ART REVIEW : The Passionate Statements of Social Activism

If you are Tracy Chapman, you can write songs about injustice and millions will hear them. But if you are an artist who wants people to understand the evils perpetrated by police states or racism in America, you run into a number of problems. Not the least of them is the art world’s fondness for fancy theoretical principles and its distaste for the wearisome stridence of the activist message.

And yet some artists continue to produce passionately polemical work that calls out to a non-elite group of viewers while retaining the rigor and thoughtfulness of serious art. The six painters from Los Angeles and New York collected under the banner “AGIT/POP” at Otis/Parsons Art Gallery in Los Angeles (to Oct. 22) make a strong case for the range of subtlety and brashness that such socially and politically motivated efforts can plausibly encompass.

Leon Golub, the elder statesman of this group, imbues his immense images of oppressor and oppressed with a curious moral equilibrium. By their postures ye shall know them--the tall soldier digging his boot heel into a fallen man’s arm, the seated naked woman bound and tormented by her two standing captors. But the face of evil is not necessarily an ugly one. In her shadowy etchings and drawings, Sue Coe marshals armies of crabbed figures--descendants of caricatures by Georg Grosz--in real and imagined dramas of solitary and mass suffering enacted in grubby dens of iniquity or cruel landscapes. A notorious gang rape in a bar, a coin-headed landlord gripping a building from which humanoids leap out like cockroaches, a crowd armed with giant forks to pursue a pig--these scenes have the airless quality of nightmare or fable or old, flickering newsreels.

Erika Rothenberg’s coloring book-like satires tartly package wishy-washy white middle-class thoughts for inspection. One painting shows a dashiki-clad African family clumped in front of a sparkling American house where a blond newspaper boy is about to fling a paper. Yellow letters spell out a chirrupy message: “If you work hard and uphold good moral values some day your country will be as happy as ours.”


Robbie Conal, who organized the exhibit, was not above including his own one-shot imagery in it. His thickly painted, every-curl-and-wrinkle-intact famous faces--the Reagans, the Bakkers (“False Profit”)--are modern-day icons carefully groomed for the camera.

Jerry Kearns’ paintings combine imagery from comic books and blown-up dot-screened newspaper photographs. Sometimes the point he is trying to make gets obscured by his flashy technique, but in “Bushwhacked” the glimpses of faces peering out of a flurry of undergrowth at a bandoliered gunslinger offer a vivid sensation of guerrilla combat.

Barbara Carrasco’s mural, “L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective"--commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency in 1981 for a downtown site--became the target of a suit for its portrayal of unsavory moments of Los Angeles history. But the net impact of the piece, painted by a team of people in a style that sometimes imitatesold photographs, is a balance of the shameful and the beautiful, the trivial and the momentous--much like any honest slice of life.