Propaganda and Crafting the Self Image of a Nation

The title of this post might seem a little heavy handed… and I guess it is. But after my little adventure today the idea that propaganda has always been a means to shape how people (who are the objects of propaganda’s political and social aims) see themselves stands out to me. It makes sense that propaganda would provide a positive view for people to buy into; it needs to use that angle in order to work at all. I guess I knew all this years ago in the first years of my undergraduate education, but seeing it up close in a major museum in China was interesting.

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I began the day attempting to see two significant art museums in Guangzhou, one of which is close to our hotel and one that’s a 20 minute drive away. I was given advice by a local that I could walk to the first one, but my efforts proved futile. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes getting myself more and more disoriented and more and more lost in a strange city.

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Eventually I found myself in a large train station with thousands of Chinese people and got into a line at the taxi stand. Once in my cab I gave the driver a slip of paper that a well-meaning woman at the hotel had written out for me in Chinese. After one failed attempt to get to the closer of the two locations, I gave him another line about the more distant museum and we made it there after 35 or 40 minutes.

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The Guangdong Museum of Art on Er-Sha Island is a part of a large museum campus system on a beautiful island in the Pearl River right in downtown Guangzhou. The collection is primarily traditional-based semi-contemporary work. Most of what I saw was painting, printmaking, and large figurative sculpture from the 30s through today. They have significant holdings on display from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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Just one aspect that I focused on during my 3.5 hour tour of the museum’s three floors was the way women were depicted in the propaganda era works on display. As you’ve noticed, I’m posting a number of details here to illustrate my point.

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I am by no means an expert in Chinese art during Mao’s time, but I am aware of a variety of aspects of it. Getting to see these works in their country of origin and within their own context was a great experience. There was, to a piece, excellent craftsmanship in the work itself. The woodblock prints and oil paintings in particular were fantastic examples of the genre and time. I am sad to say that they were not all presented well, however. The framing was inconsistent – sometimes downright baffling (dozens of prints were matted with foamcore) – and many of the walls were scuffed and marked. In some rooms the arrangement of works seemed somewhat scattershot. But none of that can make one mistake the energy and physical presence of the best of the works on display.

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These works were designed to present a powerful, healthy, vigorous and virtuous people. Look at the faces of these women I’ve posted: In one a young mother runs out to work in the early morning before dawn, implement in hand, her baby strapped to her back. In another, two women - stern-faced and sharp-eyed, look determined to defend their way of life… machine guns rest against their bodies. In perhaps the most recent example, three young women rest in dappled sunlight beneath the massive tires of some piece of heavy machinery; their labors afford them peaceful - and aesthetic - rest.

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These propagandistic images succeed on a number of levels – they are expertly crafted illustrations, and so it makes sense that they utilize the visual language of illustration so well. They are illustrations of the regime’s aims and means. They functioned as didactic projections; they were the stained-glass window training centers of a new era. Yet they did more, as all propaganda does.

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Artworks such as these offered viewers both a prescribed view they were conditioned to believe and a perspective that plays into what every human being wants for themselves. We want signifigance. We want inclusion. We want meaning. We want to be noble. In spite of the pernicious and sometimes evil ends to which propaganda of all kinds has been used I think we can agree that part of the reason that it works is that it gives an image of self-virtue that the human animal craves. In light of these things, can we blame any people of any time for  buying in? I see the faces of these women and I have to wonder what their lives were – or are, if some of them are still living - really like. I can, at the very least, absolutely affirm that they were valuable, they were meaningful simply as human beings. The lives they lived, their loves, their sorrows, were all knit together into a weaving of the human consciousness in time and space. They were beautiful and strange, and they tried to believe in something beyond themselves that was, in fact, unified with all that they were. We all seek this, and we all want to know that it’s real.

The horror of propaganda is that it uses our own innate desire to be embedded in a broader truth against us.

Both Sides of the Brain

Mr. Aaron Coleman, mezzotinter extraordinaire, has been coordinating this traveling exhibition for quite some time. And now the first shows are coming soon.

