“The best political art is always viciously negative.”
British culture critic Jonathan Jones wrote that last week in his column in The Guardian.
Jones pointedly asked contemporary artists to weigh in on the Trump Reign of Idiocy. And he reminded his readers about the great history of searing political art. He started with William Hogarth’s satirical commentaries on 18th century hypocrisies. He added a German Weimar dada satirist, John Heartfield, who used photomontage to denounce Hitler. Jones also included Andy Warhol’s sour power portrait of Nixon with a “Vote McGovern” at the bottom from 1972.
Jones challenged today’s artists to jump in. He pressed Chuck Close, a well-established American artist, to create “one of his colossal close-up paintings of Trump’s face as a Democrat poster.” He suggested the high-market pop sculptor Jeff Koons to make a polychrome statue of Trump to be displayed at Democratic rallies.
As a political cartoonist and art historian, I see all of this as gravy, which brings me to a rare treat now at the Durango Arts Center.
“Obedience, Conformity, Apathy... or it’s all good,” is the summary title for an exhibition of political art by Jeff and Bud Madeen, a son and father pair of angry men. The title lays the groundwork for this unusual double exhibit.
Jeff Madeen invited his father, now 87, to contribute his “Freedom Series” to the show. Bud’s American flag paintings set a platform for a dynastic exploration of political commentary laced with outrage.
Jeff Madeen’s day job is his company, byDesign, and you can see various drawings and diagrams of home remodeling projects embedded in collages. On the side, or undercover, Jeff, like his father, a retired, award-winning advertising artist, has expressed his view of the world through his private work.
Both are contemporary practitioners of a great art historical tradition. The exhibit can be seen as a current way station in a long line of politically conscious artists. If you know your history, there’s an implied link from William Hogarth’s 18th century sarcasm through Goya’s early 19th century forebodings to the Madeen’s modern caustic imagery. Jeff may not be the bearer of Daumier’s humanity, but he has a third eye for absurdity, Orwellian double-speak, power grids, corrupt systems, and public blindness and apathy.
The elder Madeen’s “Freedom Series” began in the tumultuous ’60s and apparently has continued, traversing the upheavals of the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the rise of feminism, and more. It’s no surprise that the younger Madeen would also embrace the flag as a graphic symbol to underpin several of his works.
“SOS” is worth a long look. Under layers of images and information, graphs, diagrams, a keyboard, graphic brain scans, and a large happy face, Madeen almost buries the American flag. But it’s there as a foundational image and organizing principle. The large happy face oversees a field of symbols instead of stars, and Madeen has attached a piece of gold-painted wood molding as it if were a crown. I can hear Madeen’s voice-over whisper: “It’s all good.” That he put the new American mantra in his exhibition title is significant.
Look closely and you’ll see what may be a subtitle, upside down in the right corner: “Who owns the world?” Is it a penciled afterthought? Or does it say volumes about Madeen’s challenge to question everything.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.