November 18, 2004
Vol. 24 No. 5

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    ‘A Perfect Union . . . More or Less:’ Artists urge questioning beyond black-and-white views

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    Twelve artists from across the United States represent, examine and question Americans’ democratic values in the images and installations of artwork in the new Renaissance Society exhibition, “A Perfect Union . . . More or Less.” On display is Van McElwee’s looped DVD titled Flag and Its Shadow.

    Joeff Davis’ digital archival photo Faith Voter and Flag was taken on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.

    Dominic McGill’s “Project for a New American Century,” a 7- by-65-foot scroll (graphite on paper), looks back over the 20th century and records through illustrated newspaper headlines and sound bites the often-contradictory state of affairs in America.

    Joeff Davis shot the digital archival photo People of Compassion on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.

    Somewhere between Iraq and Afghanistan, the red states and the blue states, and George Bush and John Kerry, something got lost.

    As Americans scrutinized same-sex marriage, health care and the economy and disagreed on many of these issues as the presidential election approached, the Renaissance Society was preparing an exhibition of artists’ work that might prompt a deeper examination of the democratic freedom that allows such disagreements. What is our national identity? Who are we as a people? What is our role in the world?

    In an attempt to examine the underlying issues of living in a democracy, the Renaissance Society is offering a visual way to get the discussion started.

    In the society’s latest exhibition, “A Perfect Union ... More or Less,” 12 artists respond to the general sense of fraying they see in the national fabric. Through a variety of icons and images by which Americans often recognize themselves, the artists ask pointed questions about national identity.

    “There are more fundamental questions we need to answer than ‘are you for or against gay marriage,’ ‘are you for or against George W. Bush,’ ‘are you for or against the war,’” said Hamza Walker, the Education Director of the Renaissance Society and the show’s curator. “The art we have here is about something more fundamental than issue-based art. It’s about democracy and what that really means.”

    Though the show is obviously political in nature, it also is non-partisan. Walker selected all of the art in the exhibition because it specifically did not take a position on any issue or candidate.

    “There’s no ‘Down with Bush’ or ‘Down with Kerry’ here,” he said. “There’s ‘Let’s examine what a democracy is’ and ‘what does it mean to vote?’ Instead of looking for a particular point of view, I looked for a particular perspective on the national identity.”

    The show includes sculpture, prints, video, photography, two yarn rugs and one 7-by-65-foot text-based drawing, a giant black-and-white scroll by artist Dominic McGill that is covered with slogans and newspaper headlines from over the course of the 20th century. Sayings like “By any means necessary” and “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” sit next to the headlines “Monkeys in space” and “Who is the Manson Family?”

    “It’s just an accumulation of sound bites that add up to a contradictory state of affairs,” Walker said of the piece, titled Project for a New American Century. “It’s as accurate a representation of the national psyche as one can get. Anything more cogent would be a lie.”

    Other pieces examine the exercising of democracy, from small-town assemblies and national presidential elections, to the aesthetics of government and partisan divisions. Poet Jennifer Benka teamed up with artist Mark Wagner to create A Revisioning of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States, an art book that examines the Constitution. Benka wrote a poem for every word in the preamble, and Wagner created 50 one-of-a-kind books, unique to every state in the nation.

    Artist Mark Themann created a video installation that also encourages consideration of the Constitution. In his piece, a man with an intense stutter recites selected articles of the Constitution over iconic American landscape imagery like the Mohave Desert and the Great Plains.

    “All of the works say something about the basic tenets of this country,” Walker said. “But I also like them because they are removed from the political state of a lot of other shows. Instead of questioning President Bush, these works question what our country is founded on—democracy.”

    Though Walker included pieces from all over the country, including works by artists from Los Angeles, New York and Missouri, a quarter of the artists are Chicago-based.

    Photojournalist Joeff Davis, who covered both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this past summer, presents nine photos from each convention.

    Chicago artist Rashid Johnson, who examines the post-Civil Rights representation of African Americans in politics, secured donated outfits that three black leaders wore over the years for his installation, Evolution of the Negro Political Costume.

    “A Perfect Union ... More or Less” will be exhibited until Sunday, Dec. 19, at the Renaissance Society, Room 418 in Cobb Hall. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://renaissancesociety.org/ or call (773) 702-8670.