Activist Ink: Exhibition Review
The exhibition Activist Ink ran at the Mount St.Vincent University’s Art Gallery from January 12, 2013 to February 24, 2013 and is the subject of this review. The exhibition featured Emily Davidson, Dan O’Neil and Ericka Walker, “three Haligonian printmakers whose work revives the history of socially engaged printmaking” (MSVU, Activist) and in doing so socially engaged the viewer in contemporary social issues. The Mount St.Vincent University’s Art Gallery in housing this exhibition works as a hub for social activist dissemination furthermore, “by maintaining the art gallery, the university helps to support artists and provides a space that fosters critique–analytical and engaged thinking about the role of visual media in our lives” (MSVU, Why). It is put forth by the gallery online that we “think of artists as visual activists” and further more states that, “artists know that if you do not work on visual images, you will probably not understand how they work on you”, the very sentiment put forth by the artists and print work in the exhibition, specifically the propaganda inspired work of Erika Walker. Each artist looks too the varying and harrowing repercussions of war in regards to the communal and individual. The artists voice concern by engaging varying printing techniques, fitted to the historical use of printmaking as a didactic communication tool, through them we are told of the dangers man made war and about the resilience of human spirit.
The gallery is set up so that each artist’s work populates a wall and the exhibition titled boldly occupies the fourth. Subsequent glass cases contain books and pamphlets made by Emily Davidson and a table populated with books chosen by individual artists to supplement the words all around resides at the far end of the gallery. There is great space in the gallery for contemplation.
Upon entering the gallery once one’s eyes survey the room, one naturally examines the bright and jarring optimistic work of Emily Davidson. Located on her allotted wall is a conglomerate of brightly lettered hand letter-pressed posters proclaiming slogans such as, “ Capitalism has fallen. Art Must be redefined”, “Everything we need is already here” and “Share Power”. Posters more akin to flyers are also apparent calling for meetings or gatherings such as the one, “Calling all harvesters!” asking “Willing workers wanted to share the labour & Yield of fall harvest”. It becomes apparent upon reading the text that this is a call to action for a new sort of society. “In the form of letterpress posters, pamphlets and other ephemera, Davidson’s militantly analogue printed matter advocates alternative forms of social organization in a future, post-capitalist era” (MSVU, Activist). One must muse over what actions could end capitalism a way of life that many movements, regimes and artists have tried to topple many a time. Emily explains that she, “wanted to make a body of work that spoke to the possibility that capitalism isn’t the only system that will ever be” she thinks “one of the ways capitalism is most limiting to our imagination is that [we think] that it’s either capitalism or the apocalypse” (Lindsay) and so we read that these are posters for a post apocalyptic world. Davidson wants, “people to be able to see themselves in [the presented time], to imagine how we might get there … It allows the viewer to imagine that this could happen in the near future” (Lindsay), “this” being a post-modern utopia. Artists are activists in Davidson’s imagined post-apocalyptic utopia. They function as the base communicators for action, a role Davidson plays in the making of this work. The posters asks us to act this way now, to avoid the apocalypse.
Secondly we encounter Erika Walker’s evocative work, comprising of nine meticulously hand rendered realist lithographs each a commanding 25×36 inches in size along the second wall. The work presents, “nightmarishly altered farm and war machines alongside counter-intuitive slogans” employing the “visual rhetoric of state propaganda, specifically patriotic American posters of the first and second world wars” (MSVU, Activist). For example the piece Deeds, 2010, Shows a red ripe tomato vine growing entwined upon a steel blue canon standing erect into the steel blue sky and in large block letters proclaims, “By their deeds ye shall know them”. Walker believes, “history shapes our self-image around the evolving relationships [of animal and machine], each iteration offering an alternative lens through which we imagine ourselves past and present” (website) and I would add our future selves. In this manner Walker’s work is a continuum of Davidson’s, a posing of the question, what is it we can do now in relation to the past threats of self-inhalation? Walker’s “parents and grandparents were farmers, soldiers, teachers, and steel workers in the United States, through multiple generations of armed conflict, economic prosperity, and depression” (NSCAD) seeing many aspects war induced of social change. The work Labor, 2010, speaks of the baggage that comes along with such strife of man and the innovations of war. Depicted is green foliage, corn and wheat, at the bottom of the print from which three bronze missiles and a barrage of machine gun like metal barrels protrude into the sky and in the very background the silhouette of farm buildings on a hill. A crest in the middle of the sprouting fauna and brash war machines states, “Where the Labor of centuries had made the land to smile” alluding to the warfare that mad mechanized farming the norm, the corporate farm leading to the collapse of the family far and eventually to the irradiation of floral diversity and the newest GMO, corn and pesticide riddled malnutrition trend of North American nations. All these posters propagate the seed of doubt in regards to the chosen path of our society. This is the subversion of the original military use of Propaganda, a warning of propaganda itself and the power of national narrative in print. “Propaganda conflates the individual and institutional, avoiding the whole by focusing on minutiae, alternatively proclaiming and perverting our humanity” (Walker, website). Yet with adaptive resolute human nature, “we keep building, we keep growing, we keep fighting… to what end, for better or for worse – and says who” (Walker, website)? The moral ambiguity of our past choices permeates each work of Walker’s, yet it is with this hindsight vision of 20/20 that the faults in humanity are scrutinized by Walker’s work in order to actively question our current political an social actions.
