There is little social movement scholarship to be found along the slopes of Mount Everest. It would be eerie to discover Catalonian activists erecting barricades on the shore of Virginia Beach, or Palestinian protestors evading teargas in Joshua Tree. No fewer than 114 mass demonstrations took place around the world in 2019 — they were covered by global media outlets for weeks, months and even into the year 2020, but none of the coverage was cast in the same light as Andy Mister’s solo exhibition at Rebecca Camacho Presents in San Francisco.
Hand-drawn images of protests in Barcelona, La Paz, Gaza, Beirut, Paris and Minneapolis are presented alongside dramatic landscapes. The mist rolling off the mountains in one image visually translates into streams of teargas in another. The writhing flames of a street fire in Beirut mirror the fronds of a desert tree in the next image over.
Mister’s exhibition consists of a suite of six works, operating largely through contrast. The images are displayed in sets, rhymed together through overlapping color schemes. A black-and-white rendering of a protest in Minneapolis erupts alongside a majestic sketch of Mount Everest, also in black-and-white. The unearthly neon blue of the surf along Virginia Beach (before Sandy) reappears on the ground beneath the feet of two protestors in Barcelona, perhaps as a low burning fire, perhaps as asphalt slick with oil. Mister uses color as his lowest common denominator, the unifying force behind a suite of disparate images.
The comparative nature of the exhibition seems to suggest that social movements are a force of nature. This is an attractive conceit, but one that loses momentum across the collection as a whole. The protests that drew the artist’s gaze have little to do with environmental activism. They have the unlikely draw of a random sample — five social uprisings extracted from 114 choices.
The environmental imagery is similarly disconnected. Mister’s interest in the politicization of the environment seems to rest on the assumption that anything paired with political protest must be read as inherently political itself. Mountains, beaches and trees are generally looked on through an apolitical gaze, and it is unclear how they connect to the protest images with which they are color-coordinated.
Perhaps the artist’s intentions can be traced to the title of the exhibition. “Solemn Anthems” is taken from a line in a poem titled “Landscape” by Charles Baudelaire. The poem adopts the voice of a speaker who would like to “lie down close to the sky like an astrologer, / And, near the church towers, listen while I dream / To their solemn anthems borne to me by the wind.”
Mister earned his MFA at the University of Montana not in visual art, as one might expect, but in creative writing. His exhibition has the curious effect of ekphrasis (a poem inspired by a work of visual art), except it is ekphrasis in reverse. The key to understanding Mister’s work seems to come much later in Baudelaire’s “Landscape” than the line about “solemn anthems born… by the wind.” After 12 lines of idyllic fountain-and-garden imagery, the poem turns on a single word: “riot.”
“Solemn Anthems” is indeed a contrast of landscapes and riots, copied, in adaptive color schemes, from actual photojournalism of protests and vintage environmental photography. Like ekphrastic poetry, creating a hand drawn image based on a photograph is an act of artistic transformation. This notion of “copying” — Mister’s manual adaptation of an image from one medium to another — is the most interesting element of the exhibition.
One wonders about the artist’s proximity to his subject matter — why he selected these particular images over the 109 other mass demonstrations of 2019 (Hong Kong, for example, seems a poignant omission). One wonders if Mister, like Baudelaire, is drowning out the riot outside his window by focusing on landscapes of paper and ink, an atmosphere “of burning thoughts.” “Solemn Anthems” lacks cohesion and connective tissue, but it holds a great deal of thought, and a great deal burns.
Blue Fay covers visual art. Contact him at [email protected].