Political Portraits Protested

by Charles Donelan

The announcement for John Nava’s upcoming exhibit of portraits at Sullivan Goss gallery in downtown Santa Barbara arrived at the homes and businesses of the gallery’s mailing list in early October wrapped in clear plastic. No sooner had some of the 1,000 addressees received it than the gallery’s email inbox and voicemail were inundated with messages — more than 50 as of press time — running approximately three-to-one against exhibition of the work. In addition to the “dissenting” messages, as Goss refers to them, there were anonymous threatening phone calls. One caller asked Goss if his insurance was paid up. Another said simply, “This is a bad idea,” and added, “You won’t get away with it.”

The work in question appears mild enough at first glance. The style is contemporary realism and the subjects are mostly adolescents dressed in casual, everyday clothes. The controversy arises when one looks more closely at the messages emblazoned on these clothes and the political buttons some of the subjects wear. The cover image of the mailing was likely the cause of most of the negative reactions: A blonde girl of about 16 stands in front of a plain backdrop with her hands at her sides, looking straight ahead. Red block letters on her T-shirt spell out the statement, “AMERICA TORTURES.”

Whether it is the whiplash effect of such a stark political statement bursting through an otherwise pleasant image of an attractive person, or — as some detractors would have it — the exploitation of adolescents in the service of a partisan political message, the pictures, which go on public exhibit today (Thursday, October 19), have got people talking. For Robert Bijou, a Santa Barbara art dealer and collector, that is the point.

Bijou said that he first noticed the flyer because of his son, who attends Santa Barbara High School. A fellow student in an introductory art course arrived at school with a copy of the flyer for the Nava show, which is called Neo-Icons; an intense classroom discussion ensued. Bijou said his son noticed two unusual things taking place. “First of all, he said that the scheduled conversation about portraiture suddenly became more animated, and a lot of students who didn’t ordinarily say anything began to join in,” Bijou said. “Apparently, many of the students in the class were not aware of some of the recent developments regarding constitutional rights and habeas corpus, and they started asking questions about that. The art class became a place where there’s learning going on about the world and current events. The kids ended up deciding that they would go to see the show, which is the first time that has happened.”

Bijou added that, from his point of view as a collector and dealer, the show is a gamble. “Portraiture doesn’t often do well financially,” he said. “Why would you want to own a portrait of someone you may not even know? For portraiture to succeed, it’s usually a slow sell that is motivated by a sustained emotional response that the piece somehow elicits.”

For his part, the artist, John Nava of Ojai, is dedicated to getting his message across in a lasting way. He explained, “The phrase ‘America Tortures’ is one I made up myself. It’s just so piercingly sad that these words are true.” When asked about the genesis of the series, he cites the inspiration of Colombian artist Fernando Botero, whose Abu Ghraib paintings have yet to be exhibited in this country. “Botero said that nobody would remember the atrocities at Guernica if not for the Picasso painting. It made me realize I had to do whatever I could to give voice to the unspoken sense of horror that I know so many people feel about the way America has been corrupted by this administration. I don’t do baroque or expressionism, but I can make a beautiful painting of a real kid, so that’s what I did.”

It remains to be seen what the public response will be now that these images — already controversial as simple flyers — are on the walls of the gallery as full-size paintings.

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