Cover for the folio cases: GLORY! Photo by Aaron Coleman.

And here’s a listing of the locations for this traveling show – click the highlights for more info about the specific exhibitions:

2012

August 13 – September 18, 2012 ~ Basile Gallery, Herron School of Art. Indianapolis, Indiana

October 3 – October 28, 2012 – Washington Printmakers Gallery. Silver Spring, Maryland

TBA – Gallery 215. Northern Illinois University School of Art. Dekalb, Illinois (link when available)

2013

May 20 – August 29, 2013 – George Caleb Bingham Gallery. University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri (link when available)

TBA – Lamar D. Fain School of Art. Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas (link when available)

The edition is in the permanent collections of Herron School of Art and Northern Illinois University School of Art. BOO-YEAH!

“Both Sides of the Brain” Mezzotint

I was invited to be a part of Aaron Coleman‘s traveling mezzotint exhibition. The show, scheduled to travel to at least 4 institutions, will begin its run in August of 2012 at Northern Illinois University. I’ll keep everyone posted as more information about these shows becomes available. Many thanks to Aaron for including my work! Here’s a peep at the finished piece, titled Agathokakological. Click the image to see it larger.

Mezzotint (Charbonnel ink on Zerkall paper), paper size 10.5 by 13.5 inches. 2012, edition of 21 (19 numbered and 2 artist’s proofs).

Pulling an Edition of Mezzotints

I am a part of an upcoming traveling mezzotint show, a brainchild of printmaker Aaron Coleman. Today and last Friday I worked with Derek Frankhouser to pull 21 mezzotints (an edition of 19 +two artist’s proofs). Derek is also in the show and is a budding master printmaker who held a residency an internship at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in 2011. Below is a record of our efforts.

 

My hand, blackened by hand-wiping, in front of the pinned prints. I used Charbonnel ink.

 

Derek laying the paper…

 

…and carefully pulling it off the plate after a pass.

 

A beautiful pull (this was my first print of the process).

 

Pinning.

 

A shot of the whole edition set off to the side for drying.

I’m super thankful to Derek for his help and couldn’t have pulled the entire edition (without mistakes or needing to re-do) without him. This is the also the first time I’ve been able to edition beyond 10 or 12 prints; that’s a testament to Derek’s counsel and help.

Statement, January 2012

     I create paintings, drawings and prints in an attempt to address – through archetypal themes and symbols – the fundamental questions, ideas, hopes, and concerns I have about being in the world. I write texts in an attempt to integrate rational conceptions and reflections with my passionate, sometimes illogical, image making. In tandem, these avenues of expression form a multifaceted arena of investigation and inquiry that I use every day to – hopefully – understand and make sensible the miraculous reality of being.

     The statement above relies on the fact that I am deeply interested in three main aspects of the human condition: being, symbol, and body.

     I am intrigued by the state of evocative subjective experience that Gaston Bachelard described as “the astonishment of being.” Thus, though I am interested art of all kinds, I take particularly to those forms that connect with our embodiment or sense of being. This means the physical world, the objects we use and love, and the bodies we inhabit are particularly important to the sort of art I want to see and make.

     It follows then that I find the expression of meaning through symbol – that is, the potential for objects to accumulate and resonate with meaning – to be a central interest of my art-making practice.  Anything containing meaning has been, as John Dewey wrote, “funded” with importance through the physical interaction and intellectual contemplation human beings have invested in it over time.

     The body is the zone of incident where being-ness and the structures of significance coalesce. Therefore, I foster a deep appreciation for the human body as a container for and calibrator of meaning and knowledge. As a maker of images – be they painted, drawn, or printed – I function as a symbolist in the traditional sense; I create tableaus for the relational contemplation of that which is beyond the facts of appearance. In doing so I hope to stimulate an evocative, transformative experience in my fellow human beings.

Transient Geometries at Antelope Valley College

Quintessence #10, multiple monotype and woodblock prints, with acrylic, graphite and gouache on paper, 2009. Click to enlarge.

