An Interview with Political Artist Cheryl Harper by Gina DeCagna

by John Heon

  Above:  Hillary Sphinx 2  and  Condoleezza Sphinx  by Cheryl Harper, 2008.  Hillary Sphinx 2   is 17” h and in the Andrea Kirsh collection.

Above: Hillary Sphinx 2 and Condoleezza Sphinx by Cheryl Harper, 2008. Hillary Sphinx 2  is 17” h and in the Andrea Kirsh collection.

Cheryl Harper is an artist and curator who has been working in the Philadelphia area for most of her career. She has had several solo and group exhibitions in venues across the nation and in 2008 won the 1st Prize in Sculpture in the Pennsylvania “Art of the State” competition for her piece, “The Teaching Gore.” Her 2017 political sculpture, “Trumpty Dumpty (mini me),” will be part of the 22nd San Angelo Ceramics Competition this spring at the San Angelo Museum of Art in Texas. Harper’s 2003 curatorial project, “A Happening Place,” received two Pew Foundation Grants, and she has organized over one hundred exhibitions featuring innovative regional, national, and international artists, often bringing greater public awareness to under-recognized work. Following up on discussions at the 2017 PASC Symposium, Apolitical, My Ars: Dissent, Resistance, and Revolution in the Avant-Garde Arts,” I met with Harper at her studio this January to discuss the political aspects of her art.

  Above: Cheryl Harper in her studio near Philadelphia.

Above: Cheryl Harper in her studio near Philadelphia.

John Heon: Much of your art is, in some respect, political, whether it’s dealing with gun violence, women’s rights, the Holocaust, junk-food advertising, or the US presidency. When did you start making political art and what prompted it?

Cheryl Harper: Even as a young child I recall my father would read the headlines aloud and react to them so it was always part of my consciousness. The Kennedy assassination took place when I was nine, and I became aware that being president could be a dangerous vocation. Even my early works incorporate political commentary but not in an overt manner. When I added ceramic sculpture to my media, it seemed perfect for political statements. However,  I’ve been making politically themed art since the early 1990s.

  Above:  BaBUSHka Dolls  by Cheryl Harper, 2006, ceramics, Cheney doll is 12” h.

Above: BaBUSHka Dolls by Cheryl Harper, 2006, ceramics, Cheney doll is 12” h.

JH: Your more directly political pieces are often bitingly satirical, with multiple allusions to both political events and art history. They make the viewer laugh but also think, and you have a wonderfully bipartisan eye for hypocrisy and pomposity in politicians. Tell us about the evolution of this aesthetic mixture and the multiple levels of (art)historical and political meaning.

CH: My gallerist, James Oliver, likes to say that he thinks magic happens in my studio and has no idea how I do it. I tell him something general is coming and then something very specific with many layers of meaning occurs. I pour a number of ideas into the mix, and it evolves into its final version. I rarely do sketches or drawings of my ideas, but collect imagery and articles that interest me. I usually have a general concept such as political women as sphinxes. Art history is part of my toolbox, you could say. I take pictures of objects whenever I’m in a museum and may use them later as sources.

  Above:  Ivanka Sphinx  at James Oliver Gallery, 2017.

Above: Ivanka Sphinx at James Oliver Gallery, 2017.

JH: You've used the sphinx imagery for Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Ivanka Trump. Why did you choose the sphinx? Why does it resonate with you?

CH: When I was a kid, I used to daydream that a woman could be president, and a male teacher would laugh and pat me on the head. American culture has inched ever so slightly towards the glass ceiling without breaking it. My idea was to identify promising women who got into the mix or seemed to have the drive for the top office and to question whether it was possible and if they could obtain their goal. I will keep making female political sphinxes until a woman makes it to the oval office. The sphinx has the head of a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and a serpent’s tail. In Greek mythology, she asks perplexing questions but is also a riddle unto herself. You may notice that Ivanka Sphinx has clipped wings.

  Above: Robert Arneson,  Portrait of George Moscone  (detail), 1981, SFMOMA.

Above: Robert Arneson, Portrait of George Moscone (detail), 1981, SFMOMA.

JH: Considering your incorporation of ironic text in many of the pieces and the often caricature-like visual representations of well-known political figures, especially US presidents and their cabinet secretaries or family members, I’m wondering: Have you been influenced by political cartoonists or other comic political commentators? If so, who and how?

