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Facing Violence With Brushes and Ballots


Late in the evening on Jan. 5, dozens of art-world insiders received a fundraising message from Nancy Pelosi. “I’m in disbelief,” the text began. “Tomorrow is the anniversary of the violent, deadly insurrection on our nation’s capitol, and several reports show Republicans surging in the run-up to the midterms. We need to send a strong message that our democracy is sacred.”

The message was typical enough of the calls to arms blasted by progressive campaigns and organizers such as ActBlue and MoveOn. But then, the kicker: “That’s why I need you to show up at the opening of artist Paul Chan’s new exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery, tomorrow ...”

“Pelosi” then recited the news release for Chan’s new show.

It turns out the text was a joke. But the subtext was not. The storming of the Capitol was too dire to ignore, with a half-dozen lives lost, traumatized police and hundreds of rioters facing criminal charges. Chan, an artist, activist and satirist, and a winner of the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize (as the “Pelosi” text emphasized), is not alone among those compelled to face Jan. 6 through their artwork: The anniversary had a handful of other memorial openings.

Was Chan’s toonish but grave exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, a worthwhile response? Where Trump’s followers chose violence, the artist offered “A drawing as a recording of an insurrection.” The show features a single double-sided drawing done in brushed black ink, suspended diagonally across the gallery in a plexiglass frame. One side depicts tumbling, churning masses of protesters urged on by a blustering, Trump-like cloud. The so-called QAnon Shaman is there, centered in the banner-size composition, unmistakable with his buffalo headdress and bare nipples (Jacob Chansley — his real name — was sentenced to 41 months for his role). Flanking the Capitol dome, which swarms with rampaging stick-figures, the sun and crescent moon shed tears.

Beneath the zany, energetic portrayal of the MAGA throng, Chan includes the cartoon faces of stricken Capitol Police Officers, given X’s for eyes. The other side takes us inside the House chamber, where more stick figures run amok around the composition’s border, hanging upside down and sideways. They stare into laptops and film one another with their blocky, brushy phones.

The exhibition seems founded in the heartfelt belief — asserted by many artists in the last year — that some response to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, was necessary. And how else can an artist respond, if not with art?

But the exhibition also concedes that maybe art isn’t enough: The news release states that Greene Naftali will hold a voter-registration drive for the duration of Chan’s exhibition; those who sign up will receive an original drawing Chan made “as a gesture of appreciation for affirming the basic and inalienable right to vote in America.”

Let’s set aside the likelihood that visitors to Chan’s show in Chelsea will already be seasoned voters. It’s not clear that voting is enough, either, given that the exact event at issue was a rejection of due process, an attempt to void inalienable votes cast in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere.

Indeed, crying moon and all, the show’s very earnestness can seem like a joke. According to the news release, Chan painted the Capitol picture with his left, “non-dominant” hand in an attempt to reduce the authority of the artist’s voice, and as an exercise in letting go. This deliberate de-skilling, a faux-naif embrace of “pure,” even childish expression, puts the work squarely in conversation with so-called outsider art, the bloody revolt of Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls in particular.--NYT

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