A small child with an enlarged head is on hands and knees, playing with ants. But something — a lot of things — have gone awry in this world painted by Karen Moss. The ants are supersized and a sickly green liquid appears to have flooded the land. Smokestacks billow out their last gases, and dead trees are all that remain in “Aftermath,” on view at the Bernstein Gallery through Thursday, March 19, with a reception Sunday, March 15, from 4 to 6 p.m.
In another post-apocalyptic view Moss uses mesh and newsprint to convey a world gone sour. A hooded figure with an overflowing shopping cart recedes into a ruined city while another creature, with the head of a boy and the body of a rat, grovels for food.
It is hard to know where to look — we’re not going to see anything pretty here as three artists respond to “Society in Upheaval.” When you cannot get more than 15 minutes into any given day avoiding news about senseless killing or destruction, it is most appropriate to view these responses at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery, where the mission is to “stimulate thinking about contemporary policy issues ranging from human rights, world health and education to war, national security, poverty, and politics.” Students passing through will be inspired to “tackle the most serious issues of the present day.”
As we are reminded in the exhibition catalog, Picasso said an artist is “a political being, constantly alive to heartrending, fiery, or happy events to which he responds in every way.”
“He stated in emphatic terms that an artist is a keen barometer of the events of the world in which he lives,” writes art historian Francine Miller in the catalog essay. “The purpose of painting was not to be mere interior decoration but to serve as a powerful instrument of protest.”
Mickey and Minnie appear on canvases of Karen Moss, responding to social and environmental issues. “I’ve always loved Minnie and Mickey,” she says from her studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, “ever since I studied with New Yorker illustrator Richard Merkin at the Rhode Island School of Design.” (Moss earned her bachelor’s degree at RISD and her MFA from Tufts University/Boston Museum School.) “Disney characters are so ingrained in American culture. It’s been part of my life since childhood, watching Disney movies and animations.”
Moss’s interest in pop culture drives her to collect little rubber figures such as the Jolly Green Giant. Coincidentally, her husband’s father, Jerry Livingston, was a songwriter for Disney.
In Moss’s “Broken Promises” Minnie is walking away with a stack of diamond bracelets as high as the bow perched halfway between her mouse ears. This large mixed-media work is painted a toxic green, a recurring color in her work. “It’s a chemical green, not what you’d find in nature,” she says. “We all dream of spring buds in chartreuse, but this green is like an algae-infested lake out of control.”
At the center of the canvas, beneath the double arches of McDonalds, sits a figure in a hooded robe with a cup on the ground before him. Is he a monk, an ascetic, a Buddhist who begs? A wise holy man or a homeless man with the same outward aura? Opposite Minnie is a blindfolded little bald fellow, a sort of Mr. Magoo or perhaps shrunken Wimpy, holding high his supersized hamburger with all the fixings.
In contrast to the toxic green, Moss’s “Southeast Asia” is beautiful, with lovely collaged fabrics, an elephant, and a tiger. But beware the illusion of beauty. This work is about the Cambodian practice of covering images of the Buddha in gold leaf, “a wasteful endeavor that bankrupts worshippers and completely obscures the actual holy image,” writes Miller in the catalog. The fashionista tiger clothed in a zebra-print dress, leggings, and high heels, carrying a black fur purse, and the elephant head with tiger skin body is about the animal abuse Moss witnessed on her 2012 trip to Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. She was struck by the poverty and corruption, contrasted with gold everywhere, covering Buddhas and temples, inlaid with mosaics, as people sat outside eating rice from bowls on the street.
“They would be selling their meager wares, and the children were selling paper creations, origami, and straw animals. We bought as many as we could but that doesn’t solve the problem. Learning English is the way that people escape from being rice farmers, and then get into the hospitality business, their ticket out.”
Her travels led to inspiration, as do the textiles she collects in her studio. “My mind is attuned to collage and assemblage, so I collect. I have images in folders and materials I connect to or that remind me of something.”
The daughter of an actress in New York during the WPA era who was a friend to communist sympathizers and a father involved with labor issues and civil rights, Moss participated in anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations during the 1970s. She considers herself both a human and animal rights activist, fighting for sentient animals.