CH: Daumier’s political caricatures of the French parliament system are very important. I’ve seen the set at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I think Arneson’s portrait of San Francisco mayor George Moscone is very significant. I saw Red Grooms' “Philadelphia Cornucopia” the first time it was installed in the city in the 80s and admired his approach. Of course, Warhol’s antics were very much in the news, and his paintings can be seen through both a political and caricaturist filter. I enjoy comix, grew up with MAD magazine, and first discovered graphic novels through Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I don’t go for the quick joke as much as I do for layers of meaning. Most political cartoonists have a simple concept for the general public to process the idea in an instant. An artwork has the opportunity to have more layers of meaning and deeper context. The text is part of the “documentation” I provide for the viewer.

JH: I also see a certain folk element in your work. Are you playing with notions of “high” and “low” art? What do you think about Pop Art, and how has it influenced your work? How do these concerns relate to your choices of imagery, materials, and broader aesthetics?  

CH: I can probably be seen as an outsider artist in my ceramic work. I never took any courses in clay or sculpture in my years of art school. I took a few short classes at a couple of art centers starting in 2004. Once I found a method that worked for me, I just made the work, teaching myself as I went along. I bought a used kiln that has since been rewired—a real commitment to the medium. So you won’t see any finesse of technique in my ceramic sculpture. As a result, I don’t get much recognition in the ceramic community, but it is seen as sculpture by the general art community. I grew up in the 60s and the works of the mostly male artists I saw in galleries and museums were working in what is now referred to as Pop Art. Warhol was everywhere (also self-taught in his eventual processes). However, once I began exploring clay as a medium of sculpture, it seemed the perfect vehicle for my political observations. Prior to that, I worked in printmaking, another very technical process but one that gave me a graphic sensibility in woodcut. I still like to use printmaking techniques in large works on paper and installations.

  Above:  The Teaching Gore  (detail) by Cheryl Harper, 2008, Ceramic sculpture, 32” h.

Above: The Teaching Gore (detail) by Cheryl Harper, 2008, Ceramic sculpture, 32” h.

JH: Tell us about the Al Gore piece, its genesis, iconography, and reception.

CH: I admired Al Gore as vice president and saw him and Bill Clinton as a dream team, including their wives, promoted as partners. Bill was good (until the Lewinsky scandal), but it was Al who seemed to be the ideal candidate that would move America towards new ideas with dignity. When he lost by a hanging chad, I was in awe at how he reinvented himself as an environmentalist. He became an inspirational speaker, and I thought of the teaching Christ figure. Following the metaphor, Al Gore holds the earth (like Christ’s orb) in one hand and his DVD (instead of a book) in the other. The traditional medieval teaching Christ stands on Satan and the Antichrist, in this case George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. On the back, I have the story of Al Gore. The text also serves as documentation.

The work was well received and appeared in many reviews and on the cover of an art newspaper—I wasn’t even informed it was going to be there. A friend and I were at a restaurant and she said, "Isn’t that your work on the cover?" It won first prize in sculpture in the Pennsylvania "Art of the State" competition in 2008. The Republican politicians who attended the Harrisburg reception kept circling a couple of my political works, somewhat dumbfounded to see them there. When I saw that the juror who would choose the prizes was an art historian, I felt pretty confident that she’d find the piece interesting.

  Above:  Reporting for Duty  by Cheryl Harper, 2017, ceramic sculpture on mirror, 11” h x 11” diameter.

Above: Reporting for Duty by Cheryl Harper, 2017, ceramic sculpture on mirror, 11” h x 11” diameter.

JH: As an artist, how did you first react to Trump and his entourage? In many ways, Trump is a self-caricaturing person, which makes it both too easy and more difficult to caricature him. In a media world that is so saturated with Trump, what unique commentaries can artists bring to this US President and his inner circle? Do you have more Trump-related pieces planned?

CH: I thought George W. Bush was good for political commentary during his administration but when I observed that Trump was getting unbelievable free publicity on television—his favorite medium—I couldn’t believe how obvious it was. I compared Matt Lauer–Trump interview with Matt Lauer–Clinton interview and scratched my head. Now of course, it makes more sense in reference to the misogyny at the Today Show that’s come to light. This presidency is unique in many ways and as you’ve observed, one has to make an effort to have a unique message.  In my Trumpty Dumpty: Mini Me,  I was looking at Pueblo storyteller sculptures, where the figure has children climbing on him but it seemed obvious to concentrate on Trump alone, the ultimate storyteller. I often include fashion as layers of meaning in my female political sculptures, and Ivanka and Melania’s interest and involvement in the industry provided for some intriguing opportunities for metaphor. I can’t predict what Trump pieces I may make in the future. Something has to get into my head about it and then a work begins. Currently I’m working on a mixed-media piece about the history of the complex women in my family, but if something political comes to me, it will happen.

  Above:  Trumpty Dumpty: Mini Me  by Cheryl Harper, 2017, Ceramic sculpture,  21” h.

Above: Trumpty Dumpty: Mini Me by Cheryl Harper, 2017, Ceramic sculpture,  21” h.

JH: How has your curatorial practice influenced your work as an artist and vice versa?

CH: Yes, absolutely one influences the other.  As an artist–curator, I find my curatorial projects are a creative act, as much as making my own work.  I curated a major show of Pop Art, A Happening Place in Philadelphia, and became very close to the history and objects. When I began making ceramic sculpture, it was in my mind.  Because my work has a graphic quality and I wanted to delve in deeper into learning about other artists that had the sensibility, I organized a show at Rutgers-Camden inspired by the graphic novel, Compulsive Narratives: Stories that Must Be Told. What I learned from doing the show is that all the artists used their narrative skills because they would go nuts if they didn’t. There usually was a compelling incident such as having Jeffrey Dahmer as a classmate or a bad parent that almost killed them. They couldn’t move on until they told the story. I think all of the work in that show, no matter the medium, was often tragically autobiographical, but read as entertainment.

  Above:  Compulsive Narratives: Stories that Must Be Told , exhibition curated by Cheryl Harper for Rutgers University-Camden, 2014.

Above: Compulsive Narratives: Stories that Must Be Told, exhibition curated by Cheryl Harper for Rutgers University-Camden, 2014.

JH: What do you see as the most important role(s) of political art? What purposes should it serve? What other artists are doing the best political work?

CH: Political work should be subtle and observational. I see my mission as documenting the tenor of the political environment, and it should serve a purpose now and in the future as something that reminds us about what took place. As far as the success of other political artists, I think the Guerilla Girls were quite brave and resilient in bringing public attention to the inequalities in the art world and in museums. Artists take stands first, and eventually it filters into the general consciousness as we are seeing in the #metoo movement. There is significant work being done and accessible in online platforms. Since I am in political shows, I can say there is a drive to show it and generate dialogue with the viewer. There is work I admire, but political work needs some time to have an effect and to work its way into dialogue. Chinese and Cuban dissident art are examples of having a slow but major influences in their cultures. One or two artists get the attention (or the curatorial nod), but there are many artists making great political work that you don’t see often.

  Above: Detail of  Ballot Box 2016  by Cheryl Harper, Ceramic sculpture, 7”h.

Above: Detail of Ballot Box 2016 by Cheryl Harper, Ceramic sculpture, 7”h.

JH: What kinds of reactions, both positive and negative, have you recieved for your political pieces?

CH: It has generally been positive. My political works have been included in many competitive juried shows and have often won prizes. The press has been very attentive until recently.

  Above:  Sitting Ducks  by Cheryl Harper, 2016, mixed media on Tyvek, 48” h x 96” w.

Above: Sitting Ducks by Cheryl Harper, 2016, mixed media on Tyvek, 48” h x 96” w.

JH: Have you ever been censored or blacklisted because of the political content of your work? Or have you felt pressured not to create it or show it?

CH: It is only during the Trump presidency that I have felt uncomfortable in showing political work. I have been making satires for years and never felt it wouldn’t be appreciated. As you’ve observed, I am an equal-opportunity offending caricaturist. I never felt someone might come after me, but in our current online culture, I think I could be attacked. I wonder why these works aren’t being selected to be in shows or received critic’s attention as they would most certainly have been under other administrations. I sense the caution of jurors, critics, museums, and galleries to show work about the current administration. However, my gallerist, James Oliver, continues to be very enthusiastic in showing my work. I recently tried to post an image of my political commentary piece, Sitting Ducks, about the Aurora, Colorado shooting on LinkedIn and it was tagged by an algorithm as inappropriate—a new form of censorship.  

For further information on Cheryl Harper’s work, see her website at www.cherylharper.com.

PASC Partner Slought Foundation Offers Poignant & Important Post-Election Statement by Katie Price

 Protesters gathered outside Trump Tower on the day after the election. New York City, November 9, 2016. Photo credit: Andrew Kelly TPX/Reuters.

Protesters gathered outside Trump Tower on the day after the election. New York City, November 9, 2016. Photo credit: Andrew Kelly TPX/Reuters.

by Aaron Levy

Over the last 24 hours, acts of hate crime have traversed the United States, transforming civic landscapes and educational institutions – including the University of Pennsylvania, where we are based – into spaces of intimidation and fear. We deplore these disgusting acts and we call on the president-elect to denounce them. They are directly tied to his words and actions and have emboldened a culture of hate and the activities of groups like the Klan.

