Richard Serra, the sculptor whose maze-like steel cylinders take up half the first floor of LACMA's Broad Contemporary building, made an uncharacteristically overt political drawing in 2004. In heavy, rough black crayon, he drew that disturbingly hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with arms outstretched. He scrawled “Stop Bush” in the background. Then he distributed prints of the image via a website his studio started, pleasevote.com. The original even ended up in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. It was aggressive for sure, but it didn't give any profound or specific new information. “It lets Bush off easy,” wrote Tyler Green of the blog Modern Art Notes. What was it saying? That bad things happened during the Bush administration and Serra, like lots of other left-leaning artists, wanted Bush gone?
The newest political art by Richard Serra, who's said he doesn't “confuse art and politics” and considers his Abu Ghraib image separate from his other work, officially debuted last week, as part of a suite of 19 prints by “Artists for Obama.” The suite, printed by L.A. print shop Gemini G.E.L. in an edition of 150 and available for a $28,000 donation to Obama's Victory Fund (Gemini and the Victory Fund collaborated in 2008 too), includes only well-established artists. This makes sense, as “Artists for Obama” have to be known and salable to generate worthwhile funds. The youngest by far is 42-year-old Julie Mehretu, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005. The others range from their mid-50s to mid-80s.
All of them developed and donated prints just for this fundraising effort, and, clearly, they're all Obama supporters. Are they just preaching to the choir or can political fundraiser art actually have political edge?
Serra calls his image for the portfolio “NOROMNEY,” though you only know that from looking at the title listing. It's an etching of a white oval on top of a deep black background. Is it symbolic? Is Romney the white oval or the black background? Is the oval hopeful or constricting? Maybe it's not symbolic at all, and the title just means Serra made the image because he doesn't want Romney as president, and knows he can wield his fame to help raise money.
Ed Ruscha's print in the suite says, “We The People,” the words getting smaller as they move from left to right, disappearing into the abyss of the paper. Prints by Chris Burden, the artist behind the army of streetlamps at LACMA's entrance, and Robert Gober, known for painstakingly crafted sculptures of everyday objects, make their presidential preference unmistakably clear. But they're also pretty silly. Burden's, called Married, is a colorful joke on the gay marriage wars that have overlapped with Obama's presidency. It lists different couplings each of which has an “unknown gender”: a Neanderthal and a Feline are okay, a homo sapien and canine are okay, but under a cactus and a common housefly, Burden writes, “But really that's where I draw the line.” Gober's made to look like a child's drawing has clouds, a glowing book in the sky, a ladder up to heavens and Obama's name at the bottom with leaves growing off of the letter “O.”
But there are a few prints in the suite that aren't so glib, that even feel angry and foreboding. The best might be sensitive installation artist Ann Hamilton's Blue Victory, an inkjet print with fabric collage, show a tall red rectangle with bold, bleeding edges below a smaller gray-blue photograph of a hand. The blue is on top, maybe, but the red is so loud and bold and oppositional, that blue's position doesn't seem that victorious. The image doesn't have any crystal clear slant, but it makes you feel the intensity and direness of the political situation.