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American Activist Art Exhibition is Approachable and Provocative

Art and Activism in the U.S., a showcase of art that has influenced change in America, opened in the Pomona College Museum of Art ramp gallery Jan. 22. Frances Pohl, the Dr. Mary Ann Vanderzyl Reynolds ’56 Professor in the Humanities and Art History, was the sole curator of the exhibit, which is comprised of pieces from the museum's permanent collection that were made within the last 90 years.

“Everyone should see the museum as a place where they can bring their ideas and insights, no matter what their prior understanding about art," Pohl said. “Art and Activism contains works that are quite accessible to a broad public, but at the same time, the more you look at them and talk about them with other people, the more ideas emerge about both the subject matter and the way in which the artist has organized the visual material.”

Pohl teaches the art history seminar “Art and Activism” only occasionally, but she always mounts the exhibition in conjunction with the course in order to allow her students and the general public to see examples of the genre. In addition, many lectures occur throughout the semester to educate exhibition-goers.

“On Wednesday, March 27, students in my ‘Art and Activism’ seminar will be presenting short talks on a selection of the works in the exhibition,” Pohl said.

The exhibition uses the progression from one social issue to the next as its linear narrative. The collection begins with a 2005 piece by Shepard Fairey that protests the Iraq War and is entitled “Make Art, Not War.” Fairey, famous for creating the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, helps set the tone for the collection. His lithograph exemplifies the theme of art as a valid mode of activism. Another powerful, post-millennial work that opposes the Iraq War is Robbie Conal’s “Emission Accomplished,” a graphic depiction of George W. Bush on a pile of skulls.

One photograph in the collection is a piece from Pomona College Professor Emerita of Photography Sheila Pinkel. Entitled “Occupy the World,” it depicts a man in a Guy Fawkes mask at the Occupy Los Angeles site last year. Conal created another piece in the collection entitled “Sooner or Later Everyone Needs the ACLU” in 1994. The lithograph juxtaposes images of the Scopes Trial, Japanese internment, Oliver North, and Alice Walker to evoke significant moments in civil rights.

Through a series of four pieces, the exhibition looks at the rights of workers over five decades. Two lithographs by June Wayne illustrate the life of the artist’s mother, a traveling saleswoman who worked during an age in which her line of work was a largely male-dominated profession. Two more pieces, including a print by Rockwell Kent entitled “Workers of the World, Unite!” focus on union rights. Kent’s image shows an idealized, Atlas-like figure performing manual labor.

Other activist issues Pohl addresses in the exhibition include the environment and African-American and Native American rights. Kim Abeles’s exciting mixed media piece “Ralph Blakelock’s ‘Rising Morn’ in Thirty Days of Smog” shows a pastoral scene framed with trash. The final piece in the collection, Fritz Scholder’s “American Indian No. 4,” is an abstract and ambiguous piece that provokes contemplation and helps the viewer reflect on the rest of the collection.

The exhibition will be on display at the museum until April 14. It can be viewed from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and at Art After Hours on Thursdays until 11 p.m., with live music after 9 p.m.

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