A recent attempt has come from activist Donald Moffett, in "What Barbara Jordan Wore," the artist's first solo museum exhibition, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Like Carlyle, the former Texan believes in hero worship. The object of his homage here is a commanding orator and the first African-American woman to be elected to the Texas senate.
"What she wore was significant," Moffett has said. "It was the fashion of forthrightness and courage. She wore the burden of our hope and pride."
Clothes serve, then, as an expected metaphor. But in Moffett's installation that's not all they do. The paint on the canvases that make up part of the project looks like woven cloth some resembling open-work netting, others closely knit wool, still others a silky smooth fabric with delicate patterns.
All the paintings are of a single color and have no image. So they partake of the century-long tradition of monochrome abstraction. However, as we see, Moffett has extruded his paint to suggest weaving. And such suggestion makes it possible to have the best of both worlds, that is, for the paintings to appear abstract and representational at once.
To appear contemporary is something else. For that, painting has to be subservient to other media. Photographs now will do. But sound is better. And best of all are moving pictures with sound from the most popular medium, television.
Moffett's three-part installation thus brings paintings into the proximity of photographs of Jordan, an audiotape of her 1974 speech that dressed-down President Nixon and videotapes of her giving the speech plus reactions of listeners.
Only in the last of these is Moffett's painting something more than an adjunct. There, in fact, it is a backdrop for the projections that is necessary to blur them. Think of it: The way in which painting is most essential to the project is as a screen to receive and distort images from television. Could there be a work that more aptly, if unintentionally, mirrors the degredation of our cultural life?
Of course, Moffett doesn't see it that way. As an activist artist, monochromatic abstraction would have been to him too ivory-tower and elitist. So he's not diminishing painting as much as doing what was historically inevitable, turning it into a neutral space, an arena, for ideas about politics, which nowadays means about race and gender.
Some viewers not to mention painters will be irritated by this. But many more will mindlessly accept it because he has managed everything with the seductiveness of a window dresser. Apart from their ideas, which Moffett has projected along with his videotapes, the canvases are as labor-intensive and pretty as 1970s Pattern Paintings. What we actually see in the handiwork as opposed to what Moffett tells us it means is anodyne.
Toughness of appearance and thought here comes from Jordan. The rest turns out to be one variety or another visual or intellectual of frou-frou.
"Donald Moffett: What Barbara Jordan Wore" will continue at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., through Sept. 8; a discussion about Jordan's influence will take place on June 25. 312-280-2660.