Category: General

The Official Portrait of President George W. Bush

Portrait of George W. Bush by Robert Anderson.

On Dec 19, 2008, the official portraits of U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were unveiled at a ceremony that took place at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the paintings become part of the museum’s permanent collection. Artist Robert Anderson had the dubious honor of creating the likeness of the president, and artist Aleksander Titovets the task of painting the first lady. No shoes were thrown during the ceremony before some 500 people, but Mr. Bush did attempt a joke; “I suspect there would be a good sized crowd once the word got out about my hanging.” Indeed. The paintings go on public view beginning Dec 20, 2008, and I present Mr. Bush’s portrait here in my preferred manner of hanging.

I am proud to say that in the past excruciatingly long eight years I never yielded to the temptation of creating an artwork lambasting President Bush. Why? Because I am more interested in offering a systemic critique rather than one focused on individuals. Conversely, I do not believe in the cult of the personality, and I will not join those artists who opportunistically create flattering portraits of soon-to-be president, Barack Obama. It is my belief that art must never be the handmaiden to centers of power, it must always remain free and autonomous - that spirit permeates my work and drives this web log.

Call for Art: Straight & Gay Dialogue

As a heterosexual man who believes in human rights for all, I am pleased to be able to announce a National Call to U.S. Artists for the upcoming juried exhibition: Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue Between Straight and/or LGBTQ Artists. Organized by the 2nd City Council Art Gallery and Performance Space in Long Beach, California, the exhibit is open to all artists living in the United States. The entry deadline is Sunday, January 18, 2009. Having served as juror for the gallery’s 2007 Day of the Dead art exhibit, I can personally attest to the gallery’s professionalism and high standards, and I encourage one and all to submit works to this most crucial exhibition. A complete and detailed prospectus for the show is available here. The Press Release for Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue, reads in part:

“The exhibition explores such topics (but is not limited to) faith and homosexuality, gay history, sense of community, effect on professional life or society, gay neighborhoods, fashion, homophobia, straight people in gay places, ageism in the gay community, gay role models, ordinary lives, coming out, gay icons or heroes, discrimination, homosexuality as an evolutionary puzzle, integrating into society, political issues, is tolerance enough?, marriage, PRIDE, engaging in gay rights issues across cultural and religious borders, feelings associated with being gay, regional differences, gay as a main identifier, gay friends or family members. Jurors: David Burns, Austin Young & Matias Viegener. Exhibition: March 7 to April 1, 2009.”

Aside from the Press Release quote cited in the above, the opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, though I expect anyone submitting work to the exhibit will have already pondered the controversies delineated in the following paragraphs. Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue, could not be a more timely or pertinent exhibit. In the elections of November 4, 2008, anti gay marriage ballot initiatives passed in California, Florida, and Arizona; while Arkansas passed a measure that bans same-sex couples from adopting children. Gay marriage was legal in California - that is, until a group of reactionaries and fundamentalist “Christian” zealots moved to change the state Constitution through the injurious Proposition 8 anti gay marriage ballot initiative. Up until election day 2008 some 18,000 same-sex couples were legally wedded in California. To protest the cruelty of first allowing gays to marry, then abruptly abrogating that right, I proudly marched in several of the massive gay rights protests staged in Los Angeles after the passage of Proposition 8 - I will gladly do so again.

One of the major backers of Proposition 8 was right-wing evangelical pastor, Rick Warren. During the campaign to pass the ballot initiative he told followers; “There are about two percent of Americans who are homosexual, gay, lesbian people. We should not let two percent of the population change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years. This is not even just a Christian issue, it is a humanitarian and human issue, that God created marriage for the purpose of family, love and procreation.” But Warren is far more than just an anti-gay fundamentalist bigot who equates same-sex marriage to pedophilia and bestiality. He compares abortion to the Holocaust, advocates the assassination of foreign leaders, opposes stem-cell research, supports the Iraq war, does not believe in evolution, and awarded George W. Bush an “international medal of peace.”

President-elect Barack Obama has asked Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama’s January 20th inauguration ceremony, and the gay and progressive community is justifiably furious.

Kevin Naff, editor of the gay newspaper Washington Blade, put the Warren pick in context when he wrote; “We have just endured eight years of endless assaults on our dignity and equality from a president beholden to bigoted conservative Christians. The election was supposed to have ended that era. It appears otherwise.” Joe Solomonese, the president of Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay civil rights organization in the US, wrote an open letter to President-elect Obama in which he stated; “we feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination.”

I agree with Human Rights Campaign when it respectfully asks Obama to rescind his decision regarding Warren. Obama defended Warren by saying; “part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated”, words that Obama did not use in defense of his own pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If there is another reason for Obama to choose Warren aside from a desire to pander to the religious right - I express regret at not being able to appreciate it. Including the backward-looking pastor in the inauguration ceremony is hardly a positive gesture from someone elected on a platform of “hope” and “change.”

Every U.S. artist willing to participate in Being Gay: A Visual Dialogue - creative individuals seeking to make aesthetic statements that address the political and cultural realities of today’s gay and lesbian citizenry - should do so with deep feelings of human solidarity and without illusions. Now that would be an honest expression of real hope and change.

