Between Halloween and Election Day, fall is inevitably the scariest time of the year. This year, it’s hard to even tell the two days apart. One offers an atmosphere of unrelenting dread, with rabid hordes of ghouls and zombies roaming the streets, egged on by psychotic clowns, beneath the specter of a wicked witch and a horrifying, pumpkin-headed monster. And the other is Halloween. While every presidential election is cause for anxiety, this year’s is the most nerve-jangling in memory. How to cope? For those prone to rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia, the Desert Trip mega-concert in the California desert offered a hearty dose of escapism, with the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan, and “Heart of Gold” seeker Neil Young showing the youngsters how its done. For those who couldn’t make it out, we’re glad to offer in these pages quick restorative sojourns to three oases of art across the country: the new Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, a bastion of innovative art in Northern California for nearly 60 years, the unexpectedly vibrant Kansas City art scene, and Miami, Florida where disaffected swing voters will soon be able to revive their spirits at no less than three new major art museums.
The two main artists featured in this, obliquely political issue, stake out their own nuanced views of current political and social issues, asking us to question things we normally take for granted. Kathryn Andrews works through appropriation of documentary photographs, designs, and found objects drawn from mass media, including props from period films, to question the authority of images churned out by politicians, corporations and Hollywood story-tellers. Her exhibition “Run For President” gathers such unlikely figures as Bozo the Clown, Richard Nixon, Zachary Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mr. T, deconstructing the iconography of presidential power with disarming deadpan solemnity. Meanwhile, Arizona photographer David Taylor spent several years traveling the US–Mexico border, eloquently documenting each of the venerable obelisks erected along its path by government surveyors in the 19th century, amidst its surrounding terrain. More recently, he and artist Marco Ramirez ERRE traveled along the length of the previous (1821-1848) border with Mexico, setting up new markers, in such ‘border states’ as Oregon, Colorado and Kansas. Addressing the historic mutability of political boundaries, the artists force us to consider the idea of boundaries as symbolic, impermanent, or even quixotic. Although the projects were conceived well before any talk of a wall, they certainly echo off it.
All arguments about the viability of a giant border wall aside, it would certainly create a rather depressing symbol for this country, which at one time liked to define itself by setting out the welcome mat for hardy dreamers. Growing up in New York, the symbol we looked up to was a bit more uplifting: “a mighty woman with a torch.” It’s funny how the statue, built to celebrate liberty, became indelibly associated with immigration through the adjacent hub of Ellis Island (through which my grandparents passed as toddlers), and the fiercely charged poetry of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” If Ellis Island was America’s much-heralded front door, then the border with Mexico is its tattered back fence. David Taylor’s haunting images of that liminal zone at least put pictures to the dialogue, punctuating a division that’s at once all-too real and determinedly elusive. Rooted in the earth beneath a shared open sky, its looming pillars serve as both a sign of warning and a beacon of hope—the dotted line defining the edges of our great national experiment. Even if it is still, clearly, very much a work-in-progress.