Lastly we encounter the work of Dan O’Neil as if to at last prove action is needed to learn from the past. Curator, Ingrid Jenker is “always looking to display works in the gallery collection” and the collection MSVU possesses various O’Neil prints, the catalyst for this exhibition. A variety of works made throughout O’Neil’s career are presented including a memento mori to the twin towers, a lithograph entitled Father! Wha’re ya doing?, 2007, showing a son newly awaken in bed kicking his father back as if a gut reaction to being suddenly startled as a second brother looks on from his bed in confusion and And then be vapourized on and all, 2011, showing a horseman being burned in the final day of kingdom come. Most notable of the collection is Black Bread Eater White Bread Eater 2004 that has been part of the MSVU collection since 2007, two large prints showing a Leave it to beaver boy character about to take a bit out of an open-faced sandwich set against and whirl of red and purple chaos, that is in front of an explosion enlarged beyond explicit recognition and rendered in half tones creating a dynamic backdrop. The MSVU Gallery website explains that O’Neil’s imagery is “lifted from the Internet, decomposed into its CMYK screens and then partially recomposed in altered colours, the ghost-like motifs in JPEGNOTES and the other collage-based lithographs trace the evolution of imaging technologies from hand-pulled graphics through photo-mechanical (analogue) to digital processes of reproduction.” His skilled technical knowledge and application of complicated and varied print making techniques add to the complexity of his prints matching the complexity of meaning he sets forth in those prints. Black Bread Eater-White Bread Eater speaks of the innocent youth living daily in the impending doom of nuclear warfare. This image is arguably assembled with feeling from his own youth during the cold war. It directly speaks to Emily Davidson’s optimistic poster renderings of a call to action in post apocalyptic times though it is conveying the death and destruction the would precede such action and echoes Walkers sentiments towards perversion to our pride in war. Where as the conscientious theme of the exhibition to look to the war-torn past to actively guide our future social decisions is present in each of O’Niel’s work it is not presented in a fluid manner. This is largely felt to the retrospective aspect of O’Niel’s work and the change of referenced subject manner spanning time from biblical antiquity to the fear riddled cold war to imagined domestic perversion allegorically presented to the real terrorist attacks on the twin towers. We can sense the implications of immoral horror and imagine this work as activist work but it is read to me as archival, a quandary. The inclusion of the real, the scripted and the imagined scenario completes the round house of validated reasons to actively make a better self and community, both global and local.
Activist Ink brings into perspective the our past social choices in relation into our contemporary ones. In examining our responses to social choices put forth in singular works and the works collectively we build a personal narrative in regards to the subject matter asking us to invent perpetuate peaceful and proactive living.
Lindsay, Hilary. “Art After Capitalism: Notes from the Inner City Artists’ Commune”. Halifax Media Co-op. Resist. 1 March 2013. < http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/story/art-after- capitalism/16075>
Jenker, Ingrid. Personal interview, Activist Ink exhibition tour. 14 February 2013.
MSVU Art Gallery. “Activist Ink”. MSVU Art Gallery. MSVU Art Gallery, 2013. 1 March 2013. <http://msvuart.ca/index.php?menid=02&mtyp=17&article_id=4 92& sby=2&sbyk=W &sbyn=572&pin=0>
MSVU Art Gallery. “Dan O’Neill: Black Bread Eater-White Bread Eater”. MSVU Art Gallery. MSVU Art Gallery, 2013. 1 March 2013. <http://msvuart.ca/index.php? menid=02&mtyp=17&article_id=439&sby=2&sbyk=O&sbyn=372&pin=1>
MSVU Art Gallery. “Why Does the University Have an Art Gallery?”. MSVU Art Gallery. MSVU Art Gallery, 2013. 2 March 2013. ,<http://msvuart.ca/index.php? menid=07/02/01&mtyp=1>
Walker, Erika. “About The Work”. Erika Walker. Floatbox, 2012. 6 March 2013. < http:// www.erickawalker.com/about_the_work.html>
Walker, Erika. “Erika Walker”. NSCAD University. Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 2008. 1 March 2013. < http://nscad.ca/en/home/academicprograms/finearts/faculty/ erickawalker/default.aspx>
Emily Davidson also did some really neat work at the Khyber!