• Beyond the Canvas

"When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect."

Andy Warhol

Warhol was an avid collector of newspapers, magazines and tabloids. He appropriated and manipulated the sometimes downright lurid news imagery to create his art, and this was the basis of his Death and Disasters series, which he started in 1962 (and which happens to be my favourite part of his oeuvre). Car crashes, people jumping to their deaths, race riots, as well as the sinister inside of the Sing Sing penitentiary execution chamber. Warhol extracted these images from their journalistic context and used them repeatedly to make his point about the desensitisation of the masses.

Although this work lacks any human presence or evidence of violence, I think it conveys all the cruelty and inhumanity of the death penalty. There is a haunting stillness to it, a chilling sense of unseen terror. A sign reads 'silence'. Why? So we can hear the agonising screams of the prisoners? Was this photo taken before or after the execution? Who was last? Who is next? As it's often the case, what we do not see suggests more than what we do.

Capital punishment is the great grandchild of slavery, that's where it has its ugly roots. And the Bible Belt is also the death belt, that is no coincidence - it matches the area of the former southern confederate states. As the use of the death penalty in the US is shrinking, the Trump administration decided to restart federal executions. Since July last year, 11 people have been put to their deaths, with 2 more on the list before Trump FINALLY leaves office. This means he has executed more federal inmates than the last 10 presidents combined. After a de facto moratorium of 17 years, this is a decision that smacks of desperation. In the dying days of his administration, the president has embarked on a killing spree of unprecedented proportions, pandering to the most extreme fringes of his own base, the same people we saw climb the Capitol last week.

#andywarhol #electricchair #deathpenalty #capitalpunishment #america #justice #blog #artblogger #beyondthecanvasblog

Andy Warhol

Electric Chair, 1964

Photo credit The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society

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“Having an experience is taking part in the world. Taking part in the world is really about sharing responsibility.” – Olafur Eliasson

I saw this dazzling installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, and I'd be lying if I said I remember what I experienced at the time - I'm drawing a blank. But for some 80 anti-war protesters, this humbling light-clad space became a stage on which they could voice their anger. It's 2003, American and British troops have invaded Iraq and President Bush is about to land in Britain for a state visit. People are angry. So they decide to lie on the floor of an art museum and engage with an installation to spell out their message to the US President: "Bush go home". What is interesting is that they had to do it in reverse so that the words could be reflected on the mirrored ceiling above. It was an extraordinary manifestation of social interaction where people used their bodies to speak their mind.

Fast forward to 2021 and, sure enough, people are still angry. If Eliasson's installation had still been there today, and had Tate Modern been open to the public, I know which message I would like to read: "Fu*k You Boris Johnson". Just as a side note, I refuse to refer to the British PM by just his first name. I loathe this fake sense of informality and he's no friend of mine. Alternatively, I'd go for: "Impeach Trump". But I digress, the point I am trying to make is that art like Eliasson's creates spaces of participation, where every person's experience is unique but also unifying. The beauty of the Weather Project is that it provided a platform for the broadest form of expression, above and beyond politics. A couple thought it would make a lovely spot for a picnic, hamper and all; a delegation of 50 people in Santa Claus outfits descended on the Turbine Hall to spread the Christmas cheer; a young couple was caught engaging in passionate love-making and, wait for it, a man turned up in his canoe and sat on the floor for 15' pretended to paddle towards the (artificial) sun.

#oliafureliasson #weatherproject #tatemodern #turbinehall #artinstallation #contemporaryart #blog #artblogger #beyondthecanvasblog

Oliafur Eliasson

The weather project, 2003

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern London (The Unilever Series)

Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features

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  • Beyond the Canvas

"Political activity does not interfere with my work, it feeds it. And if I'm interested in racism and fighting racism, then that should show up—will show up—in my work.” - May Stevens

A committed civil-rights activist and feminist, between 1967 and 1976 Stevens produced a series of paintings called Big Daddy, where she addressed and channelled her anger towards her own father's racist views. Painted at the end of that period, Dark Flag marks the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is however not a celebration, the artists here was casting a critical look at the symbolic value of the star spangled banner and the uglier manifestations of patriotism, nationalism and white supremacy.

I like the haunting ambiguity of this image, I am gripped by its intensity and tension. Three sitting figures shrouded in the American flag. Hard to say whether they are mourning, silently protesting injustice or grieving the loss of something or someone important in their lives.

Forty-five years on, look at how still painfully relevant this work is. How many of these flags against the grey sky have seen on our screens over the past couple of days? They have become the tragic symbol of the violent culmination of years of hateful rhetoric and relentless falsehoods. Fanning old, very old, racial hatred and emboldening racists and bigots. Very dark flags, indeed. And to everyone who has said that what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6th 'is not America', I say: Mate, you have not been paying attention. That IS America.

#maystevens #femaleartist #americanartist #painting #contemporaryart #activisim #racism #americanflag #starspangledbanner #america #artblog #blogger #beyondthecanvasblog

May Stevens (1924-2019)

Dark Flag, 1976

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

© May Stevens, courtesy the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

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