I’ve been included in a small group show at Antelope Valley College, which was organized and curated by AVC Professor Christine Mugnolo. I’m honored and excited by my fellow exhibitors: J. Jordan Bruns, David Eddington, and Lisa C. Soto. Click here for the AVC Gallery page describing the show!

Full disclosure: I went to grad school with Christine and she was the subject of one of the shows I worked with Gillock Gallery to organize back in 2006. I wrote an essay about Christine’s drawings and Gillock published a small catalog for the exhibition containing the text and a selection of her work. I’m really proud of that entire project and hope you’ll take a look here.

Here’s one of the drawings from the show – Self Portrait on Olive Ground, Pastel on toned paper, 24 by 18 inches. Click to enlarge.

Looking Over the Overlooked at MACC

Jacob Maurice Crook and I have a show together at Moberly Area Community College. We installed today and the exhibition opens this coming Monday, June 6th. I hope you can get there to see the show – MACC’s gallery space is quite nice – but if you can’t make it, check below for some shots of the work installed. Click each image for enlargement.

1 ) Crook’s main wall arrangement. One larger oil painting, a small work in oil, and a mezzotint.

2 ) Crook’s inner room set – two oil paintings flank a beautiful graphite and gouache work.

3 ) Crook’s side wall, with an oil piece, two large mezzotints, and a graphite work.

4 ) Crook’s behemoth Hitt Street Garage, an 18 foot, 7 inch oil painting.

5 ) Ballou’s main wall set, with images from Chicago during 2000 and 2001.

6 ) A grouping from Ballou’s 2008 Illinois beach house series.

7 ) Ballou’s 2008 Michigan light photos.

8 ) The 2004 Whitney Ceiling set, installed physically for the first time here (I presented them online during 2010 at this link.)

If you are now sufficiently inspired to see the show for real, MACC is located at 101 College Ave. Moberly, MO 65270.

And here are our statements for your perusal:

Looking Over the Overlooked Exhibition Statement

Matt Ballou and Jacob Crook present work that engages with the proliferation of commonplace, yet ignored, spaces in the urban and suburban landscape.

Using primarily photographic images, Ballou depicts an iconography of geometries and formal tensions based on his experiences with specific interior and exterior spaces over the last decade. Several bodies of work from very different locations around the United States take center stage. These include a latticework of appropriated images showing the ceiling of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, a multitude of manipulated photographs of a skylight in a rural northern Michigan home, and a series of images of the degrading arcs and angles of a dilapidated municipal beach house in northern Illinois. Installing the images in broad arrays allows for a serialized, comparative reading that creates interplay between the total effect of the group and the specific characteristics of individual images. The works are not meant to be singular expressions but rather cumulative contemplations of space, place, light, and the modular effects of specific structures.

A dedicated representational painter and draftsperson, Jacob Crook’s work starts with repeated observation and detailed consideration of the overlooked arenas that quietly dominate the American landscape. Relying heavily on James Howard Kunstler’s book The Geography of Nowhere, Crook’s paintings, drawings, and prints attempt to come to terms with what Kunstler describes as the American “obsession with mobility, the urge to move on every few years” and the results of that tendency: “we choose to live in Noplace, and our dwellings show it.” Casting his eye on the margins of suburbia, Crook tries to locate the dynamic tension that exists between the land and our mundane domination of it. Crook carries on the legacy of landscape painting while rejecting its inherent valorization of the subject matter. Instead of merely creating pleasant pictures, his work uses the historical authority of both painting and the landscape to project a subversive series of questions toward viewers.

Together the work of these two artists is a vision of what American space has become. Not an entirely negative perspective, the work is meant to provoke an introspective attitude in viewers, challenging assumptions and calling questions to mind: “What spaces do I want to live in? What has dictated the sorts of spaces I live in by default? What is my responsibility for the reality of these spaces?” The artists hope that by bringing their own investigations – as humble or as banal as they might seem – to viewers, a thoughtfulness and contemplation might be stimulated.

Biographical Information

Ballou is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri where he has taught since 2007. In 2011 he presented a major solo show at Gordon College in Wenham, MA and will exhibit with internationally renowned artist Tim Lowly at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, KY during the summer of 2011.

Crook earned his BFA from the University of Missouri in 2009. His work was recently included in the prestigious Fort Wayne Museum’s Contemporary Realism Biennial. He has been accepted to Syracuse University’s graduate printmaking program for the fall of 2011.

Jacob Maurice Crook | Artist Statement

My work is a contemplation of how the physical design of our surroundings can influence social behavior and also offer insight to cultural practices that inform the nature of such designs. In choosing the subject matter of my imagery, I focus my sights on the fringe of suburbia, attempting to locate dynamic tensions existing between the landscape and the homogeneous developments quietly dominating its topography. I chose to reject the idealized depiction of subject matter inherent in the history of American landscape painting. Instead of merely creating pleasant pictures, I use the history of both painting and landscape to project a subversive series of questions to viewers: What spaces do I want to live in? What dictates the spaces I live in by default? What responsibility (if any) do I take for the reality of these spaces?

Matthew Glenn Ballou | Artist Statement

These photographs were never meant to be artworks per se. Over the course of many years I have used photography as a way to decipher my own eye, as a way to better understand what visual dynamics draw me to certain scenes or arrangements of form and space. So most of what you see here was entirely reactive and instinctive at the beginning. I was attempting to see something in what others might easily overlook. Ultimately it worked, and in many ways these images have become historical and canonical to me. They are also nostalgic in that they are documents of places and times that carry personal significance. In them I see my own eye remixed, my own memory re-contextualized. In them I see a field of visual forces at play, which I have taken and used, reused, and reapplied. I present them in this way at this time to heighten my experience of their formal tension and balance in contrast with my emotional feeling for the spaces and times they represent. I present them so as to experience all of this again, anew. It is the contrasts and resonances made possible by this new context that bring artfulness to the work. The images themselves remain snapshots while the relationships among these fragments become a place for art experiences to reside: between the lines, in the overlooked spaces, around corners, beyond sight.

Inspiration – Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi created an amazing series of prints called Le Carceri (the Prisons). I recently found out that the Saint Louis Public Library has an edition of the prints, so I’ll be over there to see them soon.

The Prisons, Plate VII: The Drawbridge.

In these works the master deftly shows the ability for etchings – and really all of printmaking – to transcend the sense of a single, locked image that is a stereotype of the discipline. Using an inventive, intuitive action, Piranesi works the various states of the prison plates in dramatic fashion, transforming their contents, scale, and mood. The Dover publication of the first and second states of the plates is well worth the price.

I picked that book up in 2004 and it has inspired a great deal of my perspective on line work and current interest in printmaking as a malleable medium – as seen in the image above, titled The Weight (etching and mezzotint, 2008). Click on the image for a larger view.


Installing at Gordon

Today I arrived at Gordon College to install my exhibition of paintings, drawings, and prints, titled Redeeming Tensions. Bruce Herman, a Professor at Gordon and director of the gallery, worked with Leo (installer extraordinaire!) and me to hang the show. Here are a few shots of it all going up.

I also spoke for Associate Professor Michael Monroe’s class of 75 or so – fielding all of the students’ questions made for a good time.

More tomorrow after the opening reception talk. If you’re in the area (eastern Massachusetts), stop by! It’ll be at the Barrington Art Center on the Gordon Campus.

So far I’ve felt such a kinship with everyone here. It’s a great place; the beautiful campus has a massive blanket of snow but everyone is pleasant and uplifting to talk to. I’m really looking forward to the reception…

Lamentations 3 Series Complete

This weekend I printed and framed the last of the Lamentations 3 Series. I’ve talked about it before here, here, and here. It’s been a long journey: 20 months, lots of rocking on the mezzotint deck, the production of beautiful coppery glory, and a ton of revision. Tonight I pack them up for the trip to the Gordon College show. Here’s a preview of the last two, freshly finished (click for larger view… sorry, close up viewing is a little blurry; look for a super clear set of the whole 16 mezzotint series in a few months):

Lamentations 3, Verse 16

Lamentations 3, Verses 19-20