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The political canvas

Visual artists, almost always Democratic, are joining in gallery shows, sales and auctions to raise money for the presidential campaign.

August 25, 2004|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

It used to be, politicians offered patronage to the arts. But these days, it seems, it's the other way around. Artists of all stripes are becoming the benefactors of needy politicians.

Mobilized by the presidential election, visual artists as diverse as Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, John Baldessari and Shepard Fairey are turning brush and paint to political use.

While some are protesting the Bush administration and the Iraq war through visual commentary in gallery shows and on the streets, others have mobilized to raise money.

"It's an important election, and it's something I feel I have to do," said painter Laura Owens, who has donated artwork, hosted fund-raisers and participated in "Art Works for Hard Money," an art auction that took place in New York in late June. Although not everyone is as actively involved as she is, many artists are donating works for auctions, most to benefit Democratic causes.

Although artists have commented on politics through the ages -- Goya recording the horrors of war, William Hogarth etching voting fraud in his "Four Prints of an Election," George Grosz drawing Weimar leaders with less-than-flattering pen strokes -- using gallery mailing lists to raise money for a presidential candidate is a decidedly late 20th century phenomenon.

"People are really sensing the urgency of this election," said Scott Lawrimore, curator of the Seattle-based Greg Kucera gallery, which is selling art to benefit America Coming Together, a Democratic activist group.

When the gallery sent out e-mails announcing the "2004 Election Benefit Print Series," most collectors and other buyers responded with enthusiasm, but a few asked to be taken off the mailing list, Lawrimore said.

In Los Angeles, noted printmaker Gemini G.E.L. is collaborating with 10 artists, including Serra, Kelly, Baldessari, Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, on a number of $1,000 prints. Signed by the artists, all the works were created in 2004 to benefit ACT.

"It's a risky thing to do for any artist" because it can affect the price of other work, said Baldessari of donations. "You have to calculate.... You can't give to every cause."

But, he added, "sometimes things reach a boiling point and you have to do something. And that's the world I know."

Baldessari added that although there has been a flurry of auctions to benefit the Democrats, "if I know any artists who are Republicans, they haven't identified themselves."

In New York, at least one painter has. Scott LoBaido, a self-described "creative patriot," plans to make "history by being the only NYC artist to pay tribute to the Republican party" with his show, "Hail to the Chief," at a Manhattan gallery. The Republican National Convention there next week, he said, will be his "super bowl moment."


'You use what you have'

Just as musicians use music to get out the vote, "in the art world, you use art," said Gemini co-director Stanley Grinstein, who hopes to raise $2.5 million from the prints. "You use what you have."

Some of the images have explicit references to politics and current events. The Serra lithograph is derived from the now-famous image of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner, and the Baldessari screen print depicts two men arm-wrestling. But others, such as an orange abstraction by Kelly, have seemingly no political connection.

This is the first time Gemini has gotten involved in a presidential election. In 1988 the printmaker raised $1.6 million in an attempt to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican. Next month the printmaker will host an invitation-only fundraiser for John Kerry.

"The whole creative community has been mobilized, whether it's contributing artwork or getting directly involved, working on advertisements or the campaign itself," said Bronwyn Keenan, a founding member of "Downtown for Democracy," a political action committee.

A sale of artwork curated by Baldessari, Owens, Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton, Meg Cranston, Nick Lowe and others raised more than $80,000 for that group at a New York auction in June. Another sale, at Phillips, de Pury & Co. in New York and organized by ACT and ARTS PAC, raised $2.1 million with an auction of more than 170 works, including pieces by Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko.

On a more modest scale, an "Art for Kerry" event at Sister Gallery in L.A.'s Chinatown raised $25,000 last month.


Giving birth to activism

"It's the whole range," said painter Owens. "It's 'Let's make a sign and hang it off the freeway' to the organized stuff like the 527s," independent groups under that section of the tax code.

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