It’s been two years since Contemporary Art Month decamped from its traditional summer home for the tourist-friendly month of March, but Gene Elder claims he doesn’t give a damn. “It was pretty bleak back in 1985 when everything started, and CAM was just a goal,” he said last week at his home on River Road. “Now there’s contemporary art all year round, so let them have it for marketing.” The local arts- and gay-rights activist has been around CAM since the early days when he served as the property manager where it all started — the Blue Star Arts Complex. Elder now runs the Happy Foundation GayBLT History Archives housed at the Bonham Exchange, set up as a tribute to his best friend, Arthur P. “Happy” Veltman, the downtown visionary and developer who launched the Blue Star, the Bonham, and many riverfront properties before succumbing to HIV/AIDS in 1988. Seeing a vacuum where CAM lived for over 20 years, Elder last year declared July to be Political Art Month and is campaigning for the cause again this year.
But Elder is more gadfly than statesman. In a town with a decided bent towards using art for social commentary, you might think this would be a hit. But where’s the party? The campaign has transpired largely through a barrage of emails, and there are but few listings on the PAM online calendar. “It’s a squatter’s idea,” Elder says. “There wasn’t much organization when PAM started, either. People just did what they did. Now there’s nothing else going on in July, so that’s my excuse. We don’t have a budget, but let’s see what happens.
“If I wanted to do a sand painting on the moon,” Elder says by explanation, “well, I couldn’t do it myself. I don’t have a rocket. But I could give you a drawing and instructions to make the painting, like what sand to use. If you had a rocket, then you’d be all set.”
This week a special PAM edition of Voices of Art Magazine will roll out with reviews of politically infused art shows in SA and around Texas, interviews with artists by Elder, and a guide to doing documentary filmmaking on the border (smile when you’re arrested and handcuffed — it’s just part of the game). Paid for largely out-of-pocket by Elder, Voices is, if you will, a blueprint for a possible PAM.
Assembled by arts educators David Freeman and Nancy Moyer, the effort briefly revives the old SA arts magazine, which published a PAM special last year as well. “As an artist I feel like I have a responsibility to act in a way that has a certain moral integrity to it,” Freeman said. “And so we’re really embracing the idea of Political Art Month not as a propagandistic kind of a thing. Propaganda bombards you with just one point of view and it is trying to change your mind.”
The one-off includes a meditation on what Tea Party art would look like (if they were inclined to make it) and has attracted writing by San Antonio Museum of Art Contemporary Art Curator David S. Rubin and artwork by Blue Star Contemporary Art Center Director Bill FitzGibbons and his son Sean. If this is just a “how-to” pamphlet, it’s a fat one with a pedigree. It will be available soon at Blue Star Contemporary Art, the Bonham Exchange, and other spots in art land.
Whether quietly joining PAM or by happenstance, there are a few political shows on view right now, running the gamut of political concerns. “MAIZ, en el umbral de la agonía (in the throes of death),” is on view at Esperanza Peace & Justice Center to August 27. Curated by Claudia Zapata, an SA native currently with Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, MAIZ is the San Antonio edition of a traveling show about the impact of genetically modified corn (maize) on farming, and the havoc the commercial seed (which, like a mule, can’t reproduce itself) plays in traditional communities. The show originated in Oaxaca, Mexico, and has traveled to Cuba and Canada. The SA version also includes local artists. When asked if they were aware of PAM, an Esperanza spokeswoman replied that they “are receiving the emails,” but made no other comment. Given that Esperanza always focuses on politics, any show they do would fit well with PAM.
Not so for REM Gallery, housed in a grand pillared 1900-era house on East Park Avenue. REM’s director Dana Read presents a large roster of artists with an assortment of concerns, but the current show is stridently political. “Sovereignty, Viscosity, and Reprise,” a study of war and culture clash by UTSA alum Jason Stout, opened Second Friday to a strong crowd. Stout, who now teaches in his home state of Tennessee, uses conflicting styles within the same drawings to portray the confusion that might have ensued when Indians and conquistadors stared at each other for the first time “trying to decide which of them was really civilized.” Identity confusion is also visited in a number of works that contrast old (think Civil War) military aspirations for heroism with today’s volunteer (think economically motivated) army. Like SA, Stout’s turf in Tennessee houses military bases that are important employers to kids that don’t have too many options.
While both the Esperanza and REM shows focus on threats to communities, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) group show at R Gallery shows a community’s response to challenges. The nine local artists whose works are on view all belong to the organization that has supported Latino visual, performing, and literary artists since 1989. Many of the artists showing are teachers, or assist politically motivated nonprofits with graphic design. NALAC provides education and funding for artists and organizations nationwide; one of their most important projects is the NALC Leadership Institute, held this year in SA at Our Lady of the Lake University July 11-16. Notable guest faculty includes internationally renowned performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and SA artist Kathy Vargas. Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong fame is one of the largest collectors of Chicano art, and also a NALAC Advisory Council member. He has visited SA over 20 times, R Gallery director Alex Rubio told the Current, and considers our town his “second home.” Now that’s political. Gallery R has extended the exhibit through this weekend.
Across town at Sala Diaz, Hills Snyder is celebrating “Contemporary Rabbit Month.”
Entitled “Each outcry of the hunted hare a fibre from the brain does tear,” the exhibit presents a single painting by Barnaby Whitfield of a creepily eroticized young Abraham Lincoln, rendered in bright pastels, fronting a bombed out city. Bubbles float by the bare-chested figure, whose expression presents Lincoln’s well-known sad expression, mixed with longing, or perhaps, regret. The title of the show is a line taken from an 1803 William Blake poem that was not published until 1863 — a bloody year for many during the American Civil War. Blake was an English poet, painter, and engraver who lived in a world that blended Biblical and ancient Greek myth, but emphatically ignored the church and temporal government. He was the quintessential outsider, a bard of the ecstatic, sole inhabitant of personal life — the ultimate rebuttal to politics. •