At Heights Arts, “Public Conscience” searches souls of designers and illustrators
“Public Conscience,” now on display at Heights Arts, can be thought of as one of two things.
First off, it can be conceptualized as a sampling of artistic opinion at the tail end of the grueling, 18-month 2016 general election campaign. Conceived of in October of last year, the selected works are meant to speak to “world issues, popular culture, [and] trends in daily life.”
Now I know what your first question is, and the answer is “No.” “Public Conscience” is not a collection of commentaries on President Donald Trump. Though it can be hard to remember at times, there is more to American politics than the former host of The Apprentice. Only one piece in the show depicts the man himself (more on that later). Many artists speak to ongoing concerns which were made more urgent by the Trump phenomena, but which preceded it and will outlive it. These include the environment, diversity, addiction, and even the social value of art.
Secondly, “Public Conscience” might also be considered a showcase of Northeast Ohio illustrators and graphic designers. Because designers and illustrators’ work appears in books or other commercial materials—not galleries or museums—they can become isolated from “the art world” after getting their degrees. As curator Dave King noted in promotional materials for the exhibit, “People see the work of illustrators and graphic artists in print form but they don’t see the original work. Because of this disconnect, [i]llustrators and graphic designers are frequently not viewed as artists.” Heights Arts wishes to promote their art as art.
“Public Conscience” is stronger as a display of designers and illustrators’ talents than it is an anthology of social criticism. This is simply because not every contributed artwork is political. Some are avowedly apolitical. This doesn’t mean these work aren’t engaging; they very often are.
For example: Justin Michael Will has designed promo materials for the Pennsylvania-based punk band Punchline and logos for Cleveland’s own Souper Market. Not new to the gallery scene, he has also shown work at Canopy. Will’s recent studio art consists of abstracts which switch between styles suggestive of graffiti, geometry, and organic forms. Will’s work at Heights Arts is something different. It’s drawing, not paint, and figurative rather than abstract. Also, it’s completely charming. You’ll want to be buddies with the little beings Will draws. Noodly limbs and minimalist faces (think two periods for eyes and a hyphen for a mouth) call to mind Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Like that show, Will deftly combines the cute and familiar with the phantasmagorical. In one composition, an armless green guy walks by in a top hat and kickin’ sneakers. In another, a rainbow-colored conch shell peeks out through a single eye; he might have seemed alien, but for his flamboyant orange pants.
By design, there is no socio-political commentary in Will’s drawings. In his artist statement, he explains that drawing is a means of keeping happy and calm. “While I am always affected by the world around me, I try to focus on staying frivolous and loose with my content,” Will writes. In short, his cartoons are a welcome break from the news.
Other works don’t speak to any specific issue or politician, but nonetheless have something to say. Jake Kelly— he of two decades of Grog Shop posters, Melt’s murals, and the horror comic The Lake Erie Monster—imbues subtle commentary in his pen and ink composition “Growlers Poster.” In it, eleven teens party on some rocks under a board walk. Beers are drunk, a joint is passed, skinny dips taken. Signs over wharf bars promise “CHEAP RATES,” “FREE LOVE TEST!” and “XXX.” And above it all, the meteoric remains of the moon sprawl across the night sky. Some unnamed catastrophe has turned Earth’s satellite into lunar rubble; but for now, life continues much as it did before. Maybe the orbital catastrophe has sparked an ecological crisis—the skeletal remains of a monstrous whale poking out of the shallows hint at this—but adolescents are still seeking out a buzz, and belonging. People continue to be people in a crisis, and this is a blessing and a curse. By ignoring them, we can learn to tolerate horrors, be they political or cosmic.
Artist and cartooning instructor Josh Usmani displays work from his “Funny Money” series. In this ongoing project, 100-some pieces strong, Usmani inks clown faces and psychedelic patterns onto real paper currency from the U.S. and abroad. (In this show, vandalized bills from America, Brazil, China, New Zealand, and Turkey are displayed.) The defacement of legal tender is meant to provoke questions about the nature of value—monetary, artistic, and otherwise.
Even though almost most vendors wouldn’t accept Usmani’s bills in exchange for goods or services, they remain bearers of value. By some measures, they carry more value than they had as money. Usually, the price of a work of art is irrelevant to its meaning. But when Usmani’s work is on sale, the cost is itself a component of the work. One inked $20 bill Usmani is selling at Heights Arts is priced at $600—30 times the value it had as currency. Viewers have to ask: Is it worth it? Evidentially, that’s the price the market will bear—but is there more to value than what can be measured in a monetary exchange? Such are the questions Usmani cleverly poses.
At least one of the bills at Heights Arts extends Usmani’s social criticism in new directions. In “Funny Money-Twenty Dollars (Wahoo)”, Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo’s grinning face is drawn over President Andrew Jackson’s portrait. The piece was created in Oct. 2016 in celebration of the Indians’ placement in the 112th World Series. However, it’s also a potent invocation of America’s genocidal history. Wahoo is of course a racist icon whose continued merchandizing inspires annual protests around the Indians’ season opener. As a military officer, Jackson earned the nicknames “Indian Killer” and “Sharp Knife” for his brutality against indigenous Americans during the 1813-1814 Creek War. As president, he signed 1830’s Indian Removal Act. Though forcible relocation and ethnic cleansing of American Indians did not begin with Jackson, in the two decades after the Act’s passage, at least 59,000 natives were forced from their homelands. Uncounted tens of thousands died of disease or violence during the process. Combining Wahoo and Jackson into a hybrid caricature reminds viewers that our national shame is not behind us. Along with the value of money, we are forced to confront the value we continue to bestow on cruel historic figures even while we strive to morally surpass them.
