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“Painting the protest”: a spectacle of silent dissent

Most “political” art destined for galleries and art fairs has no effect on the rest of the world, but artists continue to do so. Why? Hoping to appease their souls and shape collective karma, I guess. A cohort of 17 such karmic markers make up “Paint the Protest” at Off Paradise, a group exhibition curated by Nancy Spector, former artistic director and chief curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Most of the artists are familiar, although some of the works their names are attached to may not be. Three near-abstract paintings of Richard Prince’s blank protest signs from 1994 have little obvious connection to his sardonic appropriations of pop culture. A recently created NFT animation, “Untitled 2021 (rich bastards, beware)”, by Rirkrit Tiravanija, could be just about anyone. More interesting is a set of graphite drawings he commissioned from some of his art school students, based on newspaper photographs of political protests taking place around the world. The drawings date from 2015; the events described then could occur today: the rhythm, in perpetual repetition, continues.

A few performers deliver versions of traditional protest props. Sharon Hayes’ textile banners of 2021 carry the irresolute phrases “What Do We Want” and “When Will This End”. The fact that the words themselves, pasted from torn scraps of newspaper, would likely not survive a light downpour if the banners were actually carried down the street may say something about a seemingly diminished belief in the effectiveness of protests. 1960s style mass media in an era of social media.

At the same time, a group of abstract paintings by Jacqueline Humphries mounted, like signs, on sticks, feels at the height of the political moment in light of China’s recent ‘white paper revolution’, which has found protesters , in a collective anti-authoritarian gesture, displaying blank sheets of paper, a strategy designed both to thwart specific censorship and to allow many readings.

In Spector’s exhibition, I am happy to reacquaint myself with Dread Scott’s “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide”, a performance photograph from 2014 in which the artist – one of our best – had blown himself up with fire hoses in memory of the police attacks on black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. And to be able to relive, even in a distracting group setting, Raven Chacon’s stunning audio piece “Silent Choir (Standing Rock),” a highlight of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, is a gift.

Presenting works by artists new to or outside the canonical circle is a karmic obligation. The show does this with the work of Aaron Huey – apocalyptic, AI-generated images printed on seeded paper of Washington, D.C., in flames – and with photographs of young Cuban-born Francisco Masó, based in Miami, performing choreographed moves he calls “dull body drills.”

The director of Spector and Off Paradise, Natacha Polaert, was careful to recognize and soften the lucrative motivation behind the “political” art nurtured by institutions and to adjust it a little: All profits from the sale of certain Works from the exhibit will go to Downtown for Democracy’s “get-out-the-vote” initiative.

Spector has provided at least a strong hint of what’s going on. She included a 2018 piece by veteran activist artist Marilyn Minter, a wall plaque printed with obscene and misogynistic quotes from Donald Trump’s infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape. And she hung the piece, alone, in the gallery bathroom.

The installation there recalls that in 2017, when the Trump White House asked the Guggenheim to loan a van Gogh painting from its collection, Spector, as chief curator at the time, responded with a counter offer. She offered to send, instead, a contemporary piece: a sculpture (by Maurizio Cattelan) of a life-size, fully functional 18-karat gold toilet. The work was titled “America”. His rude gesture caused a stir in the art world and – that’s what matters – even beyond.

paint the protest

Through Jan. 27 at Off Paradise, 120 Walker Street, Manhattan; (212) 388-9010, offparadise.com.

nytimes Gt

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