PHILADELPHIA – Earlier this week, as the Republican National Convention kicked off, one of its first speakers, Steve King, the RNC’s Chairman of the Committee on Arrangements, announced that the convention is “our week, our reality, our time, [and] our place of choosing.” Later that same day during a televised discussion on MSNBC, another Steve King, a House Representative from Iowa, asked if there is any group of people that has contributed more to civilization than white people. It would be comforting if these Kings were characters in a horror novel by the far more famous Stephen King; unfortunately, they are part of the unquestionable reality that the rest of us live in.
Do You, Ms. Jones?, an exhibition at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, running in conjunction with both the Republican and Democratic political conventions, pokes holes in the RNC’s fallacies. The show’s title derives its name from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, which includes the lyric “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Instead of interrogating a confused, bourgeois male, the Rosenwald-Wolf exhibition poses the same question to a woman, and it’s up to the viewer to decide if she’s the Ms. Jones who mistakenly thinks that racism has been eliminated, or, if she’s the wiser one who knows the cure for bigotry is a long way off.
One of the first works likely to capture the visitor’s attention is Pope.L’s “Black People are Shit” (2012). The title, rearing its nasty head in large letters stenciled from top to bottom, is covered in swathes of green and yellow, with areas of overpainting and pentimenti in colors like blue and violet. Pope.L’s exploitation of the basic tenant of white supremacism puts in plain view the worst aspects of this year’s presidential race, not to mention an underlying principle of much of American history.
Dave Mackenzie’s “Politics is the Art of Compromise” (2008) consists of two stacks of the standard form letter sent to immigrants after being granted US citizenship and shares the same area of the gallery with Pope.L’s painting. In this work, Mackenzie erased key words and phrases from each sentence in the letter, which appears to be from the early 2000s, because it includes both Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s names. It begins with the greeting, “Dear Fellow American,” but continues this way: “I [blank] to congratulate you on becoming a [blank] citizen.” Mackenzie’s redacted version of the letter addresses the loss of personal and national identity as well as the incomplete gesture of citizenship.
Liz Magic Laser, in her brilliantly hilarious single-channel video, “The Thought Leader” (2015), satirizes the free-market ideology at the heart of neoliberalism. The short video takes the form of a TED talk, in which a young kid, entering the stage to applause, utters the opening words from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, “I am a sick man,” and goes on to tell his story of rising from an “insatiable chasm of meaninglessness.” In much the same way that Scott Walker or Paul Ryan blather on about individual freedoms, the boy manipulates the notion of personal choice through his speech. He seems both precocious and clueless. He then challenges the audience, mimicking the Underground Man, to stick their tongues out at him. The majority of them just stare at the boy, but one man gives it a go and the kid continues speaking – he’s on his game — echoing Dostoevsky once again: “consciousness is a disease.” Based on the RNC audience’s growing enthusiasm for their nominee on Wednesday night, it seems that the power of this disease to lead to self-deception knows no bounds.
For Pepón Osorio, it’s not just the RNC that has the ability to confuse and manipulate. Next week the Democratic National Convention will take place in Philadelphia, and perhaps they’ll play Osorio’s version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, the offset lithograph “Donkey Party Game” (2001),. The game is a nonstarter (or it can go on and on) because this ass has two heads and no rump.
Hans Haacke’s “Mission Accomplished” (2011) presents half of the star-studded canton of the American flag in a black frame on the wall while the other half is affixed to the floor. The stripes are not included. The title of course lampoons George W. Bush’s ludicrous 2003 speech aboard an aircraft carrier that declared victory in Iraq. It was an arbitrary act for Bush to declare success and in 2007 his administration was forced to implement the surge of US troops back into the country because the mission hadn’t actually been accomplished. Haacke’s work, with its stars on the wall and on the floor, serves as a reminder not only of that policy failure, but also that nations and their ideas are constructs. “Mission Accomplished” also obviously calls to mind Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1954-1955), which was inspired by a dream Johns had, in which he saw himself painting a large American flag.
Political campaigns, like Johns’s painting, are also based on dreams, and presidential candidates inevitably embody them for a large part of the electorate. Zoe Leonard’s 1992 work, “I Want a Dyke for President,” a simple photocopy, begins this way: “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids [sic] for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance….” Leonard closes with these words:
I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown; always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.
When this work was first produced, the AIDS epidemic had already claimed thousands of lives. And even though the first cases were documented in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ronald Reagan didn’t utter the word AIDS until a speech in 1985. To Leonard’s list of attributes of the president, we could add, “always oblivious.”
The unfortunate thing about Leonard’s work is that the problem she identifies will always be there. Right now, the Republicans are offering Donald Trump to the people. Next week, the DNC will present Hillary Clinton. Neither of these candidates will fulfill the yearnings of Leonard’s declaration. What on earth would the two Steve Kings think of the reality Leonard addresses? It’s laughable that they would ever encounter such a work, but if they did, they would probably assume that the declaration represents all that’s wrong with America. And they’d be right: it is wrong. Wrong that thieves, racists, and clowns never get caught.
Do You, Ms. Jones? continues at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery (Anderson Hall, University of the Arts, 333 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through July 29.