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Protest politics on canvas

'Art of Engagement' explores California's history of intersecting art and activism.

January 08, 2006|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

"You cannot prevent war with art. But I can make a drawing of a hand, which will make everyone feel that this hand must not be destroyed."

-- BERNHARD HEISIG,painter quoted in "Art of Engagement, Visual Politics in California and Beyond,"

by Peter Selz

*

PART personal reflection, part history, part pictorial reference -- with 200 color illustrations and black-and-white photographs of paintings, posters, collages, murals, installations and other works -- art historian Peter Selz's new book explores the local and global effects of California's tradition of political art, sparked by such issues as the internment of Japanese Americans, McCarthyism, the Chicano labor movement, global warming and the current war in Iraq.

Among the images are Hans Burkhardt's "My Lai" (1968), Faith Ringgold's 1967 piece "The Flag Is Bleeding" and the Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation "The Umbrellas, Japan-USA" (1984-91).

The book "does not pretend to be objective," Selz says. "It is written from a politically progressive point of view."

That point of view, Selz says by phone from his Berkeley home, has its roots in his childhood memories of Nazi Germany before his family fled the country upon hearing political artists denounced by Adolf Hitler for their "degenerate art."

His progressive bent was further developed, he says, when a move to California from New York landed him at UC Berkeley amid the Sturm und Drang of the 1960s, when West Coast-generated expressions of art were "breathing new life into the iconography of protest," curator Susan Landauer of the San Jose Museum of Art writes in the book's introductory essay.

"When I came here," Selz says, "it was the free speech movement

Organized by theme, the book is divided into four major sections: "Against War and Violence"; "Countercultural Trends" -- which reflects the hope of the 1960s and early 1970s, "although that's been doused by a good deal of backlash," Selz says; "On Racism, Discrimination, and Identity Politics"; and "Toward a Sustainable Earth," the latter something that Selz considers to be "one of the greatest problems right now."

A complementary exhibition is being presented at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles through Jan. 31.

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