Kelly and Usmani’s works are almost philosophical in their scope, but other contributors grapple with more concrete topics.
Consumerism, addiction, and environmental ravishment come up for indictment in acrylic paintings made by the wife-husband duo of Laura and Gary Dumm. Gary is a comic book artist who worked for over three decades with Harvey Pekar on countless strips and two book-length nonfiction comics. Laura is a retired graphic designer who has collaborated with Gary on several large-scale projects after stepping away from her own company. The most recognizable of these joint projections has to be the “Our Love Letter to Cleveland” mural at W. 25th Street’s Orange Blossom Press.
Of the three paintings the Dumms made, “Old King Coal” offers the most direct challenge to its audience. Dead center in the canvas, Boris Karloff in the guise of Frankenstein’s creature grimaces sickly at the viewers. Smoke stacks labelled “COAL” and “STEEL” jut from his head, spewing pollutants. Over the creature’s shoulder, a girl in a red dress and surgical mask waves the flag of the People’s Republic of China.
China and the U.S. are, respectively, the number one and number two most prolific emitters of CO2 greenhouse gas. But Americans, and Ohioans in particular, are the ones given a stern address by the Dumms. Cleveland, of course, is a former steel town, and in 2014 Ohio produced 22.3 million tons of coal. These industries did—and in some cases still do—provide gainful jobs in an increasingly underemployed economy. But as they are practiced now, they contribute to the destabilization of our climate. The Dumms do not entirely blame the U.S. for the imminent eco-pocalypse (hence the Chinese girl). Yet they remind us of our particular responsibilities.
The Dumms’ “Druggieland” is an inspired concept with problematic execution. The painting is the set for a Candyland-style board game which dramatizes opioid addiction. If gallery-goers supply their own dice, they can roll and try to “win” by landing in rehab, and avoid ending up in prison or the morgue. By turning addiction into a game of chance, the Dumms emphasize sufferers’ loss of control. For the addict, choice and compulsion blur, and dumb luck can mean the difference between life and death.
The painting is a powerful piece of black comedy, undermined by one choice. In the painting’s lower left corner, we see the would-be addict “characters” whose identities hypothetical players of the game would adopt. They are a pair of white hipsters playing with smartphones. One complains, “Hey, my thumbs hurt…” His partner replies, “Take a pill!!”
Making whiny millennials the face of opioid addiction misrepresents the crisis. It’s happening not just in youthful urban enclaves, but rural areas, too—not for nothing is OxyContin nicknamed “hillbilly heroin.” Nor is the epidemic entirely the product of doctors catering to patients seeking quick fixes for workaday aches and pains. Granted, “pill mills” are real. However, more scrupulous physicians believe that, despite their inherent risks, opioids are the only tolerable option for patients recovering from surgery, in the late stages of cancer, or living with chronic pain conditions. The Dumms have the right to question this medical consensus, and the Druggieland hipsters might have been a hipster joke for the sake of a hipster joke. Maybe I’m reading subtext that isn’t there. But it’s too easy to read the hipsters as embodiments of scorn for addiction sufferers.
Joe Lanzilotta speaks most directly to the Trump phenomena. A designer emulating Swiss minimalism, he was commissioned by the City Club of Cleveland to illustrate a commemorative button for the 2016 Republican National Convention. Spinning off that concept, Lanzilotta created ten images based on moments and moods of the 2016 election, and longstanding symbols of American politics (e.g. the bald eagle and bull moose).
Two companion pieces are time capsules of progressive and institutionalist hopes that Trumpian populism was a stillborn movement. “Evocation” imagines the moment of Hillary Clinton’s clinching of the presidency. A jubilant HRC, clad in a signature pantsuit, holds her arms aloft and forks her fingers into double V-signs. Meanwhile, “Public Conscience’s” sole image of Trump, “Party’s Over,” depicts a man defeated. The plutocrat stares blankly ahead, limply holds Old Glory, and stands in a puddle of unearned confetti. Together, the images remind us of supposed inevitabilities which never came to pass. For that reason, despite their endearing style, the two pictures are haunting.
More hopeful is Lanzarotta’s “AmeriKhan Family,” a portrait of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani-American parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in 2004 during deployment in Iraq. This reminder of their DNC speech and the Americanness of immigrants and Muslims is a simple message, but a necessary one.
This review includes six of the 14 artists exhibiting in “Public Conscience.” A longer review would allow discussion of The Bubble Process’ concert posters, Nancy Schwartz-Katz’s mobile of the Hebrew alphabet, and Cleveland’s punk laureate Derek Hess’ love letters to 8-track tapes. For now I can do nothing else but recommend you see them.
“Public Conscience” runs through April 16 at Heights Arts. The gallery is located at 2175 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. On Thursday March 30 at 7 p.m., several artists will give talks at “Ekphrastacy.” The event will also include readings of original poems by area wordsmiths Jeffrey Bowen, Clarissa Jakobsons, Chuck Joy, and Emily Troia. For more information, please call 216-371-3457 or go to heightsarts.org.