Fundamentally, this election has been about our capacity to show empathy and love for our fellow human beings. As an organization, we are committed to embodying these practices and enabling this capacity in others. Slought is thus deeply troubled and saddened by the responses of hatred that we've been seeing, hearing and experiencing in the greater Philadelphia region and across the country. We feel compelled to redouble our commitment to a culture of care.

In these dark times, there is a need for safe spaces and sanctuaries like Slought where people can come together to care for and reflect with one another, privately and publicly. We are committed to constructing this space and invite you to learn more about us through our upcoming programs, free and open to all. We urge individuals and institutions who are interested in working with us to help form a bulwark against the enduring legacy of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in this country, and to stand in solidarity with those who have been harmed. Finally, we urge all institutions to resist the tendency to self-censor out of fear for the socio-political or financial consequences they may face.

In the coming weeks and months, staff and community at Slought will come together to strategically plan for the years ahead, both programmatically and institutionally. We remain committed to contesting policies that strip individuals of their freedoms and humanity, and to upholding the spirit of aesthetic and socio-political resistance we have always supported. We welcome your contributions and your voices throughout this process, and urge local funders and city officials to rise to the challenge and participate as well.

Warmly,

Aaron Levy
Executive Director*

*This statement first appeared via email through "Slought Announcements" on November 12, 2016. It subsequently appeared on slought.org's "Advocacy Blog." Aaron Levy's statement is re-printed here with permission from the author. 

"A Necessary Luxury" by Katie Price

by Tina Brock

In the 1961 book The Theatre of the Absurd, Hungarian dramatist and scholar Martin Esslin coined the eponymous term as a device to begin discussion about an important development in the contemporary theater. A development so important that he felt it necessary to define a group of work by authors whose plays shared similar characteristics and were making significant contributions to the discussion about the present situation of Western man. The Theatre of the Absurd was his elucidation on this new movement, which he felt had the potential to provide new ideas, new approaches, and a new vitalized philosophy to transform the modes of thought and the feeling of the public at large.  He posited that theatre is the point at which deeper trends of changing thought first intersect with a larger public.  Fifty years after Esslin’s book was published, the question is still routinely posed as to whether, and how, the works in this loosely defined group are weathering, and how they are providing modern audiences with an exciting and meaningful theatrical experience.  The father of absurdism, Eugene Ionesco, best explains why, after all these years, the work still matters: “Theatre is simply what cannot be expressed by any other means; a complexity of movements and gestures that convey a vision of the world inexpressible in any other way.”

 From the IRC's 2010 production of  Marriage: An Unfortunate Occurrence in Two Acts  by Nikolai Gogol. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2010 production of Marriage: An Unfortunate Occurrence in Two Acts by Nikolai Gogol. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

As Producing Artistic Director of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC), Philadelphia’s Absurdist Theater Company, my charge is to select which existential anxieties—and by that I mean  which plays—our audience and our company will wrestle with during the artistic season.  And while existentialist plays share a general theme of characters confronting the purpose of being head on, it’s exciting to see how these plays also resonate with time-specific flavor and relevance, given current world events and politics. 

Our heroes in the IRC’s current production of The Chairs contend with issues of aging, the boredom that comes from telling the same stories again and again, the sadness and loss that results from not having pursued the dreams commensurate with one’s talent, and the inability to share one’s special purpose with the world in a meaningful way.  Add to that the universal fear of inordinate memory loss, the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations within ourselves and others, and the unalterable fact that we can’t define and control the life to come. What makes it all theatrical (and entertaining) is that we behave as though we can.  

 From the IRC's 2010 production of  Gnädiges Fräulein  by Tennessee Williams. Photo credit: Johanna Austin.     

From the IRC's 2010 production of Gnädiges Fräulein by Tennessee Williams. Photo credit: Johanna Austin.  

 

In considering what stories the IRC will tell, an important question I ask is how a particular work will ignite the audience’s imagination to think and feel more deeply about where they are now; and how the day to day banalities of their lives can be informed; and, if you will, how the chop wood, carry water can be more meaningful, particularly in our over stimulated world.   Unlike topical plays that rise and fade with the day’s events, absurdist works will resonate as long as existential anxiety remains.  Given anxiety-related disorders are at an all-time high, and we struggle to answer what we are doing as a nation and a civilization in this political year, perhaps there is wisdom in asking the basic question of what is the purpose of our time here on earth.

