‘Resist/Release’ art show demonstrates what effective political art looks like, what it doesn’t

resist-release_joel-tesch-courtesy-copy
Joel Tesch/Courtesy

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Last week, self-titled “San Francisco Resistance” groups held a weeklong “Resist-A-Thon” to “recruit, train, and mobilize activists and bring a blue wave to the 2018 midterm elections.” Scheduled events included a phone bank, a postcard party and a canvassing gathering led by eight left-wing organizations focused on voter outreach. And to kick it all off? An art gallery event in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill area, hosted by event and workspace Code and Canvas.

The most initially striking feature of the event was the vivacity it appeared to inspire in its visitors — or perhaps, by the nature of the event, its visitors brought the liveliness with them. Either way, upon entering the intimate, brick-walled space, the energy was palpable, with people squeezing past one another to explore the different areas of the gallery and upbeat synth beats playing loudly in the background.

The first grouping of pieces, exhibited in the entryway to the larger space, starred an especially pertinent figure: Just two weeks after the historic Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford stood boldly in a series of illustrations. “Courage” by San Francisco-based painter Joel Tesch depicted Ford in a state of inward concentration, one hand raised to testify, seemingly drawing a breath to steady herself. Behind her, Tesch painted five older men with broad smiles plastered across their faces, their laughs almost audible. It was a chilling depiction, the men appearing sinister in their jubilation.

Inside the gallery proper, expressions of support for Ford continued, though not just from the images on the walls. Alice Light’s “Impeach Lounge” featured a series of peachy, faux-fur couches and strings of similarly-toned baseball caps reading “im-peach” in broad lettering. The space was intentionally interactive, with a handwritten sign inviting visitors to take a seat and pen a “Thank you letter to Dr. Ford” on a provided card.

The lounge and similarly simplistic additions to the exhibition functioned more as catharsis for visitors than for any thought-provoking purpose. Of course, defining art has long proved a trying and potentially impossible struggle, but the merit of these pieces lay more in the blunt messages they proclaimed than in artistic merit. Much of the art at the beginning of the exhibition did no more than state the artists’ views, leaving little room for dialogue. “Can’t believe we still have to protest this shit,” read one poster. Designed for the 2018 Women’s March, the blunt poster made sense as something to be displayed in a protest, but not necessarily in an art gallery.

That’s not to say that the gallery as a whole lacked artistic merit — on the contrary, the farther into the space one traveled, the more compelling the art exhibited seemed to get.

Dava Guthmiller’s photography and illustration collection “Rules and Secrets,” for instance, explored the stories we tell ourselves and others. Guthmiller prompted viewers to consider, “What do we learn from the past, or change in the future, by really being aware of what is chosen to share, and what is kept quiet?” in her artist statement. Working with decades-old images found in family archives, Guthmiller used bold red paint to cast startling lines over the mouths or eyes of her subjects. The effect was chilling: a censorship of individuals the audience does not know, without any stated rhyme or reason.

Cheyenne Concepcion’s mixed-media installation “Borderlands National Park” also prompted visitors to stop and consider its political implications. Including a performative “tourist information” component, the piece featured Concepcion herself acting as a park guide. With the park situated on the border between the United States and Mexico, the project presented political undertones apparent upon even a cursory investigation of its details. “Feel at ease at Borderlands National Park, free from the danger and unsafety of illegal immigrants” read a promotional flyer that was part of the installation.

Positioned in the middle section of the exhibition was a wide poster board inviting passers-by to pen responses on Post-it notes to a couple of open-ended questions. In response to “What do you hope for?” one attendee wrote, “I’m here to learn and to help!” in an easy, rounded script.

It was a fitting aspiration. After all, what more could we want from art?

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].