“Legitimate Rape,” an exhibition of political art that opens tonight at Katherine Cone Gallery, was largely inspired by one particular project. This past April, artist Jill Greenberg shot a film of white men in suits laughing in slow-motion. The film is dramatically lit, making the whites of their suit shirts uncomfortably bright and the shiny spots on top of their balding heads particularly shiny. The men are all middle age or older, often overweight and white-haired or blondish. Something about their complexions and rosy-cheeked laughing faces makes you think of Dick Cheney or Karl Rove almost immediately.
Greenberg shot the film, called Entitled, before she knew what she would do with it. She thought of projecting it on the side of Planned Parenthood, given recent congress debates about reproductive rights, or maybe showing it at Occupy Wall Street, since it spoke to issues of power and money. She contacted Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time in New York, who often organizes outside video projections. “But I was told that they tend to prefer feel-good work,” she says. “As expected, my proposal was not responded to.”
Then, through friends of friends, she stumbled upon Wake the Beast, a non-profit that's goal is to close the gap between creative and political communities. They helped her organize a guerrilla-style showing of Entitled in Tampa, during the Republican National Convention. Wake the Beast reps would drive slowly by Bern's Steakhouse, a place that would be populated by well-off white men watching convention coverage, and project Entitled on the steakhouse's outside walls.
“It was a ballsy move,” gallerist Katherine Cone says of Entitled, which became the impetus behind her gallery's exhibit “Legitimate Rape.” “That's the point [of the exhibition]. Art may not make a difference, but it does make people aware of the issues.”
Producer Robert Green, Greenberg's husband, suggested the title, following the debacle in which GOP Senator Todd Akin suggested victims of “legitimate rape” are less likely to get pregnant. “After we had that dynamic title, there was no stopping the show,” Cone says.
“Legitimate Rape” will stay open for only a week — the gallery had already scheduled an exhibition to open mid-October — so Cone wanted it to be memorable. “It needed to be a powerful one,” Cone explains, “with artists that weren't necessarily political artists, but had a strong message about the current issues in their work.”
Some of the artists she selected, like Shepard Fairey of Obama poster fame, are known for their activism; others, like Sean Cheetham and Jennifer Celio, tend to be less overt about their politics.
“I actually don't normally approach my drawings from the standpoint of politics,” says Celio, whose detailed graphite drawings often show man-made structures or human rituals that interrupt fragile natural habitats. The drawing she made for the “Legitimate Rape” exhibition, called NIMBY (national park), takes this clash between society and nature further. It shows a cliff face with “We Are the 99%” scrawled across it in graffiti. A police helicopter hovers above, and, in a clearing below, a boy is assaulted, a bear poses for pictures, a tourist photographs an oil drill and a man holds a handmade sign that reads, “God hates fags.”
“I did want this image of a national park to be repulsive, sad, uninviting,” Celio says. She included the anti-gay rights protester because she's seen people with signs like that so often in recent years. “I wanted to include one in this piece, to critique their hateful behavior within my act of creating something more constructive.”
Jill Greenberg's Entitled will also be projected as part of “Legitimate Rape,” and this time, the artist will be present. She opted not to go to Tampa the night Entitled played across Bernie's walls. It seemed safer not to.
Four years ago, she received death threats after she shot a series of photographs of then-presidential-candidate John McCain for The Atlantic. She had taken mostly conventional images, but also shot one from below in harsh lighting that made his face look worn and slack and cast a dramatic shadow under his chin. While The Atlantic chose a tamer image, Greenberg doctored the harsher ones and, since she retains copyright to her photographs, posted some online, like the “I Am a Bloody Warmonger” image in which McCain has fangs and blood smeared around his mouth and dripping down his chin.
But while she avoided going to Tampa, avoiding political work wouldn't have occurred to her and the laughing men in Entitled are purposefully lit and shot in a manner similar to the offending McCain photographs. “More and more, fear has taken over and blocked everyone from speaking out,” Greenberg says, which is why she wanted to participate in “Legitimate Rape.” “Artists are supposed to speak truth to power. It's possible to work for 'the man,' and comment critically on culture” — she cites Los Caprichos, a set of 18th prints by Spanish court painter Goya that criticized Spanish society. “It's just so sad that the majority of us continue to behave like its 'business as usual' despite the backwards ideologues spouting nonsense and trying to rescind our rights.”
The opening reception for “Legitimate Rape” is from 6-9 p.m. tonight, Oct. 10, at 2673 S La Cienega Blvd. The show continues through Oct. 17.