I had trouble finding this particular show, partly because its venue, the Gallery of Social/Political Art (GSPA), is tucked neatly away behind the White Star Restaurant in Copley Square, and partly because the the pieces in the show aren’t exactly what I expected. When I scanned the pieces on display, the very un-politically correct question popped up in my mind: Where are all the poor people?
The show, “Living With Too Little: Landlessness, Homelessness and Poverty,” differs from many contemporary art shows because its theme is specific and political. Not many vague expressions of the inner soul occur here; all of these artists address the concrete issue of social injustice and spotlight the marginalized and the oppressed in lieu of the self. But the messages conveyed by the works, many of which are abstract or digitally altered, are not immediately apparent or easily delineated.
Absent are the romanticized, photographic series of rundown tenements and lost-looking individuals—normally designed to extract our pity, our sentimentality, our condescension. Actual images of impoverished populations are as scarce as the homes they need.
Even Skip Schiel’s photographs of the Aloes community on the east coast of the Indian Ocean, a series of rundown living spaces and weathered portraits, hit you with such brutal honesty that it becomes impossible to look with pity upon the determined little girl or the bright-eyed old woman pictured within the thin black frames. These artists may be preaching an age-old sermon, but somehow the art itself moves beyond the plea, “These people need your help.”
Take Bob Orsillo’s haunting computer-generated portrayal of homelessness in his piece, “Lost Dreams.” This depicts the strong back of a naked man shrouded in fog, his bald head bent in despair, his bare foot poised to take a step into nowhere. He is surrounded by stone walls and contained in a jail-like space. One feels distinctly that he is trapped but the man is not quite aware of his state. The emptiness becomes a void and his dreams lay scattered and elusive as the cloudy wisps at his feet. His vulnerability and hopelessness become almost tangible.
The “So what?” of the piece is less clear; political art usually motivates viewers to act or to realize something, but here I find myself at a loss, keenly aware of a social problem that I don’t know how to act upon. The accompanying poem, “Nature Abhors a Vacancy” by Ogden Nash, only deepens the sense of confusion: “You scour the Bowery, ransack the Bronx, / Through funeral parlors and honky-tonks, / From river to river you comb the town / For a place to lay your family down.”
Whenever art differs from mainstream, white male dominated trends, whenever it becomes ethnic or politically slanted, whenever it finds itself pigeonholed, viewers and critics inevitably question its aesthetic value. Yet the artist may be less concerned with composition and technique than with the political message.
“Most galleries don’t take many risks,” contributing artist Dale Kaplan told The Crimson. “There is the major line of serious fine art, and everything else is ancillary. [At the GSPA], you get an uneven level of work because it brings in work by anyone with a political statement to make.”
Most people don’t see this as an inherent problem, as long as the work is effective in what it sets out to do: increase awareness or motivate change. As an outsider looking in on the disenfranchised world that their art represents, I became more aware—and more condemning—of my own privileged existence. Kaplan himself sees his work as “content-loaded,” using it more as a form of criticism than as aesthetic expression. While the contemporary art scene is largely devoid of political content, his pieces are inspired by the time he has spent living and working as an activist in Mexico.
In Kaplan’s series, “Leaders Indicating Leading Indicators,” two separate paintings present the conflict between NAFTA and the Zapatistas of Chapas as a stark contrast between the urban and the rural, the supposedly civilized and the indigenous. One of the paintings is a straightforward representation of political leaders discussing current affairs; the other painting features childlike men and women wearing ski masks—worn by the Zapatistas as an act of solidarity—pointing to a vague clearing in the jungle. This clearing, Kaplan explains, represents the communities of native Mexicans who have been trampled by the actions of the national government. Kaplan’s work may not be the most technically adept, but the images are striking in their earnest honesty.
By calling attention to social suffering, like all the artwork in “Living with Too Little,” the artists inevitably run the risk of trivializing deep-seated issues and romanticizing the gritty reality of poverty and homelessness, turning the experience of human suffering into a sort of tourist attraction complete with bleeding-heart sentiment. This problem is inherent in Maria Termini’s “And Please a Dream,” inspired by Termini’s encounters with homeless people in our own Harvard Square. A series of computer-generated drawings accompany lyrics to Termini’s song of the same title, written from the point of view of a fictional homeless woman. Termini uses garish colors and crude lines in her attempt to capture the “filth and horror” of being homeless, but the cartoon-like quality of her drawings make them little more than caricatures.
“I haven’t actually been homeless,” Termini said. “But I’m still calling attention to this social injustice. It’s a beginning, not a solution.” Maybe it was an attempt to kill her guilt, but at least she is honest about the inadequacies of political artistic expression. However, the work falls into the trap of assuming too much; it lacks ultimate authenticity because she is constructing a fantasy of homelessness without an underlying reality. According to Termini, the song itself was written as a lullaby to Peter, a homeless man she regularly saw sleeping in the doorway of the Unitarian Church on Church Street. He was ornery when she tried to talk to him. She wrote the song “in real good faith that he could do better,” and performed it at Club Passim, just a few doors down from where he was sleeping.
In the end, although the individual works in “Living with Too Little” occasionally fail to convey a full and specific course of action, the show does serve a noble purpose and contain powerful potential to motivate us. In the words of Toni Morrison, who often engages community and political issues in her work, “I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination which is to say yes, the work must be political. It must have that thrust.”
Living with Too Little: Landlessness, Homelessness and Poverty
Gallery of Social and Political Art
565 Boylston Street, Boston
Through March 3