Making a Killing in Central America

In 1989 I created a pencil drawing titled We’re Making A Killing In Central America. The image depicts two of the many thousands of innocent civilians who were tortured and murdered in Central America during the bloody conflicts of the 1980s. To “make a killing” is an English idiom that means - to do something resulting in substantial financial success - and while hundreds of thousands of Central Americans perished during the counterinsurgency wars of the ’80s, there were those who profited handsomely from the loss of life.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ We’re Making a Killing in Central America - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1989. "To 'make a killing' is an English idiom that means - to do something resulting in substantial financial success". Click here for a large view of the artwork. ]

The Refuge Media Project is an organization of filmmakers, health educators, and human rights activists who have been campaigning against state sponsored torture. Project Director Ben Achtenberg asked that I contribute some of my original artworks to the Refuge Media Project website in order to strengthen “the community of those who are trying to find ways, through their own disparate professions and media, to take a stand against torture”. Finding the organization in perfect accordance with my own views regarding regimes that abuse human and civil rights, I have made available to them some of my works - including We’re Making A Killing In Central America. You can view these and other artworks at the Refuge Media Project’s online Image Gallery.

There was an upsurge of extra-judicial killings in Central America during the late 1970s, when government forces and right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador began annihilating opposition groups and individuals by way of kidnapping and assassination. Civilians who were abducted became known as desaparecidos, or “disappeared people”, and once someone was seized they were rarely found alive again. To intimidate populations restive for social change, death squads tortured and murdered their victims, then dumped the mutilated bodies in public places. The killers took to leaving their prey in designated areas that widely became known as “body dumps”. If a relative, friend, or associate was missing, people went to search for them in such places. Untold thousands perished in this way, including union organizers, workers, students, teachers, and peasants.

While most of the victims of this slaughter remain nameless to us, there were high profile cases that stunned North Americans. In 1980 the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, was murdered by a right-wing death squad on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel. Unbelievably, even Romero’s funeral, attended by some 250,000 mourners, was attacked by right-wing snipers who killed dozens of people. Some eight months later, three American Roman Catholic nuns and a young missionary were kidnapped, rapped, and shot dead at close range by members of the U.S. backed Salvadoran army - their bodies left in shallow graves.

My drawing was indirectly inspired by the November 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests carried out by the Salvadoran army. The priests, which included the rector and vice rector of El Salvador’s esteemed Central American University, were taken from their beds in an early morning army raid on a home in the capital of San Salvador. They were brutally tortured and then shot in the head. The priest’s housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were also viciously murdered by the soldiers.

I was so outraged by this bloody crime that I was moved to create my drawing that same year - the work’s title alluding to U.S. government complicity in arming, training, and financing the very soldiers responsible for slaughtering the innocents. But rather than depicting a well known case, I wanted to memorialize the anonymous masses who had fallen victim to the para-military death squads. In ‘89 I self-published my black & white artwork as a flyer which bore the artwork’s title as its headline, and I distributed 5,000 copies of the leaflet across the city of Los Angeles.

Detail of drawing by Mark Vallen

[ We’re Making a Killing in Central America - Detail. Mark Vallen. 1989.]

My drawing portrays a slain man and women laying side by side in a body dump, the grisly evidence of previous assassinations surrounding them. The man still wears the blindfold his tormentors tied over his eyes, his body bares knife wounds, his left hand has been chopped off, as has a finger from his right hand. The barefoot woman has a single bullet wound in her back. Were the two - friends, lovers, relatives? Did they know one another at all? Were they student intellectuals or peasant laborers? Were they among the first to die in the beginnings of the ’70s bloodletting, or were they some of the last to perish in the final convulsive acts of violence that took place in the early ’90s? We may never know the names of all the victims of state sponsored torture and murder in Central America - but we can work to assure that justice will at last find their killers.

Frank Cieciorka: RIP

On November 24, 2008, artist Frank Cieciorka (che-CHOR-ka) died from emphysema at the age of 69. Starting in the 1980s he began to be recognized for his watercolor paintings of northern California landscapes, but it would be one of his early graphic art designs that assured him a place in history.

The iconic clenched fist has long been a symbol of the international left, its usage going back at least until 1917. But the symbol was transformed and revitalized in 1965 by Cieciorka, whose rendition of the pictogram struck a cord with a new generation of activists involved in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.

Photo of Frank Cieciorka

[ Cieciorka as a young Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo, estate of Frank Cieciorka ©. Source - Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website. ]

A New Yorker, Cieciorka came to California in 1957 to attend the arts program at San Jose State College. Upon graduation in 1964 he became a volunteer in Freedom Summer, the major civil rights campaign launched in ‘64 to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. That same year the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped, tortured, and murdered three Freedom Summer volunteers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. From 1964-65 Cieciorka also served as a field secretary in Mississippi and Arkansas for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced “snick”), one of the primary civil rights organizations of the day.

Frank Cieciorka's iconic clenched fist graphic

[ Hand - Frank Cieciorka. Woodcut. 1965. "One of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s".]

Cieciorka returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1965, and created a woodcut print inspired by his experiences as a civil rights activist in the deep South. His image, simply titled Hand, made its way onto posters and flyers, but according to the artist, “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular”. I wore one of Cieciorka’s buttons as a sixteen-year-old, and I still regard his woodcut print as one of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s.

For more on the life and times of Frank Cieciorka, visit Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi.