Three exhibits at Artspace Gallery blend visual pleasure with
food for thought in a compelling brew of eye-dazzling
emotionalism. Michael A. Pierce's "Simple Equations"
and Tom Block's "Human Rights Painting Project"
confront power and hatred in vibrant works of art. Nancy Lea
Strube provides comic relief with "Kisses" an
exquisite series of colorful prints that celebrate the pleasures
Text is used effectively in Block's "Human Rights
Painting Project," a touring exhibit of the Washington,
D.C., artist's portraits of activists, political prisoners and
refugees, co-sponsored by civil rights advocacy group Amnesty
International. Here, biographical placards augment the images,
telling the story of each subject. Some, like Gandhi or Chinese
dissident Wei JingSheng, are well known, but most depict unknown
men and women victims of war, displacement and despotic regimes
from Burma, Iran, Colombia and other global trouble spots. The
United States, incidentally, is not spared: "Shaka Sankofa"
portrays a black Texan executed for murder in 2000 despite
widespread doubt about his guilt when his final appeal was
denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush. The accompanying caption
reminds us that the U.S. is the only NATO nation that still
practices capital punishment.
The paintings themselves are executed in an expressionistic
style that evokes nearly every modern figurative painter of
significance from de Kooning to Kokoschka. This
backward-looking, hodgepodge style identifies Block a liberal
Jew interested in spirituality as well as politics as an
unreconstructed modernist, committed to beauty, humanist values
and changing the world with art. He describes himself in
interviews as a fierce anti-elitist who hopes his work will
reach a mass audience.
Block's mission is noble, and one that has garnered attention
from a broad sector of the public. With room to breathe the
results can be spectacular. "Rivera Kalenzo" portrays
a woman who fled civil- war-torn Burundi for a refugee camp in
Tanzania after four of her children were killed. She stands in a
tall, asymmetrical composition hands folded, face tilted, grim
eyes meeting ours. But a dazzling red, gold and green palette
and riotous Matisse-like patterning on her garment are more
joyful than tragic.