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Balancing art, politics

'Nothing Is Neutral' exhibit toes the fine line between activism and artistic integrity.

July 19, 2006|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

The issue of art's relationship to activism is a difficult one, made no easier by its tendency to divide people into rather smug, opposing camps: those who view art as a weapon of activism and those who believe it to be above such things.

Both positions are valid to a point, but neither has an entirely impressive track record, artistically speaking: Tepidly didactic community murals continue to proliferate, willfully oblivious to the last 70 years of art history. And indulgently obscure conceptual babble fills many of today's galleries, stridently indifferent to the concerns of the populace. Both camps are responsible for their share of misfortunes.

The most admirable thing about Andrea Bowers' exhibition "Nothing Is Neutral," at the Gallery at REDCAT, is that it considers the question squarely and earnestly, with equal deference to both sides. Bowers approaches the issue less as a personal preference -- Am I a political artist or aren't I? -- than as a conceptual problem: how to achieve a political effect without sacrificing artistic integrity, and vice versa. It's a delicate balance, one she's unable to pull off on a grand scale, in part because her thoughts seem unresolved and in part because that grand scale would require a stylistic audacity that she appears, by nature, unwilling to cultivate. What Bowers does achieve, however, is a stirring fusion of emotion and craft that, besides being gratifying, points to an ideal of art-making that is rigorous and humane.

The work that takes up most of the gallery's front room, "Letters to the Army of Three," pays tribute to a formidable team of women -- Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan -- who spent most of the decade preceding Roe vs. Wade advocating for the legalization of abortion and other reproductive health issues. One aspect of their efforts involved fielding letters from desperate individuals seeking information on how to obtain an abortion illegally. These photocopied letters paper the walls of Bowers' installation, alternating with equal-size (24 inches by 18 inches) sheets of elaborately patterned wrapping paper.

The letters are heartbreaking. They come from women of all ages -- teenagers, college students, young professionals and middle-aged women, some already mothers several times over -- as well as from concerned family members, boyfriends and husbands. Some are terse and formal, others long and searingly emotional. A few allude to the politics of the abortion movement, but most speak from a far more intimate place, offering a window on the spectacle of ordinary lives turned upside down. Their urgency belies any implication that abortion offers an easy way out. Each is saturated with the darkest of human emotions: sorrow, shame, fear, confusion and despair. They speak of the threat of economic destitution, of social and familial alienation, of professional ruin. More than one mentions suicide.

The decorative element continues in a related series of colored-pencil drawings of pro-abortion rights buttons set against fields of brightly colored, mod-ish patterns -- "Never Again," "Keep Your Laws Off My Body," "Pro-Child, Pro-Choice." It's a peculiar addition, given the gravity of the subject. It struck me first as appealing but gratuitous, an easy way to jazz up the bland photocopies, and of art-ifying -- even sugarcoating -- the politics. That said, there's something poignant about the wallpaper quality of the installation and the notion of these stories emerging from homes and lives defined to some extent by their decorative surfaces. It comes as a reminder that appearances can be deceptive but also that they provide color, meaning and often solace.

The show's major weak spot is a video of actors reciting the letters to the camera. The uneven quality of the delivery is grating -- some readers are deadpan (preferable), others have a theatrical air. Worse, however, is the ceremony's funereal solemnity, which belies the urgency of the letters' strained, silent script, undercutting their emotional effect.

Far more powerful are the 22-by-15-inch graphite drawings that line another wall, each reproducing a single letter in flawless, photocopy-like fidelity.

"Eulogies to One and Another," the one work that's not explicitly tied to the abortion issue, takes the same approach, reproducing in vastly oversize proportions (30 by 22 inches) the text of eight articles drawn from the Internet concerning the death in Iraq of American activist Marla Ruzicka and her Iraqi co-worker Faiz Ali Salim.

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