Paper Chase 

The news in art at Boise Art Museum

click to enlarge Xiaoze Xie, April - May 2000, Shanghai #1, Oil on canvas, 45" x 64", Private Collection - COURTESY BOISE ART MUSEUM

The Boise Art Museum's lively, if uneven, exhibit entitled "The Daily News" is an entertaining look at how contemporary artists are interacting with the common newspaper as subject matter, medium and inspiration for their work. This may strike some as a rather dated, unhip theme to build an exhibition around in the first decade of the 21st century. Let's face it, in the high-speed, multi-option, digital, sound-bite world of the media biz these days, the lowly newspaper is certainly the underdog, considered by some to be a relic of a bygone era whose days as a relevant news source are numbered. What the show reflects, however, is how much a part of the fabric of society these humble publications continue to be, inspiring a range of impassioned responses from artists alert to the cultural, political, social, material and formal implications lurking within. Organized by Jim Edwards, curator of exhibitions at the Salt Lake Art Center where the project originated, "The Daily News" offers us a chance to witness visual artists critiquing and parodying the "power of the press."

Newspapers are in a tight spot these days, fighting a seemingly losing battle against the Internet (with which they have been forced to ally) and the omnipresent, blaring television screen. They are no longer the primary source of information and opinion on current events, politics, entertainment and culture that they used to be, which is probably why so many Americans are only superficially informed. The quality of print journalism, too, has deteriorated, especially in the chain papers run by out-of-town corporations, as we in Boise have learned firsthand. Yet a number of metropolitan areas continue to support more than one paper, with some big city dailies like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and others inspiring a loyal and dedicated readership no matter where those fans live. (Thanks to computer technology enabling regional printing, The New York Times is practically a national daily now, selling quite well in Boise.)

But newspapers have endearing attributes, too, that cannot be dismissed. Lightweight and foldable, they not only have a versatility that works for commuters and other folks on the move, but also a feel, a tangible quality pleasing to those who enjoy the tactile aspects of the reading experience. It can be absorbing in ways not found in electronic media which is why idly exploring a thick wad of newsprint remains such a Sunday ritual. On the other hand, there is also the temporary, perishable nature of a newspaper, which for those of us who write for dailies or weeklies can be a bit painful. Printed with cheap ink on cheap paper that is meant to be discarded, it has a short life span, and even the most labored-over, thoughtful journalistic endeavors soon end up in the trash can or recycle bin.

click to enlarge Jan Haworth, The Hollow Men, 2004, type and paint on canvas, 5 panels, each 48" x 24" - COURTESY BOISE ART MUSEUM

The daily newspaper, being such a ubiquitous part of modern life, has had a presence in and impact on art since the beginnings of modernism in the mid-19th century. It figured in the urban art of Manet and the early Impressionists, and assumed a more significant role in the imagery of the Cubist collagists, the Dadaists, and post-World War I artists like Kurt Schwitters and George Grosz. It has inspired painters from Stuart Davis to James Rosenquist to Roy Lichtenstein. Idaho's own James Castle found a multitude of wonderful artistic uses for newspaper imagery and graphics. It is fitting that this should be so, as one of the things art does best is transform the ordinary aspects of our lives that we take for granted, presenting them in a new light. Ironically, artists have probably given newspapers more attention than newspapers have given artists.

Of course, many aspects of the newspaper culture have been fodder for visual artists since the Pop Art phenomenon first burst on the scene in the early '60s. And "The Daily News" is a very much in the Pop tradition. Andy Warhol has not only a literal presence here (as the subject of one piece), but a significant referential and spiritual one as well. Warhol's appropriation of the print media's form and content, his celebration of advertising, fashion, and the American infatuation with celebrity informs much of the work at BAM. Pop in general was an imitative art, taking its imagery directly from popular and commercial sources, setting the stage for the appropriation craze of post-modernism, and that same spirit is in evidence everywhere here.

