Photo Essays

Connecting the Dots in the Met Breuer’s Show About Conspiracy Theories

Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy spirals through 50 years of paranoia in America from JFK’s assassination to extraterrestrial touchdowns and September 11. But what does that even look like?

Peter Saul, “Government in California” (1969). Acrylic on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It will likely take me months to digest all the lessons I’ve learned from The Met Breuer’s newest exhibition, Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, so it’s a good thing that the show stays open through January.

Spiraling through nearly five decades of American history, this show weaves together a web of controversy netting almost every major assassination and scandal up until President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Focused on conspiracy as a visual motif, curators Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer have amassed a collection of works that run the gamut from straightforward documentary photography to abstract expressions of global angst.

Wayne Gonzales’ two oversized neon paintings of JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and his own killer, Jack Ruby, open the exhibition. (all photos by author)

The concept for this show originated from an ongoing conversation between Eklund and the late Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley, who drafted an initial list of artists for the conspiracy show in 2010. Over the last eight years, Eklund and Alteveer have added new names to that original list, coalescing the show around two camps of artists: those who “hew strictly to the public record” and those that “dive headlong into the fever dreams of the disaffected.” More broadly, Everything Is Connected looks at how artists represent political power in the postwar world that often seems secretive and insidious.

Details of Mark Lombardi’s “BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th Version)” (1996-2000)

The counterculture conspiracies of the 1960s and 1970s gradually gave birth to a post-Watergate generation of artists concerned with following the facts. The money trail that ties governmental, corporate, and criminal organizations particularly fascinates Mark Lombardi, who here displays a conspiracy chart that details the murky financial transactions between the United States and Gulf countries through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) from 1971 until the institution’s demise in 1991. American and British investigators found that the BCCI had been set up to deliberately avoid centralized regulatory review to operate extensively in bank secrecy jurisdictions for the purposes of laundering money and weapons, for example, during the Iran-Contra affair.

Select works on display by Silence = Death Project, Gran Fury, and Avram Finkelstein
Emory Douglas “The Black Panther” (1969–1974). Offset lithograph

 

Peter Saul, “Government in California” (1969). Acrylic on canvas

The exhibition is quick to note that many leftwing conspiracy theories arrived during the seventies. Functioning somewhat as a follow-up to President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations, this period of paranoia — which also witnessed the Watergate scandal — left many Americans disillusioned by the image of government as an agent of the public good. The spirit of that period persists today. Artists like Jenny Holzer continue to scour through declassified records from September 11 and its aftermath to understand the nature of the Bush administration’s terrorist rhetoric.

Jenny Holzer, “Red Yellow Looming” (2004). LED displays

Things really go off the rails the rails in the second-half of the exhibition, which focuses on the rabbit hole of UFOlogy so popular on America’s west coast. Here the curators highlight a selection of artists involved with the famed California Institute of the Arts that have developed unique aesthetic and political voices within their work that amalgamates into a socio-political swirl of conspiracies, satire, and civic malaise.

John Miller, “ZOG” (1998). Acrylic on cavnas
Mike Kelley, “Low Definition Presidency” (1993). Acrylic on paper
Sue Williams. “Mike and Zbigniew” (2014). Oil and acrylic on canvas.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art isn’t exactly known for showcasing extremely political content, but Everything Is Connected never shies away from controversy. John Miller’s “ZOG” (1998) lampoons an enduring conspiracy theory about Jews controlling Western governments by phrasing the acronym within a Wheel of Fortune reveal, complete with a jumpsuited Vanna White. Nearby are Sue Williams’ reactionary paintings about September 11, which are replete with a dizzying array of imagery including genitalia, entrails, black-ops, and the Twin Towers.

Details from Jim Shaw’s “The Miracle of Compound Interest (from the series Left Behind)” (2006). Acrylic on muslin, board, Plexiglas, wood, plastic, and foam
Peter Sauol, “Untitled (Hitler’s Brain Is Alive)” (2006). Acrylic and colored pencil on paper

The exhibition ends with a homage to the more outlandish artistic renderings of conspiracy theory, especially with regard to science-fiction. Within this last room, we see Jim Shaw’s garden gnomes kneeling around what the wall text describes as a “conjuring of money from nothing.” To my own eyes, I see a representation of plutonium. (Or maybe kryptonite?) But who knows — it’s all a conspiracy, anyway.

Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy continues through January 6 at The Met Breuer (945 Madison Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer.

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