Art

Using Postwar Americana to Reveal Our Toxic Political Past

In the chaos of the Trump presidency, Howard Halle’s work reminds us that a toxic political atmosphere is nothing new, and that art can help us weather it.

Howard Halle, “The Personal Is The Political” (1991), enamel over cast aluminum, 20 x 16 inches (all images courtesy Elizabeth Dee Gallery)

Just when it seems that things cannot get any worse, Howard Halle steps in to remind us that this is not the first time we have felt this way, nor will it be the last. With Howard Halle: Return to Graceland, Works from the ’80s and ’90s, an exciting revival now at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, it becomes clear that his insights into American culture are as searing and relevant today as they were 30 ago, and that art strategies from this earlier era still retain their potency in the age of Trump.    

While Halle is best known as the art editor-at-large at Time Out New York,  he had an active career as an artist in the East Village scene, adopting appropriation as his chief tool of expression in ways that differentiated him from peers such as Richard Prince and Sarah Charlesworth. Rather than merely re-photographing source material, he opted to redraw drawings, primarily political cartoons, mining the pages of the New Yorker and men’s magazines dating back to the Cold War and the arms race. In looking at his works in 2018, viewers are confronted with a duality of time periods: the Reagan era and the Eisenhower administration along with inescapable present-day political realities.

Howard Halle, “Wall On A Treadmill” (1988); silk and enamel on wood, exercise treadmill

For example, in “Wall on a Treadmill” (1988), Halle presents a silkscreen of an enlarged cartoon resting on the runway of an antiquated treadmill. The captionless image shows a bald-headed Eisenhower surrounded by a crowd of men running in place and not getting anywhere. Made as a commentary on the regressive nature of President Reagan’s outlook on America, the work can be equally pointed as a critique of  the rhetoric “Make America Great Again.” Likewise,  the gallery is punctuated by faux Colonial America cast aluminum signs, each bearing a different phrase, such as “The Personal Is The Political,” hanging from a robin’s perch; or “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow,” emblazoned on a dinner bell (both 1991). They remind us just how Americana has been deployed to political ends  leveraging an idealized past to steer policies to the right.

Grouped together as if a single installation are three works from 1985 depicting Mr. Bomb, a cartoon character of a nuclear bomb with human qualities, each paired with Daniel Buren-like striped canvases. In one, above red stripes, Mr. Bomb glances at his watch as a globe turns by his side, conveying the sense that things can end at any minute. In another, with blue stripes, he is seen surveying the globe with a compass. This use of dual appropriation — an image from popular culture paired with the iconic style of an art world master — is newly relevant given the current tensions with North Korea and Trump’s scary tweets about “Rocket Man.”

Howard Halle, “Pasha 2” (1989); two framed photographs, rug, velvet pillows with tassels

 

Sometimes Halle is able to get away with images that certainly would be much more problematic if he used them today. In “Pasha 2” (1989), he positions two large-scale photographs atop tasseled pillows, sitting on a Persian carpet on a platform that slants it several inches off the floor (much like Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed”). Each photograph shows five portraits of a stereotypical Asian pot-bellied prince, each one dreaming of either a sexy woman or a bottle of alcohol. This field of 10 men is closely related to the toxic sexism and racism of a previous era, not quite anticipating either the #metoo movement or the Muslim ban. The work raises issues about artistic responsibilities: when does appropriation excuse an artist from the sticky  issues in the original work?  Halle invites viewers to address this knotty problem without delivering a clear guideline about how to navigate this territory.

The range of source material and the variety of methods for incorporating these images invigorates the exhibition, keeping things from becoming boring or repetitive. Seemingly inchoate on first glance, on further consideration, Halle’s choices never seem random or unintentional. In fact, it can even be said that he has expected successive generations to encounter these works, bringing with them new layers of memories or more likely, amnesia. Indeed, these artworks make you think about the past, ever reminding us that political pessimism is nothing new. Somehow, we survived previous presidents and we probably will survive our current one. Perhaps more importantly, it is comforting to see that art from these previous eras has survived and that Halle’s artworks have not entirely been forgotten.  

Howard Halle: Return to Graceland, Works from the ’80s and ’90s continues through January 20 at Elizabeth Dee Gallery (2033/37 Fifth Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan).

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