The most obvious example is Donald Sheridan's silkscreen-on-canvas series entitled Andy Warhol Dead at 58 (1987), featuring nine identically-sized panels reproducing the front page of the February 23, 1987, edition of the New York Post, its banner headline announcing the death of the "Prince of Pop." Sheridan, a silkscreener who worked on Warhol's projects, pays tribute to the master by replicating Andy's signature technique of repeating the same image, casting it in bright, garish colors, and featuring a celebrity subject. Underscoring its Entertainment Tonight genre, the headline and image of Warhol competes for attention with a large photo of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall after their wedding announcement. In the end, Sheridan's multi-panel piece is one big Pop Art cliché.

click to enlarge Donald Sheridan, Andy Warhol Dead, 1987 (one of nine works), Silkscreen on canvas, each 15" x 13" - COURTESY BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Boise Art Museum
  • Donald Sheridan, Andy Warhol Dead, 1987 (one of nine works), Silkscreen on canvas, each 15" x 13"

Less one-dimensional are British expatriate Conrad Atkinson's large-scale fictional front pages of famous financial newspapers. His Wall Street Journal-Michaelangelo is appropriately gray-faced and monotone as if etched in stone (echoing that paper's demeanor), while the vibrantly colored Financial Times-Matisse is downright Fauve in comparison. Both canvases are from the mid-1980s and spoof the birth of the celebrity-artist phenomenon and the culture wars of the Reagan years. The "news items" (in hand-painted lettering rather than crisp typeface) in the staid Journal have President Reagan and cabinet members like Caspar Weinberger and George Schultz publicly debating well-known artists from the Renaissance to modern times over controversial administration policies such as the budget deficit and Star Wars, while the more spirited Financial Times has Margaret Thatcher and the Reaganites arguing with artists over the use of the color red and the need for greater artist involvement in such things as defense department policy-making. What sets work like this apart from the Pop precedent is its biting sarcasm and political overtones, a far more post-modern persuasion.

Another Brit, Christopher Finch, focuses on the advertising and fashion elements of a newspaper in several rather bland color pencil works that isolate and serialize snippets of commercial imagery geared to catch our fancy. Finch is much better when he turns his attention to the Sunday comics. His humorous Fine Art Funnies featuring an exasperated French aesthete called Edouard Ennui longing to get back to the pleasures of the city, cleverly adopts the look, feel and style of the comic strip narrative to his "artsy" subject.

An American artist who lived many years in Britain (and was co-designer of the album cover for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper) is Jann Haworth, who takes a neo-constructivist approach to the newspaper format in her The Hollow Men (2004). It is a highly politicized work of five three-dimensional panels, in which major figures from the Bush administration are constructed as stick figures from sewn together canvas on which Haworth has transferred news stories documenting their various misdemeanors and half-truths to the press. "We are the Hollow Men, We are the Stuffed Men" marches across the top like a banner headline.

Derek Boshier has been given considerable wall space to his own explorations of the aesthetics of the press. Two large canvases from a series he did on the Los Angeles Times re-present two Pop moments in the media, if you will--Bill Clinton's acquittal from impeachment charges (Clinton is the first president since John Kennedy to come close to "pop" celebrity status) and the death of another "Pop Icon," artist Roy Lichtenstein. Rendered in a comic book style that Lichtenstein himself made famous, bathed, again, in broad areas of hot, high-keyed hues, they depict Clinton as a pouting martyr with what looks like a fallen halo or crown of thorns around his head (either would be appropriate) and Lichtenstein, ghostly in tombstone gray, casually posed before one of his bright canvases. Boshier's ink drawings on paper and board from the late 1970s document his track record for satirizing low-brow print journalism. In What the Papers Say (1979), Boshier distills the hysterical headlines of fictional rags with names like "Excess" and "Peephole" down to single word encapsulations of the venom tabloids spew. His tabloid Stun (1977) creates public relations havoc through the juxtaposition of contradictory headlines and images, suggesting the lurid power of graphic manipulation.

None of these prepare you for the work of Al Souza and Nancy Chunn, two artists who physically attack and transform stalwart daily papers with a vengeance. As Jim Edwards points out in his brochure comments accompanying the exhibit, there is an obsessive quality to much of the art on view, where artists have labored intensely on prolonged projects to refashion or replicate the iconic newspaper in elaborate detail. Bruce Campbell, with his meticulous pen tracings of full page texts from American and Russian publications, is one example. Two others are Souza and Chunn, and their works are some of the best in the show.

