Opinion

Taking a Closer Look at CNN’s “Power” Art Gallery

Molly Crabapple, "Big Fish Eat Little Fish Eat Big Fish"
Molly Crabapple, “Big Fish Eat Little Fish Eat Big Fish” (all images via CNN’s “Power” digital art gallery)

Last Thursday, CNN did something a mainstream news site doesn’t often do: it published a digital art gallery. The gallery is a selection of work by 21 artists devoted to the theme of power. All of the art was commissioned by the news organization, which strikes me as a really interesting and exciting initiative for a media organization to undertake.

This actually isn’t CNN’s first digital art gallery; the initial endeavor was organized last fall, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Like that one, the current power gallery is heavily figurative — my guess is that the curators, Steve Goldberg and Aimee Schier (a senior enterprise producer and creative director for CNN, respectively) felt that identifiable figures and objects would work best for a large, not-necessarily-art-loving audience. They clearly reached out to artists who tend to go that route, although the works do range across a number of media, from photography to video to drawing and painting to sculpture. And the artists come from a number of different artistic worlds — fine art, illustration and comics.

Brad Downey, "CCTV Sacrifice"
Brad Downey, “CCTV Sacrifice”

Those last factors make the gallery surprisingly and pleasantly diverse. Painstakingly hand-drawn and illustrated grids and graphs by contemporary art worlders Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida live alongside a striking painting of Victorian-ized fish by downtown artist and cartoonist Molly Crabapple; artist Brad Downey’s powerful photograph of a CCTV camera pole on fire shares space with a cheeky yet thought-provoking video by Liz Magic Laser and a comic strip by newspaper and editorial cartoonist Mike Mikula.

But it’s also a bit odd, this assortment of media, because the gallery is missing a few things: first, any information on the medium and size of the artworks (some artists provide some information in their accompanying statements, but CNN gives us nothing), and second, an enlarging or zooming feature. And very little of the work seems to be made specifically for the web. As a result, much of isn’t particularly web-friendly. Works like Nene Humphrey’s incredibly intricate “Circling the Center,” which she tells us is a collage of drawings on mylar and other elements, get completely lost.

Or Cristina Córdova’s “El Rey (The King),” a sculpture of a man and a dog made from discarded materials: What are the materials? And how does Córdova fit them together? All we get is an installation show of the piece, which offers a holistic picture but eliminates any chance of understanding the materiality of the work. This also brings up the question of what happens to the original works that were created, since all CNN is showing are online reproductions. Molly Crabapple told me that she kept the piece and simply sold them the rights to use the image in the gallery.

There are also some artistic missteps: an overwrought, amateurish video by Noah Fischer, a boring and uninspired drawing by Abdi Farah, the winner of the first season of Work of Art. In fact, CNN seems to be taking a fair number of cues from the short-lived reality TV show; three Work of Art artists are included here (the other contributions, from Peregrine Honig and Kymia Nawabi, are much better than Farah’s). And in total, six of the artists are repeats from the first CNN gallery last year. Many of them offer worthy pieces — French illustrator Seb Jarnot’s dueling smiling portrait of Romney and Obama is one — but it would be nice to see CNN think bigger. There are so many artists out there, and right now the roster feels a bit like a hodgepodge selection of artists that Goldberg and Schier have read about or seen features on TV or the internet. Next time maybe they could ask or enlist a real curator, or, alternatively, open it up to some kind of submission process (although that might end up a complete mess).

Jen Dalton, "Powerball"
Jennifer Dalton, “Powerball”

The gallery seems like a genuinely original and inspired move by CNN, a chance to inject creative thinking into the mainstream news conversation and to introduce the power (pun intended) of art to a wider public. Plus the artists were paid for their commissions, and everyone loves it when artists get paid. But CNN, or some other news organization, could do more. Someone should take this idea and run with it. We see so many images everyday, all day, as we consume and digest our news, but not usually ones like this.

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