by John Heon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.