"#sweetjane," the newest group of drawings, video and installations by artist Andrea Bowers, takes as its emotionally wrenching subject a widely reported 2012 news story. A drunken 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was raped after a raucous party by two high school football players not much older than she.
Like Théodore Géricault grappling with the scandalous news stories of government malfeasance in the deadly shipwreck of the Medusa in 19th century France, Bowers' art has often merged piercing insight about current events with social activism. She continues that fusion here, to impressive effect.
The show is presented in two parts, one at Pomona College Museum of Art and the other at Pitzer College Art Galleries, both in Claremont. (It was organized by Rebecca McGrew and Ciara Ennis, Pomona and Pitzer curators respectively.) The school location is a pointed reflection of the subject's awful events.
The title "#sweetjane" is similarly incisive. The hashtag format indicates the prominence of social media in the notorious Steubenville story, as well as to Bowers' consideration of it in her work. That's a digital distinction that an artist like Géricault, painting at the dawn of the mechanical newspaper age, could hardly imagine.
One reason Bowers' art gets under your skin in ways that socially minded work doesn't always do is that it is so conspicuously thought-through. You trust the artist as a guide through tangled thickets.
Take something as simple as the lighting for the Pomona installation. Inside the gallery's typical white cube, the light bulbs overhead are blue and red. Given this conspicuously red-white-and-blue space, outfitted with a loveseat where a visitor can sit passively to watch, an all-American environment is constructed.
The blue lights bathe one end of the room in the implied glow of a television set. The avalanche of broadcast and cable news coverage of the event ranged from factual and straightforward to sensationalized and inept.
The red lights at the other end add a lurid element. They also recall the nickname of Steubenville's pride and joy — the high school football team, Big Red.
Bower's video, projected big under the blue lights on a wall, is a collage of news media snippets, both local and national. These are intercut with her own melancholic images, shot in the wintry Rust Belt town amid snow flurries. The gruesome story of the rape, including its context and the aftermath, is long and complicated, with countless twists and turns. But Bowers recounts it simply as a sketch, in the most general way.
A terrible crime was committed. Kids bragged about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and in dozens of cellphone messages. Adults almost swept it under the rug. Protests arose. Social media was soon overtaken by mass media. Following a trial, the two perpetrators were remanded to juvenile detention.
The economy of Bowers' recitation of the story indicates that judgment about the horrific crime is not her goal. That would be grandiose, because what response other than sorrow, disgust and the need for justice could be defended?
Instead, "#sweetjane" goes deeper. The work juxtaposes — and thus helps to clarify — the strange, muddling contradictions now so commonplace in our digital media landscape.
For example, when it looked like the crime might go unexamined by authorities, the anti-establishment hacker collective Anonymous inserted itself into the proceedings. Bowers has printed three photographs of Anonymous members, their faces shielded by Guy Fawkes masks, on large tarps that ring the room.
They function as a pictorial reference to social conscience. Anonymous is like a Greek chorus, commenting on the unfolding action of a drama of awful foolishness between ostensible gods and mortals.
Their anonymity becomes especially striking when juxtaposed with celebrity, today's coin of the realm. One blast of stardom is especially egregious.
A video clip from a local news show about the rape identifies Steubenville as a place with a history of sex-and-scandal notoriety. The town, we are informed, is the birthplace of celebrities Dean Martin and Traci Lords, one a boozy lounge-lizard and the other an actress who got her start in pornography.
The bizarre, irrelevant news clip goes by quickly, although Lords is subsequently interviewed about the rape on CNN by celebrity chat-show host Piers Morgan. (She acquits herself well.) But it packs a wallop at least as big as the infamous one that followed the reading of the court verdicts: CNN reporters lamented the lost promise of the two convicted young men, while their victim went unmentioned.