By Tamara Vallejos
On practically any given commute, the odds are high someone will spot a sticker of Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster plastered onto a car. Equally high are the odds someone will have a reaction: say, approval at the sight of a like-minded political ally, or annoyance at a piece of propaganda for the opposition. When the worlds of art and activism collide, everyone can find themselves deeply invested—even the “Average Joe” who couldn’t point the way to the nearest gallery or pick a “Pollock” out of a lineup.
That’s exactly why “Art and Activism in the U.S.”, one of the current exhibitions at the Pomona College Museum of Art, appeals to more than just art history buffs.
“It’s dealing with concerns that are really still alive and well today,” says Frances Pohl, a professor at Pomona College and the curator of the exhibition, which includes more than 30 pieces spanning the 1920s to present. “We still have to deal with the environment, we’re still at war, we’re still looking at immigration and labor issues, and we’re still asking questions of gender and ethnicity.”
“Art and Activism in the U.S.” opened last month and runs through April 14, designed to coincide with a seminar by the same name that Pohl is teaching this semester. She’s taught the seminar twice before—in 2007 and 2009—and each time mounted a version of the exhibition, incorporating new works acquired by the museum.
This time around, that includes eight black-and-white photographs by Danny Lyon, from his 1971 collection “Conversations with the Dead.” “The Texas Department of Corrections gave him permission to photograph within six of its prisons, so over 14 months he went into these individual prisons and just captured daily life,” explains Pohl.
Lyon was only 25 years old when he began photographing Texas prisoners in the late 1960s, but he was no stranger to the stark realities of the growing New Journalism movement. He’d already landed himself in jail—alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.—following protests in the South, and had joined a biker gang in the Midwest for iconic images that made him something of a photojournalism counterpart to Hunter S. Thompson and his Hell’s Angels writings. In the photos on display as part of “Art and Activism,” Lyon gives the viewer a glimpse into the lives of prisoners, from labor to leisure: picking cotton, dining, and visiting with family.
Ralph Blakelock’s Rising Moon in 30 Days of Smog by Kim Abeles isn’t one of the exhibition’s new works, but it’s still just as thought-provoking as when first put on display: the artist arranged stencils, depicting a landscape by romanticist painter Blakelock, onto a piece of plexiglass that was then left on the roof of her studio. After a month, the polluted air we breathe had permanently etched the scene.
Lyon’s photographs and Abeles’ plexiglass, easy to take in but with infinite opportunities for contemplation, are great examples of what makes “Art and Activism in the U.S.” so accessible to anyone.
“[The exhibition] is figurative,” says Pohl. “The works are all very easily readable, and they’re works you think you get and might move on from—but then something three images down makes you think, ‘Oh, right!’ and you’re able to come back and see something more.”
In fact, Pohl has done her best to arrange the pieces in such a way that sparks connections between messages. And, thanks to serendipity, the environmental themes present are complemented by the Museum of Art’s other current displays.
“When I brought my students in, they were talking about environmental concerns and the depression and devastation of the landscape. And then we went into the other exhibitions, and Edgar Heap of Birds is dealing with questions of land and native connections to the land, and Kirsten Everberg has these beautiful, large paintings of dense forest landscapes. I didn’t intentionally pick these works to connect with the other exhibitions, but it’s quite an effective grouping of shows.”
Oh, and while you won’t find Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” campaign poster there, you will find another particularly appropriate piece by the famed street artist: a poster proclaiming “Make Art, Not War,” a fitting end to a thorough and provocative exhibition.
“Art and Activism in the U.S.: Selections from the Permanent Collection” at Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Ave., Claremont; www.pomona.edu/museum; Hours: Tues–Sun, 12-5PM; Thurs 5-11PM. Through April 14. Free.