The current status of political art is a dreary one, with too many artists lacking the acumen or the Zeitgeist awareness to create work that says anything about how we live right now. It happens, of course—it follows that sweeping statements similar to the one I just made will be contradicted immediately after making them—but while there are plenty of Johnny-Come-Latelys making films years after the war is over or commenting the month before a Supreme Court decision is due, the daily grind of making a living as an artist and the jaded ambivalence about the world outside their individual canvases usually takes precedence.
Consider the retrospective of local artist G. Ray Kerciu at Cal State Fullerton's Begovich Gallery as a hard, sharp-elbow-to-the-ribs reminder that it doesn't have to be that way. Curated with an even hand by Concepcion Rodriguez and gallery director Mike McGee, the show displays much not inspired by political events, but the work that is there feels immediate, even 50 years later.
According to Peter Clothier's thoughtful essay in the fine catalog accompanying the show, Kerciu's social conscience was pricked while watching body bags being loaded onto transport planes during a stint in the Air Force. When the Korean War ended, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill, studied and created art, focusing on abstract painting and minimalist sculpture. After graduation, he accepted a teaching gig at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the same year black student James Meredith sued to be admitted to the whites-only campus. Meredith won his case, getting the education he deserved and drawing the ire of various racist groups who tried to stop him.
Kerciu's reaction to the violence and hatred was several paintings that comprise his “Mississippi Series,” a fiery deconstruction of the Confederate flag on red, yellow and orange backgrounds that suggest burning revolution. Sometimes accompanied by painted/stenciled racist comments that the artist heard on campus, the work is a blunt combination of journalism and art, with provocative titles such as Never (1962), America the Beautiful (1962) and Ignore the Nigger With Vigor (1962). The solo show got the artist arrested for desecrating the Southern Cross and won him the admiration of Malcolm X and an invitation to exhibit in New York.
Half a century later, the paintings aren't dated in the slightest. After daylong waiting lines for black voters in the South during the previous presidential election and the recent Heritage Foundation's use of data from a white nationalist to try to stymie immigration reform, how could they?
Less visceral than the “Mississippi” paintings, on the wall opposite is Kerciu's “USA Series” of acrylic on masonite 1960s icons (Elijah Muhammad, the Kennedys, MLK, Jimmy Hoffa). Featuring basic primary colors and black-and-white images, the work has the rough-hewn feel of a punk-concert flier's collage cut-ups, but predates them by more than a decade.
Kerciu declined to be a one-trick pony and turned his back on social commentary work (while still participating on a personal level as an anti-war activist), moving on to different mediums and obsessions, such as glass work, obelisks, more sculpture, painted landscapes, pyramids. I admire any artist who strives to move into something different from what they're comfortable with or are established at, but I have to admit to missing the narrative of the earlier pieces. Finely curated as it might be, the rest of his work doesn't have the frisson of the “Mississippi Series” or “USA Series,” and feels as if the artist is just fine-tuning his skill set.
As the artist heads into his 80s and is boldly painting what are essentially large tombstones, I find his pyramid work repetitive and the nearby mountainous landscapes just as dull. His seascapes and much of his work in other disciplines, however, burst with life: In Untitled (triptych) from 2007, the thick acrylic waves punch through a calm sea as though tears in blue paper. The tripod of thick glass that is 1993's Untitled, with its melted layers atop the legs, resembles a translucent, living thing fished out of the ocean; the exciting Bird (1975), only three pieces and 9 inches of in-flight beauty, is an aesthetic dream. His mathematical approach to 3-D geometric sculptures hanging on the walls suggests amazing, if slightly impractical, bookshelves by M.C. Escher.
But it's the artist's recent, extraordinary “Tower Series” that shines the most: Delicate as the filament of a bird's wing, the DNA ladders of the wooden sculptures rise, twist and embrace each other as they reach for the sky. The subtle gallery lighting accents the work's shadows, with the ridges, lines and curves creating yet another, tangential work of art.
Arms outstretched or boldly jabbing a point into God's eye? Never satisfied with the artistic status quo, Kerciu has clearly done both throughout his career. Here's to whatever his next discipline may be—but also hoping he takes a look back and comments on what he sees out there, beyond his studio.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.