The process of beginning “Southeast Asia” began with “thinking of animals in Myanmar in danger, and the Chinese destroying forests, taking lumber from rare trees, decimating the northern part of the country where the tigers live. It’s upsetting to see jungles being destroyed; they don’t have regulations like we do here. It’s a culture clash. Without regulation you get rampant destruction of nature. I hope it can be stopped.”
The animal bodies in “Southeast Asia” were made of a Japanese kite that hung in her son’s bedroom. When Moss’s son, Jonah Livingston, was in third grade, the family went to live in a thatched structure in Ubud, Bali, for a month. Now 31, he is a drummer with Ramming Speed, a heavy metal group based in Richmond, Virginia — a fourth generation musician on his father’s side.
What was the impact of his experience in Bali? “My son is an anti-tconsumer, he doesn’t believe in buying things — he will only buy in a thrift shop or second hand store. He occasionally accepts gifts but won’t shop in malls. He buys furniture on ebay.”
Moss says her son used to get day-old bagels or wine bottles with damaged labels that stores could not sell and would relegate for the dumpster. “Companies like the Gap and Anthropologie have sweatshops in Southeast Asia,” she continues. “In Myanmar we saw women coming out of factories wearing masks. The factories have no windows or ventilation. They can’t breathe, but they prefer this to rice farming.”
Moss worked with Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers to find the other two artists for this exhibit. Raul Gonzalez III, Edward Monovich, and Moss share a focus on socio-political themes: social ills, environmental devastation, and economic disparities. “Many of the same art historical figures, as well as media and pop culture images, were part of their formative years and have helped shape their art,” says Somers. “One common thread is the use of animal and human hybrids and references to coloring books, comics, and cartoons. Despite their different cultural backgrounds, all three artists had childhood influences that made them sensitive to the underdog and the critical issues of their time.
“Monovich often uses children in a backdrop of bucolic suburban settings,” continues Somers. “His compositions are packed with menacing images of war and deception. There is no innocence to be found anywhere.”
Other recent exhibitions at the Bernstein Gallery also included comic and cartoon figures. Is this a trend? “By using some of these cartoon figures an artist can make a stronger comment,” says Somers. “These characters can do and say things that if expressed by a person might have gone flat. If Mickey Mouse or Superman is put in a different context, it jolts the viewer into looking at something with new layers of meaning.”
Monovich’s children often have the body parts of animals. “Touch Me Not” is a complicated composition of a buck-toothed girl in a wheelchair with a blue jay’s head and tail. Her arm is tattooed in what looks like dripping blood with the word “dreaming.” On the back of her wheelchair is printed “Juicy couture for nice girls who like stuff.” Meanwhile a boy in a knight’s helmet is tying her shoe, his knuckles tattooed “your next.” Within a bed of forget-me-nots and gum drops is a little pink bomb with the letters “mine.” A black drone soars overhead and a wizard-like superhero arises from the smoking chimney of an ordinary looking Dutch Colonial in the distance — the only ordinary looking thing in this world.
Monovich, who works out of a studio in his attic in Belmont, Massachusetts, also finds inspiration in the bits of ephemera he collects. These are meticulously organized into notebooks he refers to as sketchbooks. “It’s old school hard copy, a cryptic comb of imagery,” he says, “a compilation of found images and ideas and source material. From this imagery of war, fashion, and children’s books, my crazy world evolves.”
He says he does not have a rational understanding of how he conceives his ideas, that it’s more intuitive. “Experiences and images I file away come together for reasons I don’t always understand.”
One entire niche of the gallery is consumed with Monovich’s “They Would Rather Be Outlaws.” At center a boy walks down the front steps of a house where a bucket of geraniums sits on the brick path. That’s where the normalcy ends. His shirt has both the Adidas logo and “Fly Emirates” (the airline is a major advertiser in international soccer) and is fringed with coonskin tails. This “Davy Crocket” — for which Monovich’s 11-year-old son modeled — is crowned with a three-cornered American stealth drone. The boy holds a staff that is crowned at the top and bubble wands dangle from it — in fact the bubble wands have crowns at the top as well. The boy’s pants are not camo cloth as we know it, but printed with what appear to be mug shots, perhaps of those imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Three other works by Monovich are interactive. There are dry erase markers that viewers can use to add their own graffiti to the work. To date there has been robust participation in a variety of languages and alphabets. Some is silly, some profound.
