“The Wrong Side of History”
There’s something almost — almost — comforting in taking the long view, of Trump as just the latest in a long line of stupid, petty, temporary tyrants. “Wrong Side of History,” on display at Bullet Space from May 18th — June 25th, takes a deep historical dive through the history of American resistance. Though organized as “a timely response to the age of Trump,” it’s the older material that focuses the viewer on the fact that the age of Trump dawned long ago — only losing its veneer of respectability on November 9th.
In 1985 curator Andrew Castrucci put on “The I Love You Nancy Show” at A&P Gallery, the storefront space he ran with his brother Paul on East Fourth St. Playing off the similarities between the Reagan era and our own, just as vile but somehow dumber time, artists from the original show, like Tom McGlynn and Sue Coe (along with others of the era, like Raymond Pettibon and Lee Quinones) join a younger generation. Prints from the Dirty Graphics Collective, based out of the School of Visual Arts, set the tone for the exhibit. Taking inspiration from McGlynn’s Alt-Trump (2016), which acts as a logo for both the show and for Trump’s brand of crypto-Nazi idiocy, the students use the iconography of corporate design to make anti-authoritarian slogans.
The idea of Americans (and others around the world — as with a stark Soviet-era Leonid Sokov sculpture of a political prisoner with slogans tattooed) appropriating the language of the oppressor is a strong thread throughout the show. Robert Upham’s ledger art connects the Native American tradition, dating from when government and military-supplied paper replaced buffalo hides, to last year’s uprising at Standing Rock. The contrast between the archaic, personal form of the ledger and the to-the-moment context of Upham’s activism give his pieces a dramatic frisson and historical depth. Martha Rosler’s First Lady (Pat Nixon) (1972), alters the background of a photograph of Nixon to show Vietnamese war crimes — anticipating Kerry James Marshall’s similar Heirlooms and Accessories by thirty years, and showing how evil has stayed the same even as the parodic polyester decorum of the mid-20th century has fallen away.
Bringing it all together are two giant Trump-based assemblages by Castrucci. The first, a massive head made of horse dung, stands like an Easter Island moai amongst faux-gold sculptures by Richard Hambleton and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. The second, The Cathedral (1986–2017), is room-sized, centering on an oil painting of Trump dating to directly after “The I Love You Nancy Show,” showing him young and sinister, shadowy and inhuman, not yet the fat, visibly decaying picture of Dorian Gray he is today. Surrounding the viewer are jugs of urine suspended from the ceiling with fishing line (a nice resonance with Yoan Capote’s nearby Palangre (Ultramar) (2016), an ocean blue plank half-stuck with fishing hooks), giving the room an unearthly feeling of barely contained filth and corroded beauty.
They feel both of the minute and out of time, neither subtle nor didactic. It’s the sort of political art you could see in a thousand years and still understand, the inevitable recurrence of the cheap despot, and the eternal obligation of the artist to savage them.