 From the IRC's 2012 production of  Ivona, Princess of Burgundia  by Witold Gombrowicz. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2012 production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia by Witold Gombrowicz. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

Samuel Beckett challenges: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” As an artistic director, I take Beckett’s charge to contemplate which plays will provide a beacon of meaningful light in a stormy social climate.  And I don’t think the light is necessarily only defined by the conversation it sparks.  Perhaps the silence it provokes is as meaningful.  I would suggest that the authors of works from the Theatre of the Absurd provide a safe haven of contemplation and entertainment.  Beckett explored on stage the manifestation of the essence of the experience of being.  As a performer, the way you tell the story is to be it, even if that story is simply about contemplation. This experience then transcends to the audience, much in the same way a dance or music performance can be infectious, resulting in an experience more powerful than the event itself.  Unlike modern theatrical events in large venues where the audience is distanced from the action and the event, and in which the story follows a clear plot trajectory, and the actions and psychology follow a definable path, works from the Theatre of the Absurd often defy logic and behavior.  So the question is: can we ask the audience to simply exist in the same space with the characters who also grapple with existential anxiety themselves and then, does the experience become part of the production, a part of the total experience for the audience, and a space for self-examination for the performers?  What transformations for all might result when we ask the audience to sit in contemplation for 1 hour, 2 hours with no plot development as distraction?  What happens when the character’s experience of existential anxiety is the catalyst for the audience’s contemplation? Does the audience members, by proxy, become the tramps in Beckett’s Gogot, waiting for the tidy ending that will never come?

 From the IRC's 2009 production of  The Chairs  by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2009 production of The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

Sharing the same space with the audience these questions become interesting: why do we suffer anxiety when an empty space (in text, conversation) presents itself? Why must we have the answers to everything, plot included?  Why is it not widely acceptable in our culture to plead not knowing?  The characters in most absurdist plays, despite their attempts to make meaning of their circumstances, will end up at the end of their journeys with no answers, no tidy endings, no resolutions.  What’s worth exploring as a director and as an audience member is the discomfort (which can be a gateway to comfort) that comes from simply sitting with the pure form: the feelings attached to the searching without the need to hide in our heads, or find a box for the anxiety, or find meaning to the play.  It’s the experience of sitting in meditation.  There’s a comfort in that experience, which may well not be what Esslin was experiencing in his day.  This is how the work of absurdist authors is resonating with our company and with the audience members we speak to.  So perhaps that’s the response to the question about how this work has weathered.  Perhaps what appears under absurdism’s weathered exterior is a newly polished gem of wisdom in a non-traditional delivery form.  As we struggle to find coherence in the incomprehensible, the plays from the Theater of the Absurd provide observations and a good measure of laughs.  In Beckett’s Endgame, Nell observes, while banished to a trashcan for her remaining days: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.” There’s a cathartic release when we accept the parameters of unknowing, the magnitude of freedom that exists when we release control about finding an answer to all the problems and attend to the daily struggles. The simple act of two people waiting for an unknown event and the silence between is so richly filled by many beautiful moments, and when strung together creates a beautiful work of art that may simply provide no easy answers, but the solace of greater connection and the respite from our constantly agitated minds.

 From the IRC's 2010 production of  The Empire Builders  by Boris Vian. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2010 production of The Empire Builders by Boris Vian. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

Absurd is the new normal: tumultuous times compel us to ask what qualities define us as individuals, as communities, as a country, and what is the mark we are making and leaving on the world? These questions resonate as clearly and powerfully as they did in 1953 when Beckett’s famous tramps waited in a barren land under a fruitless tree for the mysterious benefactor that would never come.  We’re running for cover from our over-stimulated, over-communicated, hyper-analyzed world.  There’s something liberating in knowing that Godot is never going to come, and that providing a happy ending doesn’t bring meaning.  There’s an interesting, important story for the audience and the performers within the silence. The time to sit in communion with others is a necessary luxury, allowing the anxieties that arise when the plot isn’t the main point, when we feel that experience wash over us, there is a powerful connection that grows out of the unspoken event that is created in tandem with the audience.

