Thursday, October 16, 2008

Punch drunk: Artist Dana Depew installed a Bush-Cheney punching bag as part of the politically overheated exhibit "Counting Days" at Cleveland's Aster

'Counting Days' exhibit more political rant than show of artistic finesse -- Steven Litt review
by Steven Litt / Plain Dealer Art Critic Thursday October 16, 2008, 4:47 PM

Steven Litt/The Plain Dealer

Asterisk Gallery
What: The group show "Counting Days: 17 Artists Respond to Eight Years of Destruction."
When: Through Saturday, Nov. 1.
Where: 2393 Professor St., Cleveland.
Admission: Free. Call 330-304-8528 or go to


A big, frowning face made of empty paint cans fastened to a wall tells you all you need to know about the anti-Bush exhibition at Asterisk Gallery in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood. This is one angry show.

Organized by artist-curators Debra Shepherd and Dana Depew, the exhibition examines more than 40 works by 17 Cleveland-area artists who don't care for the current administration. The idea of "Counting Days," as the show is called, is to point out that there's a dwindling number of days until we elect a new president.

Depew said he originally tried to find artists with Republican leanings to provide balance. But he said he couldn't. Shepherd said in an e-mail that she never wanted the show to have two sides. "I believe it is our patriotic duty to say what needs to be said," she wrote.

Mainly, the show is an occasion for participating artists to vent.

George Kocar painted a cartoonish image of a grimacing general whose head is shaped like a bullet and who holds a phallic banana in his right hand. He also redid Theodore Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" with a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner replacing the black sailor who occupies the apex of the original composition.

Depew installed a Bush-Cheney punching bag in the middle of the gallery, all the better to let visitors exercise their anger. Ed Raffel's "Bushonomics" covers a wall with bios of administration figures and a diagram that traces alleged power relationships between the president and various associates.

Despite the high emotions, most of the work in the show lacks artistic intensity. It also draws in overly obvious ways on standard strategies of Pop and conceptual art.

To convey the number of estimated civilian deaths during the war in Iraq, Shepherd stamped the capital letter I hundreds of times on long sheets of rice paper, counting each letter as representing vast quantities of deaths, according to different statistical measures.

She also attached to the sheets 16 images of American flags superimposed on photographs of screaming or wounded children and adults. The piece attempts to quantify terrible statistics in visual terms, but fails to generate a great deal of emotional impact.

A series of paintings on olive green military tarps, by Craig Bungo, called "Pax Americana Through a War on Terror," decries what the artist calls American imperialism.

His passion comes across in a page-long statement, but his images of CIA operatives and al-Qaida warriors are painted with thin, anemic surfaces that fail to convey strong feelings.

The show, from beginning to end, is a rant. It allowed participants to let off steam, but probably won't change anyone's mind about politics. The real issue, though, is that the artistic temperature doesn't rise to the level of the very clear emotions the show tapped.