Throughout Barack Obama’s press blitz this week, it was hard not to feel like we were moving less through a retrospective of the last eight years than a eulogy for what we were losing. Here was a president who writes as eloquently as he speaks about Toni Morrison. And here is the next one, pointing to what can be plausibly be identified as books in a corner, we don’t know. When on Thursday it was reported that the president-elect’s transition team plans to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and simply eliminate both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities altogether, it probably shouldn't have come as so much of a shock—arts funding is always the first to be lopped off, and the GOP has never been much of a friend to four hour telecasts of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. The message though, if it wasn’t already crystalline, was this: Art’s relationship to a Trump administration promises to be a bear.
This morning, as Trump placed his hand on a bible in what can be described as a sustained reenactment of Munch’s “The Scream,” Jonathan Horowitz’s print Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely hung in a far corner of Petzel Gallery’s West 18th Street space in New York. A spectacular vision of our new Commander-in-Chief teeing off as the rapture descends, it’s a sobering reminder that as of noon today, a man with the temperament of a child will be entrusted with the nuclear codes. The thought is dark, but Trump’s lumpy form blithely chipping a shot under a nuclear sky that matches his unreal Cheetos complexion is also funny—because, like most things that are hilarious, it is terrifyingly close to the truth.
It's also exactly the art that promises to emerge as the dystopic fiction of a Trump presidency becomes reality: expressions of refusal.
Horowitz’s print is part of a current group exhibition, “We need to talk… Artists and the public respond to the present conditions in America." The gallery decided to forgo its planned programming for January and instead put out a call for open video submissions, a kind of town hall catharsis for the art world. It has an analog in the Hall of Issues, the space the artist Phyllis Yampolsky set up in Judson Church in 1961 as a community soundboard, which turned out to be a precursor to “Subway Therapy,” the emotional outcropping of notes that overtook the 14th Street subway station in New York immediately after the election this past November.
The videos submitted to Petzel, which are being accepted through the end of the month, are, along with a planned series of public symposiums and readings on civil liberties, immigration, and the environment, the participatory compliment to a more formal group show of new and recent protest art. It joins other institutions who felt the need to address this particular and curious moment in history, whether through special exhibitions, like “Nasty Woman” at Knockdown Center in Queens, in which around 600 artists submitted work to be sold in support of Planned Parenthood; performance, like “Regarding the Pain of Others,” which took place at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea a few weeks ago among a show of Liz Glynn’s fragmentary sculptures; and more straightforward resistance, like those who chose to close their doors today in solidarity as part of the #J20 Art Strike, an “act of non-compliance” co-signed by over a hundred and thirty artists like Cindy Sherman and Dread Scott, the artist protest movement Dear Ivanka, or Richard Prince's denouncement of his own Ivanka artwork as "a fake."
There’s a pleasingly messy sense of urgency with which the exhibition at Petzel was assembled, as with much of the art world's hastily organized protesting (it's been awhile since it has mobilized in full like this). At the gallery’s entrance, the searing, rotisserie neon of Glenn Ligon's Another Country (After James Baldwin) certainly helps to dispel, or at least disperse momentarily, our sense of cold dread. It calls up a trenchant line from the Baldwin novel from which it takes its title, “love was a country he knew nothing about.” You can direct those words at who you may.
Elsewhere, as if to illustrate our particular post-race moment, Robert Longo's American Flag, ossified and blacked-out, hovers near AA Bronson’s White Flag #8, warped, brittle, and bled of all color—a cadaver readied for autopsy. In the center of the room, Rachel Harrison’s pint-size Trump swings in effigy, equal parts Petroushka and piñata, ridiculous and dangerous.
The question of what role art will or should play in a period of psychic stress was probably not at the forefront of anyone’s imagination today as the dirge-like horror of the inauguration unfolded under heavy skies and heavier eye bags. It’s a valid question, but to answer “at least the art will be good!” or “the Reagan '80s gave us Basquiat!” partly misses the point. No artist invites the cataclysm. Nobody welcomes despondency, even if you get a good painting out of it. But the painting, or the neon sculpture, or the miniature piñata can clarify thought and focus emotion. The painting is a witness. In the end, the painting helps.
These Women Are About to Make History as the Organizers of the Women's March on Washington