Benjamin Edwards

I went out to see the Picturing Politics 2008 show at the Arlington Arts Center last Friday.

The show brings up, for me, the age old art world conflict over whether or not art can be an effective form of political commentary.  (That’s of course, to make hard distinctions among design and art, to dissociate performance and public protest, etc.   Those are lines I generally prefer to diminish, but I’m going to stick to one hot button at a time.)

I imagine it all comes about because so many people in the arts are very politically aware and also inclined to contribute to specific causes as well as to a more abstract “good”.  Seeing that what we do is communicate, it seems to follow that we may as well ply what we do best for the benefit of things about which we feel passionate.  The trouble that follows often lies in finding the right line of expression without spoon-feeding or being so specific as to become dated before the paint even dries − while also avoiding speaking so opaquely as to exclude audience, or commenting so generally as to not address to the issue at hand.  “Gallery” may as well be listed as an antonym for “public”, “art” should never be “easy”, but rather “timeless”, etc.  There are just a lot of mutually exclusive idioms to navigate.

The other trouble is the difficulty in assembling a coherent show around a concept so broadly encompassing as “politics”.  I know it must be tempting, what, here inside the Beltway and weeks before the nation is surely to set explode, I know.  I’ll add it to a long list of themes that tempt curators but are not sufficient to do the curatorial work in and of themselves.  I’m sorry to say it was the second show in a row at the Arlington Arts Center that I thought fell into that trap.

However, there was one bright spot in the show, at least as far as my taste is concerned.  And, that’s where I want to turn my attention.  I really enjoyed the prints by Benjamin Edwards.

Benjamin Edwards - Then/Now

Benjamin Edwards - Then and Now

For one, this sort of happy dystopia and subtle surreality reminds me a little of Roger Brown‘s suburban landscapes.  So, I’m also a sucker for happy colors and patterns.  (See previous post on the merger of the dark and the giddy.)

What I like most about them is that the way in which they interpret the landscape of Northern Virginia highlights a palpable atmosphere and character of a landscape formed through and through, since it’s beginning, by politics.  More than being topical, the images are historical and reflect the legacy of the topic on our built environment.

One thing that struck me when I moved to the DC Metro area a year ago, having for a long time lived in Chicago, is that all the pared-down Colonial(ish) style housing looks a lot like “the Projects”.  It’s the red brick and stark unambition of the architecture.  They make the half million dollar (plus) homes here appear rather similar to the low-rise subsidized units I used to carry my laundry through (to get to the laundromat), while six year olds taunted me from school bus windows − to get out of their neighborhood.  And, under the looming panopticon of the Pentagon and the distant Capitol in Edwards’ print, the (currently high priced) blocks of austerity and conformity reveal their identity as a product of Post-War, big, centralized government planning and new prosperity that is, actually, kindred to the decisions that brought Chicago it’s now mostly defunct Projects.

On the other hand, as you may well know, massive efforts have been made to privatize the American government over the recent decades.  The other thing that first defined the capital region for me, having spent the year prior in Toledo, OH, is the ungodly and astonishing amount of money just flying around here.  You could buy an entire Rust Belt town for the price of an Arlington condo.  (You think I’m kidding?)  It’s like they just can’t build the sea walls high enough to hold back the waves of cash.  And contractors are scurrying all over, gleaning millions from the over spray while they still can.  Of course, the biggest contractors could care less what spashes over, they operate on a scale unimaginable from places like the Rust Belt.  You might not be able to see it, but in Edwards’ print on the right, the buildings support the monnikers of KBR, Bechtel, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, etc.  Then, there in the midst of the financial smorgasboard otherwise known as “small government” lie the McMansions, homes that foreclosed in the Heartland under $200K mortgages, that are forclosing here under million dollar sums.  A legacy of de-centralized government non-planning; blocks of conspicuous displays of wealth, and conformity.

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