CLEVELAND — In a drawing by cartoonist Edward Freska, the bald eagle that represents the United States on the country’s Great Seal is injured. The eagle carries the American shield on his chest, as is his duty, and holds the requisite olive branch and 13 arrows in his talons. But the talons look stubbier than they ought to — are those bandages wrapped around each one? — and the eagle’s right wing sits useless in a makeshift sling. Depending on how you read his face, the eagle either bears his burden silently, maintaining stoic professionalism in a time of pain, or he’s angry as hell, his cold stare piercing the politicians he sees in front of him.
Freska may have had certain politicians in mind when he drew this work, his first cover for the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Sunday magazine, in the early 1970s. Today, the objects of that ire have changed, but the sentiment has not. Nine days after an American man gunned down 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, 27 days before the Republican National Convention (RNC) brings its hate-mongering nominee, Donald Trump, to Cleveland, the message rings as loud and clear as ever: the United States is injured, its vital parts broken and in need of care.
Freska’s eagle drawing is on view at SPACES, surrounded by dozens of others in the first showing of the Cleveland cartoonist and illustrator’s work: Freska on Politics, curated by the gallery’s residency coordinator, Bruce Edwards, and board member Laila Voss. Freska is a newspaper veteran: he worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 18 years, followed by the Los Angeles Times and the Cleveland Sun Newspaper Group. His drawings in this mini-retrospective — which is installed too simply and cries out for wall labels, sections, or the imposition of some discernible order — trace a line of American politics that stretches from Nixon to Obama but stays eerily, uncomfortably straight.
An image, for instance, showing a tie-and-suit-clad donkey and elephant laughing hysterically at a podium whose cutoff text reads “of Women”: was this made in the ’70s or ’00s? It doesn’t help that the show doesn’t tell us — the only signifier we have is “The Plain Dealer” inked below Freska’s signed name — but in a way it also doesn’t matter; the drawing retains an uncanny resonance. Other pieces are dated by the figures shown (Richard Nixon, Dennis Kucinich) or events cited (the Lucasville rebellion, Hurricane Katrina), which means they register to varying degrees depending on how old you are and how familiar with local and national politics. This, of course, is the problem with political cartoons and the danger of exhibiting them: the possibility that their relevance will expire too quickly, their meaning fade with the very newsprint they were inked on.
Freska on Politics offers something of a counterclaim. For the most part, the artist’s cleverness prevails, so that even if you don’t know the specific situation that spurred a drawing — of, say, Uncle Sam dropping dollar bills on the word “UN” — the critique — in this case of how the US manages to get its way at the United Nations — still comes through. But the most captivating works are in fact the most ambiguous ones: an image of a weary Ronald Reagan with an array of symbols (gun, atom, fighter planes) sketched into his hair; a drawing of a kind of colossus Uncle Sam with a serpent’s tongue and fingers crossed behind his back. There are no punch lines or quips for these; Freska sets us to thinking but then forces us to be alone with our thoughts.
The works also hold up because the political situation in this country has changed remarkably little in the past 45 years. Another exhibition on view at SPACES hammers this home. Start Here. Finish Here., curated by SPACES Director Christina Vassallo and artist Steve Rowell, consists of a long loop of video works, documentaries, and political propaganda from the 1960s through today. In an eight-minute segment of attack ads (beginning with Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad), pretty much all that shifts is the aesthetic; the over-the-top, biting tone remains consistent, whether the target is Nixon or Howard Dean. This is followed by 12 minutes of propaganda videos: a trailer for Newt and Callista Gingrich’s movie about “American exceptionalism”; a racist commercial warning against Chinese control of the US; an ad for the NRA, which calls itself the “longest-standing civil rights organization in the United States.” As these mount, the swelling music of one blending into the next, you may find yourself, as I did, wanting to ban the word “America.”
If politics in the US have changed over the decades, Start Here. Finish Here. — which takes its name from the bizarre slogan adopted by the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee for the RNC — in fact suggests that it’s been for the worse, not the better. There’s something almost quaint about the young men with big mustaches and long hair yelling, “Stop the bombing, stop the war!” at the 1972 RNC, as seen in an excerpt from TVTV’s documentary made that year; if they did something similar today, they’d probably get punched on the spot. Reagan made the US worse in countless ways, but, watching him speak at the 1976 RNC, via Daniel Tucker’s “Future Perfect: Time Capsules in Reagan Country” (2015), I found myself thinking that at least the man was intelligent enough to put together a coherent, even eloquent speech.
The selection of videos here feels slightly hodgepodge — why these and not others?, I found myself wondering from time to time — but one theme that emerges compellingly is access to power. In Rowell’s two-channel “Parallelograms” (2015), footage of the buildings that house political action committees, lobbying groups, think tanks, and other behind-the-scenes political players is shown alongside (but asynchronously with) Google Maps aerial views of the same sites. There’s a spark between the cold, corporate architecture of the buildings, shot in person, and the intimacy of accessing a place remotely, via the internet. It’s bolstered by the perfectly banal, human-voiced phone messages for these organizations that play out on the soundtrack. “Thank you for calling the National Rifle Association. Our offices are currently closed.” There are people hiding there, but you can’t reach them, no matter how you try.
Rowell’s work is by far the most artful exploration in the show of how we plebs can and can’t pierce the walls of power, but other pieces take up the theme. In her ongoing project I Wish to Say (2004–), Sheryl Oring invites everyday people to write postcards to the President, a person most of us will never get to actually talk to. The endeavor is quaint, though I’m not sure much else. In an excerpt (that could stand to be longer) from Journeys with George (2002), we watch journalist Alexandra Pelosi contend with the complexities of covering a presidential candidate — in this case, George W. Bush — in a way that somehow satisfies him, her network, and herself. At one point she asks Bush about the number of executions during his governorship of Texas, and he responds by refusing to answer any of her questions. Reflecting on the incident, she comments, her voice laced with sarcasm, “It’s my job to maintain my network’s relationship with the candidate.”
What these videos collectively do is remind us that politics, in addition to being the form that government takes, is also a form of theater (as if we’d ever forgotten). Artists making smart work about politics understand this — it’s why Ligorano/Reese’s massive melting ice sculpture of the words “middle class” is improbably effective, at least when recorded and paired with a rousing speech by Bernie Sanders: because the artists turn the showmanship of politics into critique. Ed Freska and his colleagues do something similar; there’s a reason political cartoons are never subtle.
Yet another artist at SPACES right now, Roopa Vasudevan, is data mining a new part of this terrain by gathering and analyzing tweets about the presidential election as it pertains to Ohio. Working chronologically since August 2015, Vasudevan is determining the most popular phrases from Twitter (e.g. “Trump doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” “Clinton is a lying scumbag”) and turning them into buttons, bumper stickers, posters, lawn signs, and T-shirts, all rendered in the style of official campaign paraphernalia. It’s the theater of politics — and art — gone populist: you could tweet something, watch it go viral, and then walk into SPACES and find it on a T-shirt on the wall. Unfortunately theater is, by definition, an illusion, while our precarious place in the political process remains all too real.
Editor’s note: The author is currently the art-writer-in-residence at SPACES. Her lodgings in Cleveland have been provided by the gallery, and she is receiving an honorarium for her residency.