Walker Art Center hosts sexy, incendiary '80s retrospective

How Ya Like Me Now? 1988 by David Hammons
How Ya Like Me Now? 1988 by David Hammons

This November, voters will go to the polls and decide who they think will be the best leaders for our country and communities. Factors such as economics, social policy, and foreign policy will surely have an impact on the choices they make. But will they think about how their vote will affect the art scene? Probably not, but a tour through the Walker Art Center's "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s" demonstrates just how much of an influence the politics of the day has on art. 

The exhibition is an explosion of ideas. The artists emerge as critical thinkers, tearing apart art forms not just for the sake of it, but in service of establishing a point of view about the harsh realities of the world. Artists make statements about war, about homophobia and AIDS, about sexism and racism, deconstructing notions of what is valued in society, and creating new ways of thinking. It's fantastic. 

In some ways, the exhibit shows why Republicans were so against the National Endowment for the Arts, as artists were able to procure such powerful messages against them. For example, there's Louise Lawler's Between Reagan and Bush, 1989 which consists of a photograph of Jeff Koons's work (a pig, a cuddly/creepy looking bear, etc.) in storage adjacent to a menu from the Silver Palate Cookbook, which lists a bunch of decadent sounding courses like sorrel flan, goat cheese popovers, and chocolate hazelnut cake. The piece is clearly critical of the excesses of the high-priced art world, but the title suggests that the blame goes to the pro-rich policies of the Reagan administration. 

Ölgemälde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Painting in Oil, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers, 1982 by Hans Haacke
Ölgemälde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Painting in Oil, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers, 1982 by Hans Haacke
An even more scorching critique of Reagan comes from Hans Haacke, whose 
Ölgemälde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Painting in Oil, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers, 1982) consists of a stately portrait of Ronald Reagan, hung on a bright red wall, with red velvet ropes keeping people at a distance. A red carpet leads viewers from the painting to a large-scale photograph by Eva Cockroft of a large rally in New York City protesting Reagan's nuclear missiles policy. 

Of course, Reagan was no fan of the NEA -- from the very start of his presidency he set out to abolish it -- but in the end it wasn't the overtly anti-administration pieces that got artists on the bad side of Republicans. Rather, it was overtly sexual, subversive, anti-religious work such as Andre Serrano's Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in my Belly that fueled the flames of the notorious Culture Wars. 
Ölgemälde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Painting in Oil, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers, 1982 by Hans Haacke
Ölgemälde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Painting in Oil, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers, 1982 by Hans Haacke

There's plenty of this type of controversial art included in the Walker's exhibit, such as Christ (stretched) by Doug and Mike Stearn, where torn and bent poster-like images of Christ are laid flat as if in a coffin and covered in broken plexiglass, or Gran Fury's Kissing doesn't Kill bus campaign billboards from 1989 featuring pictures of multi-racial and same-sex couples kissing in the style of a United Colors of Benetton ad. 

There are also several selections by Mapplethorpe in the exhibition, including Ajitto (1981), Man in Suit (1980), and Derrick Cross (1983), all of which are either photographs of totally nude black men or, in the case of Man in Suit, just a penis coming out of trousers. The accompanying curatorial note suggests that the conservative frenzy caused by these images failed to address the power relationship/dynamic between a white photographer and the objectified black model. 

Picture for Women by Jeff Wall
Picture for Women by Jeff Wall
There are numerous artists who explore gaze in this exhibition. Most notably is Jeff Wall, whose Picture for Women shows a model, a photographer, and a camera in a photograph. The '80s weren't just fertile ground for political art, but also a new emergence of postmodern deconstruction, breaking down notions of race, gender, and desire.

One of the most prominent works in the exhibit is David HammonsHow Ya Like Me Now? (1988), which is a painting of Reverend Jesse Jackson with white skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. The large painting is roped off with pillars made of sledgehammers, and an American flag is at the side. The in-your-face image questions both overt and subtle forms of racism by examining the role race plays in interpersonal relationships. At the same time, the work broadly skewers American culture, asking viewers to question what it means to be patriotic.

Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat

There are many more examples of terrific work in this exhibit including Alfredo Jaar's We are all created Equal, 1984 which juxtaposes a picture of a baby in an ad with a Newsweek photograph of soldiers at war, and Doris Salcedo's excruciating collection of cloth shirts symbolizing the men who died for labor struggle in Columbia. There's work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. There are some wonderful examples of the personal mingling with the political by Jimmie Durham, a Native American artist whose tongue-in-cheek portrait pokes fun and also criticizes western images of Native Americans.  

In all, the exhibit hits home the point that the '80s really was an amazing decade for art. Too bad it was also a decade of rising poverty, increasing gaps between the rich and poor, increasing militarism, and terrible fashion. Let's hope bad policies aren't necessary for such an emergence of creativity. 


"This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s"
Exhibit runs through September 30
Walker Art Center

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