What “ART” Civil Liberties?
The threatening shape of a machine gun is unmistakable. But only on the second glance does one recognize that this gun is fashioned from a walking crutch. It’s a clear and concise comment on the crippling effects of war. This piece, “W.E.A.K” by Matt Waage, is part of What “ART” Civil Liberties?, a multi-media art exhibition put together by the American Civil Liberties Union as its contribution to Artown.
The show is currently on display across three venues: the McNamara and Front Door galleries at the University of Nevada-Reno and at the First United Methodist Church of Reno. It’s an eclectic hodgepodge. There’s work from first graders and art professors (Joseph DeLappe of UNR). A variety of issues are addressed (immigration, war, gay rights) with a variety of approaches (from dryly subtle to ham-fistedly heavy). The quality of the work ranges from immaculately professional to inspirationally amateurish to just plain amateurish.
“We wanted to demonstrate a real community effort,” says ACLU coordinator Laura Mijanovich. “We wanted artists of different ages and different backgrounds to come together.”
“We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, which does present some problems when hanging a show,” adds artist and curator Craig Smyres.
“With art, you can appeal to someone’s intuition even about something their rational mind has some resistance to or a bias against,” says Mijanovich. “People often have … preconceived notions. With art, you can appeal at a gut level … through humor, for example.”
Woodrow Barlettani’s comic strips might initially seem humorous, but closer inspection reveals them to be overtly political and aggressively philosophical. Beth Brookfield’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is a stunning flower shape fashioned from bullets and children’s shoes.
Philip Coleman’s work is some of the most defiantly controversial in the show. The large oil painting “War: Welcome Home Journey” features an image of Christ juxtaposed on a mushroom cloud above a military graveyard and ghostly soldiers representing fallen combatants from all of American history. “War always produces the same results,” says Coleman. “I like to do controversial work because it forces people to think. Whether their reaction is positive or negative, at least they’re thinking about these issues.”
Many of the artists in this exhibition tend to put their message first and artistic technique second. Mack Nez Johnson’s watercolor, “We the People,” depicts a Native American gored by the American flag. “NSA” by Justin Hamilton depicts a hoary-headed politician-type urinating on the U.S. Constitution. (Both of these pieces are on display in the First United Methodist Church and are striking sights to see on sanctified ground).
Martin Holmes’ three large canvases place a greater premium on technique. The canvases convey subtler messages, and the paintwork is masterfully done. They have bold, geometric shapes and collage-like compositions that just hint at political implication. Smyres describes Holmes’ work as “the anchor for the whole show.”
Mijanovich is quick to point out that the ACLU doesn’t officially espouse the views being expressed in any of the particular pieces. The show is instead intended to promote open-ended discussion. Because of the diversity of work, every patron will discover artworks to love and artworks to loathe. But feel free to respond however you choose because that only affirms an important civil liberty: the right to express an opinion.