 From the IRC's 2015 production of  Exit the King  by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2015 production of Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

As the IRC continues rehearsals for Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs for FringeArts 2016, the process of directing and performing in this show is as ritualistic for the performer as for the character I’m portraying.  The Old Woman, 94 years, has lived with her spouse for 75 years in a lighthouse surrounded by sea.  Every evening they engage in games to keep themselves connected. When the Old Woman chides the Old Man for not becoming famous in life, “You could have been head president, head king, or even head doctor, or head general, if you had wanted to, if only you’d had a little ambition in life,” he responds, “What good would that have done us?  We’d not have lived any better.” Each time the other actors and I meet to consider this question in rehearsal, it occurs to us that we cannot consider our characters without that process impressing and informing ourselves—the choices we make as the characters and the choices I make as a director and performer inform the ways we move through the days between our rehearsals.  The hope is when this play takes the stage on September 6 at The Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5, that the small audience of 53 each evening will be infused with the metaphysical musings and ponderings of the characters.  We hope the performance of this classic work of absurdist theatre will prompt the audience to question and wonder like the characters and as the performers portraying them.   Our hope is that the story the audience leaves with is not necessarily a story you can retell over coffee, more a series of moments that resonate in an affective experience that cannot be reproduced. Ionesco wrote: “Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.”

 From the IRC's 2014 production of  Rhinoceros  by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2014 production of Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

There is a hearty, enthusiastic audience for the work the IRC presents: curious minds who have been moved by the plays of Eugene Ionesco and the beauty of solitude illustrated in the works of Samuel Beckett.  We have reached the outer limits of man’s ability to surprise and shock us; we are now searching for the safe place in contemplation of what we can do to have an impact and feel some level of control in a world faced with complicated moral and ethical dilemmas with no easy answers, no quick fixes.  Perhaps the intention when these plays were authored was to awaken people from their numbness, from the sameness of the structure of the traditional theatrical forms of the day.  What if the place this genre holds in 2016, ironically, is the power of communion through a form that we fill in with our own silence?  The IRC believes the place of contemplation begins with the ritual of waiting in communion with others.  From Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable:

 From the IRC's 2015 production of  Exit the King  by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

From the IRC's 2015 production of Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. Photo credit: Johanna Austin. 

“It will be I?  It will be the silence, where I am?  

I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.

            You must go on.

            I can't go on.   

            I'll go on.” 

 

 

Editorial note: The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary as a Philadelphia theatre company. The IRC's production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs will run from September 6-25, 2016 at the Walnut Street Theatre as part of the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. For more information, visit www.idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org

Jim Brewton, Grafitti Pataphysician by Katie Price

by Emily Brewton Schilling

What a joy to participate in PASC and celebrate Philadelphia’s artistic vanguard! Through PASC, the James E. Brewton Foundation is offering opportunities for research, cataloguing, and detailed studies related to Jim Brewton’s life and work. I recently donated much of the Brewton ephemera to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Most of the artwork is stabilized and awaits cataloguing, assessment and conservation. There is still some detective work to be done—I’d estimate there are about 30 more pictures out there—and the artworks and ephemera offer many tangents to explore and connections to make. If you think you’d like to get involved, we’d be delighted. 

In this blog entry, I’d like to present some background about Jim and how his art relates to important avant-garde movements in Philadelphia, the United States, and Europe. Then I’ll introduce one of his collectors, Bruce Broede, as a sample of my initial research efforts. First, a little bit about the Brewton Foundation and the work we’ve done so far. The James E. Brewton Foundation is a Pennsylvania-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We have two basic goals. First: find, conserve, and catalog the art. Second: work with educational and cultural institutions to preserve the work, offer access to scholars for research, and promote the works’ exhibition.

 James E. Brewton,  Ubu Becomes King  (1962). 

James E. Brewton, Ubu Becomes King (1962). 

Jim was my father, an avant-garde painter and printmaker who died by his own hand in 1967. Our household in Philadelphia had very few of his pictures (my parents had broken up), and I grew up knowing little about his art. After two memorial shows in Philadelphia—in 1968 and 1971—his artwork was dispersed and the world forgot Jim. Thirty-seven years passed.On a February afternoon in 2008, I noticed an ad in an old copy of ARTNews. It was for Michael Taylor’s show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Thomas Chimes: A Life in Pataphysics.” “Pataphysics” got my attention; I vaguely remembered Jim’s print, The Pataphysics Times (1964). I’d thought Jim was the only Philadelphia artist who admired Alfred Jarry, back in the day. 

 James E. Brewton,  Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe  (ca. 1959). 

James E. Brewton, Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (ca. 1959). 

I sent a letter to Michael, and was bowled over when he called me. He was interested in Jim’s work, and he encouraged me to start searching for individual pieces, “sooner rather than later.” The memories were painful, but I found more than a hundred astonishing artworks. The largest two troves were held by women named Patricia, a pataphysical non-coincidence that Jim would have enjoyed. I found many of his belongings, including art-making tools, sketchbooks, and notebooks. In 2012 we showed one of Jim’s pictures, a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill. In 2014, thanks to Michael Taylor and the organizers of Philadelphia à la Pataphysique, we showed nearly thirty works at Slought, taking the opportunity to have them cleaned and restored. Michael Taylor gave a talk about Jim. The audio is on the Slought website. Once in a while, I listen to it again….

James E. Brewton

Jim was born in Ohio in 1930. After serving in the Marines in Korea, he went to art school on the G.I. Bill. He enrolled at the Ruskin School at Oxford, but soon transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His mentors at the Academy were Franklin Watkins, Hobson Pittman, and Ted Siegl. Jim’s work won awards and prizes, and he was championed by critics while he was still a student. “Mr. Brewton’s career was launched dramatically,” ran his obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1967, “when his canvas The Suicide of Judas won the prestigious $1000 Scheidt prize …. [He] thus captured—at the very early age of 28—the same award William Glackens, Stuart Davis, Hans Hoffman, Ivan Albright and Charles Burchfield had earned in their maturity.” Considering Jim’s very traditional choices of Ruskin and the Academy, it’s intriguing that the primary influences on his work and life were André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry and Asger Jorn.

 James E. Brewton,  The Deposition  (1959). Winner of the Philadelphia Water Color Prize in 1959. Photo taken as the picture was moved into art storage in 2011. 

James E. Brewton, The Deposition (1959). Winner of the Philadelphia Water Color Prize in 1959. Photo taken as the picture was moved into art storage in 2011. 

 Home from Korea, Jim disembarks the  USNS General Gordon  in San Francisco, April 20, 1953. 

Home from Korea, Jim disembarks the USNS General Gordon in San Francisco, April 20, 1953. 

 Poster for Perakis show (1967). Designed by Jim McWilliams. 

Poster for Perakis show (1967). Designed by Jim McWilliams. 

 Flyer for James E. Brewton's solo in Copenhagen, 1965. 

Flyer for James E. Brewton's solo in Copenhagen, 1965. 

While at the Academy, Jim’s student job was at The Print Club (now Print Center), where he was electrified by the CoBrA artists’ work. Knowing how excited he was about CoBrA, Jim’s friend Claire Van Vliet introduced him to her friend Erik Nyholm, a close friend of Jorn. In 1962-63, and again in 1965, Jim spent time in Denmark with the Nyholms and Jorn. Back in Philadelphia, he continued to innovate, synergizing the concepts he admired with his own lyrical style. He called his method “Graffiti Pataphysic.” In May 1967 Jim and Fluxus artist Jim McWilliams (also a friend of Claire’s) organized a pataphysics-inspired show at Perakis Gallery, but three days before the opening, Jim shot himself. During the years that followed, his works were scattered. I knew of fewer than twenty in 2008. 

The Broede Collection

 James E. Brewton,  An Egg Carton for the Wall  (1966). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

James E. Brewton, An Egg Carton for the Wall (1966). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

 

According to an old exhibition catalogue, Bruce and Carol Broede had lent some exciting-sounding pieces to a show, including Ubu’s Military Mind, X and An Egg Carton for the Wall. When I searched for the Broedes in 2009, I learned they’d moved from Philadelphia to the Los Angeles area and had a son, Jason. In memory of their friend, they gave Jason the middle name of Brewton. Since then, they had divorced, and Carol remarried. She has been extremely helpful and generous with her time. “I do remember X,” she told me. “I believe the portion on the bottom was made from a cardboard type of box, similar to the egg carton, that had held forks, or some other silverware. It was truly a show-stopper." 

 

 

Carol helped me get in touch with Bruce. He’d had major surgery, but he talked with me a few times. Below are his recollections: 

 James E. Brewton, Detail of  Last Game  (1966). Missing, believed lost. 

James E. Brewton, Detail of Last Game (1966). Missing, believed lost. 

“Jim worked for me at the University of Pennsylvania book store. The reason I got The Pataphysics Times was, I was able to order a display of paints, dozens of different tubes of paint. They were delivered to the store for display, and I gave them straight to Jim to take home. In return, he gave me a copy of The Pataphysics Times.” —Bruce Broede

“I bought Last Game and No Birds in the Sky in the last year before his death. Last Game: metal stuff was used as paint on the canvas, and then he rolled balls onto it. He left them where they fell—fifteen balls for the game of pool. The white X was the cue ball. The shadow of the pool player was from a famous photo of a shadow burned into a bridge [by a body] at Hiroshima." —Bruce Broede 

 

 James E. Brewton,  No Birds in the Sky  (ca. 1966). Missing, believed lost. 

James E. Brewton, No Birds in the Sky (ca. 1966). Missing, believed lost. 

 

 

No Birds in the Sky was a metal sculpture with a Styrofoam bird up in it, gigantic, disguised as an airplane, dropping a bomb. Jim was fixated on Hiroshima. In 1990 I was going to live with my sister in Bismarck and had the two big paintings sent there. They were still in the shipping crates when I left. Now we’ve cut off all contact." —Bruce Broede

 James E. Brewton,  Ubu's Military Mind  (1962). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

James E. Brewton, Ubu's Military Mind (1962). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ubu’s Military Mind is really heavy. He had his signed military medal from Korea on the front and some numbers on it as well. The figure of Ubu is defecating – Jim’s medal is the turd.” —Bruce Broede

“I remember … Bruce and Jim laughing about it.” —Carol Broede 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 James E. Brewton,  X  (1966). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

James E. Brewton, (1966). Collection of Jason Brewton Broede. 

 

 

X was made from metal and Styrofoam from a silverware case. Up in the corner of the left side is FRAGILE and Playboy’s portrait of Lincoln. Jim put a magazine perfume ad on the canvas and then peeled it off. Where he moved it is the white X, commenting on what was happening.” —Bruce Broede 

 An art-making tool. Disassembled. 

An art-making tool. Disassembled. 

 

 

 

"[Jim] was very dedicated. He had a disc problem in his back and every once in a while he’d be in the hospital in traction. He was very depressed that the disc in his back was worse and worse. He would not physically be able [to paint. I went to see him] in hospital again…. He was figuring out how to get a canvas on the ceiling and long paint brushes so he could paint that way." —Bruce Broede 

 An art-making tool. Assembled.

An art-making tool. Assembled.

“He was so far ahead of his time. He was working on a triptych when he died—it was made of wood and had two sides attached with hinges; it opens at the sides. It was about Admiral Nelson, but he hadn’t finished it.” —Bruce Broede 

 Bruce Broede in 2009, with Brewton's  The Chinese Lincoln  (1966) and  Ubu's Military Mind  (1962) in the background. 

Bruce Broede in 2009, with Brewton's The Chinese Lincoln (1966) and Ubu's Military Mind (1962) in the background. 

 

I tried to find the two big antiwar paintings left in Bismarck, N.D. Bruce’s nephew, Steve Berg, recalled: “I remember that painting well. It was huge, it was in the garage, and it had balls on it. They were falling off because it didn’t have the care that it should. I remember really looking at it; it was abstract, and you had to study it to appreciate it. The colors. But I’m afraid those paintings are gone.” In August 2009, I received a packet of photos from Bruce, showing his collection. When I called to thank him, I got no answer. The following month, Carol emailed to say that Bruce had died. His paintings now belong to his son. In December 2010, my husband and I went to Sierra Madre to meet Carol, her husband Eric, and Jason. I showed them my ‘catalogue.’ Jason zeroed in on No Birds, coming to an image I’d plucked from WHYY film footage of the 1968 memorial show. He agreed with his cousin that the paintings were almost certainly lost from his aunt’s house in North Dakota. After lunch, we looked at the Broede collection. 

 Carol Broede Olson and Jason Brewton Broede showing Emily Brewton Schilling the collection of works by James E. Brewton in 2010. 

Carol Broede Olson and Jason Brewton Broede showing Emily Brewton Schilling the collection of works by James E. Brewton in 2010. 

Ubu’s Military Mind was taller and narrower than I’d thought, and quite heavy, as Bruce had told me. X was more fragile than I’d believed, but every bit as magic. It looked like a frieze from an ancient tomb, conjuring a rite of supplication to the sun. Yet it was made with silverware packaging. An Egg Carton for the Wall carries much more gravitas than I’d expected. Except for Ubu’s Military Mind, the works are stored in a basement in the Sierra Madre-Pasadena area. The Brewton Foundation is looking for ways to help preserve them. After the show closed at Slought, Jason allowed us to store Ubu’s Military Mind with the Brewton collection in Philadelphia. It awaits conservation there.

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From the Brewton Foundation’s board of directors, and from me personally, we are delighted to offer Jim’s work and ephemera for study through PASC. If you’d like to participate, please email pascinitiative@gmail.com. I am profoundly grateful to Michael Taylor, who set the Brewton project in motion. For their enormous kindness, I wish to thank John Heon, Aaron Levy, David McKnight, Katie Price and Jean-Michel Rabaté. For more images of artwork and information about Jim, please visit www.jebrewton.org.

 

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