On May 18, 2009, a headline on the front page of The New York Times read “As Alaska Glaciers Melt, It’s Land That’s Rising.” The story told how, because of the unusual geography around Juneau, glacial melting has relieved pressure on land that was once under water, causing the relative sea level to fall. This is the kind of news that grabs the attention of Alexis Rockman (BFA 1985 Fine Arts), an artist who makes highly realistic landscape paintings that imagine the catastrophic results of climate change. Probably the best known of these is Manifest Destiny (2003–04), a large-scale mural commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum that depicts the stretch of land from the museum to the Brooklyn Bridge as a vast flood plain.
For sheer visual impact, the painting rivals the special effects of a Hollywood disaster movie, but it is, in fact, firmly rooted in science. Born out of the artist’s concern over the world’s unchecked fossil fuel consumption, the work warns of potential devastation along the Eastern seaboard due to rising sea levels.
By creating a sort of fine arts equivalent of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, Rockman joins an increasingly visible group of artists that is challenging the social and political status quo without sacrificing critical or commercial recognition. Looking to television, newspapers, magazines and the Internet for material, they have found ways of expressing their concerns about the environment, government and society while successfully building an audience for their work.
The artists and observers all agree that this isn’t the same as the political art of the 1960s or 1970s. In addition to the media employed by the artists, there is also an important distinction to be made in terms of sensibility: “We are in the midst of a reaction against early feminist art, identity art,” says Isabel Taube, an art historian who teaches in SVA’s BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department. “Artists are moving away from being spokespeople for certain groups or identities.” This shift is particularly striking when an artist engages with hot-button issues like climate change.
When Rockman’s Manifest Destiny first went on view, for example, some of the world’s leading environmental groups started calling for interviews. But he hasn’t looked for this kind of attention, choosing instead to immerse himself in the science behind the headlines in order to make new work. Last year he traveled to Antarctica to observe firsthand the increasingly fragile ecosystem there, which inspired South, a monumental work on paper that was exhibited at the Leo Koenig, Inc. gallery in New York City. “I’m not just at the service of being an activist or conservationist,” Rockman says, as he prepares for a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., next year. “I’m a professional artist.”
Another artist who has not shied away from politically charged content is Nancy Chunn, a longtime faculty member in the BFA Fine Arts Department and Division of Continuing Education who has earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In the late 1980s she painted a series of stylized maps of geopolitical hot spots like Iran, Iraq and North and South Korea. The reactions were mixed: “Political people didn’t think I was political enough,” she says, “and painters didn’t think I was painterly enough.” Then, in 1996 she completed a much-commented-on series called Front Pages, in which she used inks, pastels and custom-made rubber stamps to alter the front page of each day’s edition of The New York Times for all of 1996. The response was overwhelming.
A self-described “news junkie” who watches television constantly and reads the Times religiously, Chunn realized that she had an opportunity to “talk back to power” right on her doorstep and unleashed her arch sense of humor and knack for appropriation by using the newspaper as her canvas. Responding to a story published by the Times on June 2 that India had installed its second government in 17 days, she applied her own headline with one of the dozens of rubber stamps she created: below the photo of the newly installed prime minister, it reads “Don’t Unpack.” Farther down on page 1, photos of senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran from their college cheerleading days are colored in and embellished with the “mouse-ears” headgear worn by members of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.
Meanwhile, in the August 31 edition the artist found a photo of Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the campaign trail and recast them as characters from the animated TV series The Jetsons; in another photo, Chunn made over Clinton and Gore’s Republicans opponents—Bob Dole and running mate Jack Kemp—as Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In each case, some of the world’s most powerful individuals are not just seen as fallible but rendered a bit ridiculous in their tireless efforts to win supporters.
Other members of the SVA community are tackling similar topics in their work. Taiwanese-born artist Hai-Hsin Huang (MFA 2009 Fine Arts) created a series titled Political Paintings that calls attention to the disconnect between publicity shots and the complex reality of international relations. Huang’s paintings strip away the backgrounds of the staged photos and simplify the figures, transforming a pseudo-documentary image into a kind of political cartoon. Sarah Ferguson (MFA 2008 Fine Arts), also found inspiration—and a sense of connection—in the realm of politics. A fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, Ferguson followed the senator’s every move during the primary contest via the Internet and made a series of portraits using images she found online.
What most struck the artist was the news media’s persistent sexualization of a sitting member of the U.S. Senate, one the most powerful individuals in government. As if to bring this subtext to the surface, one of the more arresting works in the series depicts the candidate in the nude, looking directly at the viewer. On seeing the work, some men have confessed their own attraction to the subject, while some women have had an emotional reaction. “You’re in a relationship with that persona,” Ferguson says of the way political figures become part of people’s lives. “You project your personal aspirations onto them.”
Noa Charuvi (MFA 2008 Fine Arts) is an Israeli artist who now lives in New York City. For the past two years, she has been painting parts of the West Bank that she could not safely visit in person, even were she still living there. Thanks to Israeli human-rights organizations who post photographs of the occupied territories on the Web, the artist can observe the landscape as it is altered by military conflict. By abstracting the forms of these modern-day ruins in pastel-toned brushwork, Charuvi captures the sense of loss and instability that is a way of life for some Israelis and Palestinians. Some people, including members of her own family, have been critical of her choice to “paint other people’s pain,” but she continues to produce even bigger, more lyrical canvases in the same vein. “A painting has to be both beautiful and difficult to be true,” she says.
While artists like Rockman and Charuvi have adjusted their technique and color palette to create works that are lush and painterly, Chunn has taken humor to a new level in her latest work, Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear, which was exhibited at the Ben Maltz Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and earned the artist a 2009 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Begun in 2003, this ongoing series of acrylic paintings on canvas updates the popular Chicken Little children’s tale for the era of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet. “We are now exposed to new fears nonstop,” says Chunn. “Listening to all this noise, and not being Jon Stewart, I decided that the only way to maintain any level of sanity in this age of absurdity was to restage the nursery story of the paranoid fowl who rashly jumped to false conclusions that the sky was falling when an acorn hit her on the head.”
The first segment of Chicken Little, The Garden, deals with some of the same environmental ills seen in Rockman’s work. Painted in bubble-gum colors in a style reminiscent of sign painting, the work brings together an assortment of copyright-free clip-art images for all-ages appeal. In one panel, a scarecrow catches fire from extreme heat. Elsewhere, a spotted owl flies over a pile of felled pine trees, a swarm of bees descends on a fox, a shark leaps from an apparently toxic body of water and an overgrown tomato dwarfs a box of Miracle-Gro fertilizer. In the center panel, an “As Seen on TV” icon announces the source for so many unsettling scenarios. In The Bathroom and The Kitchen, the action moves indoors, where, instead of finding safety, Chicken Little faces a whole new set of dangers. Taken together, Chunn’s paintings are a catalog of the real and imagined threats transmitted in endless rotation by the media. What does “health” mean in a society where the risks and benefits of foods and drugs are subject to constant revision? How can people feel safe when the home becomes a kind of war zone, with bacteria and pests a deadly enemy?
Some may be tempted to see Rockman, Chunn and other such like-minded artists as activists with a paintbrush. For his part, Rockman says, “I felt, out of conscience, that I had to make my work about certain things that weren’t necessarily pleasant.” By exposing society’s collective hopes and fears, these artists have deftly captured a world in peril and full of contradictions. But by also making room for beauty and humor, and raising questions rather than promoting a specific agenda, their work signals a departure from much political art of the past. It is a strategy that encourages viewers to separate myth from reality and confront the problems at hand.