Somers, who has been photo documenting the contributions for Monovich, recounts how “I was hanging the show and a woman in the gallery who had been working at a desk asked, ‘does this mean I can add something to this work of art?’ ‘Absolutely,’ I told her. I could see her mind whirling. She proceeded to put a camera under the belly of a drone and a little hut at the bottom on the horizon line. I thought it was brilliant, putting the innocent looking shack right underneath.”
Collaborative results are photographically archived on the artist’s website. “These paintings invite conversation on controversial topical issues, while seducing participants to the edge of vandalism,” he says. “Exchanges bring fresh perspectives.”
Sometimes Monovich will shellac in a contribution he especially likes. He first became intrigued by the concept of such collaboration while doing a semester abroad in Sierra Leone, studying ethnography and culture, indigenous religious groups, and secret societies. His studio is covered with masks he collected while there.
He observed elaborate masquerades, and how the costumes engaged the public. “The costumes were made of compelling components of sacred and profane elements. As they walked down the street in these costumes, children were afraid of their mythical powers. One costume was made with thousands of Coca-Cola bottle caps, and I was intrigued by the hybrid of the indigenous culture and the rustling and jingling of the bottle caps. I thought, ‘what if I could go back to my own culture and make hybrids.’”
Monovich grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Both his parents were anti-war protestors and serious pacifists, so he was surprised to discover an ROTC shirt in his father’s closet — his father had joined the ROTC to avoid the draft. “He was wrestling with his outward disagreement of the war and keeping out of the war.”
Politics were always part of the family dialogue, says Monovich, who was born in 1970. “My paternal grandfather, for whom I was named, was most proud of being elected labor union leader in western Pennsylvania. He lost an eye working in the mine. His father was also in a mine accident. And my maternal grandfather was treated for black lung. I grew up visiting — it was my home away from home — so I was steeped in the culture of coal mining.” Monovich’s parents — his mother was a teacher and his father worked in the pharmaceutical industry — were the first generation to go to college.
“A large part of my artwork is a view of unchecked capitalism,” he says. “The issues I’m dealing with are advertising directed at children. Even things science has proven to be unhealthy we market to children. War is marketed to children quite heavily. As a parent of young children (14, 11, and 7) I’m sensitive to the ideal of heroism. There’s an inexorable link between capitalism and the war machine, and the whole way of presenting war to public.
“The union was an early check on capitalism,” he continues. “The worker was enslaved for profit, and unions fought for fair wages, health care, and safety of work conditions.”
Raul Gonzalez is a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in El Paso, Texas, while spending time in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. His mixed-media works reflect life on both sides of the border, from brutal street gangs and drug cartels to struggling illegal immigrants and border control officials. His satiric vignettes are reminiscent of the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the renowned Mexican artist who, a century ago, used the calavera (skeletons) to satirize corrupt politicians of his day. Art as political statement has been an important element in Mexican art since the days of the Mexican Revolution.
So, is there hope for the future? Despite weapons and wars, and the cavalier attitude toward protecting the environment, can the earth and its creatures be saved?
“My husband and I are clippers,” says Moss. “We clip from newspapers and magazines and have vast files. While searching for inspiration, I found one article on ecology and it got me thinking: what is the relationship between how we treat each other and creatures in natural world? There is a relationship. What we do to forests and whales depends on how much justice and respect we accord each other.”
Moss pinpoints land trusts that preserve land as one sign of hope for the future. “I don’t understand the mentality of total greed that’s not taking this seriously, not believing in climate change. But people can donate their land. These are things people can do.”
Aftermath, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. through Thursday, March 19, Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., reception, Sunday, March 15, 4 to 6 p.m. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein.