it is a living relic from a future that is aching to become the present. It is part of a magic machine, a tool of transformation, a grateful giant.”

Not surprisingly, just hours after the public and Liberate Tate’s members were cleared from the Turbine Hall by museum security, the Tate removed the 54 foot wind turbine blade from the hall to an undisclosed location. One can surmise that it was not even considered by the Tate Board of Directors for acceptance into the museum’s permanent collection.

Liberate Tate’s performance and installation was captured on film and posted on the VICE News website. Felix Goncalez and Stephanie Thieullent of You And I Films also documented the event in a short video they call The Gift.

Faraway, So Close: ’80s L.A. Photos

"May Day in Los Angeles, 1980" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. This photograph was taken in L.A.'s MacArthur Park just moments before the Los Angeles Police Department attacked a large crowd celebrating International Workers Day. The rally had been the first significant May Day demonstration to take place in L.A. since the 1960s.

"May Day in Los Angeles, 1980" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. This photograph was taken in L.A.'s MacArthur Park just moments before the Los Angeles Police Department attacked a large crowd celebrating International Workers Day. The rally had been the first significant May Day demonstration to take place in L.A. since the 1960s. On view at the Morono Kiang Gallery's "Faraway, So Close" exhibit.

I will be exhibiting six never before shown photos at Faraway, So Close, a group exhibition of photographs on the theme of Los Angeles as it existed between the years 1980 and 1989. Running from February 4, 2012, to March 31, 2012 at the Morono Kiang Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, the exhibit also features works by Sara Jane Boyers, Edward Colver, Willie Middlebrook, Ann Summa, May Sun, and Richard Wyatt.

Some participants in the exhibit are celebrated photographers known for capturing the visage of L.A. with their gifted camerawork. Others - this would include me - are more interested in painting the city’s diversity on canvas, using photography only as an optional extra tool in the artistic process. What unifies these two schools in Faraway, So Close, is an intention to catch something of the truth about life in Los Angeles.

I have always been interested in the connection that exists between drawing, painting, and photography, ever since I discovered as a pre-teen that the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer quite possibly used a camera obscura as a tool in creating his fabulous oil paintings.

As a teenager I was enthralled, not by the world of art photographers, but by the efforts of documentarians like Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, and Walker Evans. Their photos from the 1930’s depicting real world events and individuals clearly indicated to me that art was about more than just aesthetics, it had a social purpose as well. When I discovered the paintings of Ben Shahn, one of America’s premiere social realist painters from the 1930s, I learned he was also a photographer that used a 35mm Leica to capture the realities of New York’s working poor. That he based his artworks upon his photographs was an inspiration to me, a fact that helped guide me to the camera as an essential tool in my work as a visual artist. As I conducted further research into the relationship between painting and photography, I was impressed by the views of the Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who wrote the following in the late 1930’s:

“I consider that, in their escape from reality, the modern painters of the Paris school committed the greatest blunder in the history of art, especially when a mechanical apparatus had just made it possible to capture reality. The photographic camera helped objective art to break out of the dead end in which it found itself; it made possible the advance of realism. The camera is the indispensable tool of a new realism, and without it one cannot even begin to think about the solution of such a problem. The camera established the knowledge of astronomy and of astrophysics. With the help of X-rays, photography gave medicine empirical knowledge of man’s insides. It captures pictures; how then can we, the creators of pictures, ignore or despise it?”

Just as Shahn and Siqueiros used their snapshots as starting points for more complex works, I too have used my photos as source material for drawings and paintings. While I have never regarded myself as a photographer, there is a correlation between my art and the photo. As a figurative realist artist the camera has always provided me with the ability to capture fleeting realities to be studied, interpreted, and built upon in the studio. For me the camera serves as a sketchbook of sorts, it is the means to an end, i.e., extrapolating on the information it gathers in order to create drawings, paintings, and prints that comment on the human condition.

"Bandera Roja/Red Banner" - Mark Vallen. 1985 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. An activist helps carry a banner emblazoned with revolutionary slogans during a downtown L.A. march that took place on April 20, 1985 - a national day of protest against the policies of the Reagan administration.

"Bandera Roja/Red Banner" - Mark Vallen. 1985 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. 6.5 x 9.75 inches. An activist helps carry a banner emblazoned with slogans during a downtown L.A. march that took place on April 20, 1985 - a national day of protest against the policies of the Reagan administration. On view at the Morono Kiang Gallery's "Faraway, So Close" exhibit.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s I carried a 35mm camera, using it as a “sketchpad” to keep a record of the ever changing social landscape that is Los Angeles. During that period I took informal photos of everything from L.A.’s explosive punk rock scene (which I was actively engaged in), to the mass protests organized by the peace and anti-Apartheid movements (where I was also involved as an activist). My selected photographs in Faraway, So Close show my participation in, and documentation of, the Central American solidarity network that was such a large part of L.A.’s political landscape in the 1980s.

The Opening Reception for Faraway, So Close takes place on Saturday, February 4, 2012, from 6 to 9 p.m. The Morono Kiang Gallery is located in downtown Los Angeles on the ground floor of the historic Bradbury Building; 218 West 3rd Street, Bradbury Building. Los Angeles, CA 90013 (directions and map). Regular gallery hours are 12 to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit runs until March 31, 2012.

UPDATE/Read the Los Angeles Times review of the Morono Kiang exhibit, Photo File: ‘Faraway So Close’ documents turbulent ’80s in L.A.

Panel Discussion with the artists at the Morono Kiang Gallery
Saturday, March 31, 2012. 3:00 – 5:00 pm

morono_kiang_artistsThe Morono Kiang Gallery will host a panel discussion with the artists of Faraway, So Close on Saturday March 31, 2012 from 3:00-5:00 pm. Please join us as artists (shown above) Sara Jane Boyers, Richard Wyatt, Edward Colver, Willie Middlebrook, May Sun, Ann Summa, Mark Vallen, and Shervin Shahbazi (not pictured), recount life in 1980s Los Angeles, talk about their experiences in a changing cultural landscape, and answer questions about their work.

The artists in the exhibit were asked to present a personal take on what they were looking at during this particular place and time. As a result, the works presented in the exhibit fulfill the artists’ professional and/or personal objectives. These photographs, taken by artists charged with the task of documenting the cultural life happening around them, provide a glimpse into the city’s recent past from multiple vantage points. Each photograph featured in this show embodies layers of Los Angeles stories about people and places, events and activities. Decades later, these images have become important documents of the era that marked the beginning of the cultural and political changes that would follow. Admission to this event is free. RSVP: