While it was hard to find activism at NADA New York this year, others in the art world have gotten much more explicitly political. With Trump threatening to eliminate the NEA and artist visas in flux, why wouldn’t they? That new streak of political action was obvious late last month inside of Ground Floor Gallery, at the opening of “Marked Urgent”: An Exhibition in Defense of Free Press.
When I stepped into the crammed Park Slope gallery, I was immediately drawn to a work entitled “Welcome Letter.” A blown-up facsimile of Trump’s signature hung on two large brass-plated escutcheon pins. The autograph hovered over a welcome letter issued to recently naturalized United States citizens, literally casting a shadow over them.
Jill Benson and Krista Scenna, co-owners and curators of four-year-old Ground Floor Gallery, are alarmed by the Trump Administration’s repeated attacks on the legitimacy of the American press. During the opening, Benson, who is as blonde Trump wishes he was, zipped back and forth all night, sticking little red stickers on all the works that sold.
Scenna has smooth radiant brown skin and bright eyes. If she was worried, she showed no outward sign of it. Still, she and Benson felt affected by Trump’s election, particularly as owners of a small, woman-owned business. “We were feeling helpless, upset and shocked,” she said. “It was hard to just continue planning out the season. To try and pretend that this wasn’t happening, that Trump wasn’t in office.”“What we feel most strongly about in this moment is the oppositional and condescending attitude this administration has for the press,” Scenna went on. “It’s terrifying in a longer-term perspective.” And thus was born the idea for “Marked Urgent.”
Scenna and Benson put out an open call for works composed on some form of “traditional correspondence.” The 39 pieces selected were priced at $75 each, with a third of sales going to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The artwork ran the gamut. There was a series of 12 very funny comics by Rhode Island artist Carl Dimitri, who has pledged to make a cartoon a day until the end of Trump’s reign.
Spencer Merolla’s work, “Editorialized,” features an above-the-fold view of The New York Times. The image below the headline is completely blocked by a shoddily cut piece of black fabric. Black floral lace appliques adhere to the upper left and lower right-hand corners of the obscured image. Black threads hang from the paper. In every instance where Trump is named, a black line appears through it.
Not every work was as expressly political as say, Shana Wolfe’s portraits of Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon. But as Scenna pointed out, “just by creating a piece and contributing to the show that could be a political act or a way of responding.”
It’s amusing to think about the art President Trump has collected over the years. For starters, there’s the $20,000 six-foot-tall portrait of himself he reportedly purchased with his charity’s money in 2007.
President Trump’s most famous run-in with the art world was in 1980, when he razed the Bonwit Teller building in order to erect Trump Tower. The young developer promised the Met that it would receive the pair of limestone Art Deco panels that were on the building’s façade, so long as their removal was feasible.
As reported by the Times in 1980, one appraiser said the reliefs, two partially nude and draped women, were “as important as the sculptures on the Rockefeller buildings. They’ll never be made again.” Nonetheless, Trump eventually decided that “the merit of these stones is not great enough to justify the effort to save them,” as he put it in a statement. During demolition, the reliefs were “smashed by jackhammers.”
Here’s hoping efforts like those of Ground Floor Gallery and the artists who contributed to the “Marked Urgent” exhibition prevent an artless jackhammer from pulverizing the free press.