Souza, a painter now working in Houston, Texas, initially studied engineering and a manic precision informs his multifarious collages made from whole sections of The Houston Chronicle, entitled Front Page (1996) and Car Ads (1995). In both pieces, layers of newsprint from which precisely-cut ovals of paper have been removed create a kaleidoscopic, three-dimensional effect that, when viewed up close, will make your eyes spin, but from a distance is a fascinatingly intricate abstract design. By jumbling the colors, typeface and graphic elements, making them non-representational, his art re-emphasizes these essential ingredients of the newspaper experience.

click to enlarge ARTIST: XIAOZE XIE

Taking this obsessive streak to its extreme is Souza's New York Times Spitballs (July 12-18) (2000) in which the artist reduced a whole week's worth of Times issues to tiny, round paper wads, each day's worth presented in its own wall mounted display case. This process of digesting the news, as it were, (they're actually held together by glue not spit) results in recycled, decorative, gray and pastel-colored paper balls.

Nancy Chunn's obsession with The New York Times lasted a whole year when she decided in 1996 to re-edit the front page of all 366 daily editions for that year with her own imagery and commentary, using pastels, inks and rubber stamps, many of which she designed herself. As Edwards explains in the brochure, Chunn had to go through a daily ritual of treating the newsprint in a chemical bath to prepare it to take and preserve her additions. Displayed together, they form impressive, colorful mosaic-like murals that puncture political and journalistic pieties while also producing elegiac remembrances of human tragedy.

At BAM, two months of Chunn's year-long epic are on view, July and September 1996, taking up two large walls. Dramatic from a distance, up close there is so much to explore and take in, they become a show unto themselves. Front Pages (July) is dominated by the week-long coverage of the ill-fated TWA Flight 800 that went down over the Atlantic, taking the lives of all on board. Chun covers large areas in a beautiful blue with winged and haloed child-like figures falling from the sky. As each day passes, the area of blue shrinks as coverage of the event subsides. It is a tragic and moving image. But there are funny moments as well. In Front Page (September), Chun humorously satirizes the 1996 presidential campaign. Over the article "Dole is Moving to Add Spark to Campaign" Chunn drew a water-soaked book of matches that refuse to light. On the piece announcing "Perot Chooses An Economist For His Ticket" she has stamped "FROM OBSCURITY TO OBLIVION." In all, it is a very different work of art that alone is worth the admission price to see.

click to enlarge ARTIST: XIAOZE XIE

Several artists in the show approach the subject by isolating various elements of a newspaper. In one series, Pat Boas has traced just the outlines of heads appearing on the front pages of The New York Times in 2001 in ink onto silk tissue paper. The result is crowds of anonymous figures engaged in we know not what, creating an empty ghost image of specific events. In another series, it is individual letters of all sizes and styles that she traces in great detail from the front page. They seem to wander aimlessly in search of one another. For all her effort, these deconstructionist exercises don't quite come off as finished works of art.

Paula Scher collects headlines in her series of pencil/color pencil drawings on newsprint entitled All the News That Fits (2001-2003). Taking specific timeframes like January to August 2003 or May to August 2002, Scher jams together various headlines of varying boldness and intensity into cartoon-like strips that she stacks one on top of the other, thereby turning up the volume. They have an R. Crumb, counterculture look to them, and convey a sense of a chaotic culture on sensory overload that feels frighteningly real.

Chinese-born Xiaoze Xie (now living in Pennsylvania) works on canvas and in video to offer views of newspapers that capture both the immediacy and urgency of their day of publication and their quiet aftermath as yesterday's papers. His handsome, photo-realistic oil paintings show them in repose. April-May 2000, Shanghai #1 (2001) is a brisk still life of folded stacks, looking crisp, clean and unabused. In March 2003 O.T. (2003) a flat stack of Oakland Tribunes lies tied and tagged, ready for the archivist.

Then there's Xie's eight-minute video entitled October 2001. Like Paula Scher's drawings, it records the print media's saturation coverage of a world seemingly gone mad. Filmed just a month after 9/11 when the papers were consumed with ground zero, Osama bin Laden, and the war in Afghanistan, most of the video takes place on a New York City subway, with commuters reading papers with headlines like "BLOODBATH" and "DEATH RATTLE", or perusing The New York Times' special section called "A Nation Challenged" with its endless profiles of the World Trade Center dead. The whole sequence is nerve-wracking--the rushing, screeching train; a loud rapid-fire bongo drum soundtrack; and close-ups of news photo after news photo of weapons and war, the dead and dying, the refugees. In the end, the train stops, the passengers go on with their lives, and in the sudden silence, discarded dailies lay strewn on the ground. This is how we start our day, Xie seems to be saying, and newspapers make it possible.

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