Monday, April 24, 2017

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and the Affirmation of the Moral-Political Self

"The Allegory of Good and Bad Government" by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Normally, I make colorful post-structural (non-binary) work about emergent truth, contextual meaning, and relativism, as both a critique of modern formalism and a means of providing space for me to exist as a queer woman in today’s art world. But nothing is normal anymore. The 2016 election changed everything for me, as a whirlwind of neofascism, corruption, and fake news infiltrated our executive branch. Sadness, fear, and anger consumed me as I strained to make sense of the American political and cultural landscapes. Within this frustrating “alternative reality”, I wasn’t always sure that two plus two didn’t equal five. But ultimately clarity prevailed and I knew I had to take a stand. In that moment, everything became black and white: I was an American and I made the conscious political choice to fulfill my civic duty, however small, to protect democracy and global stability. And, as an American painter, this meant I had to make political work.

To quell my anxiety, I took refuge in art history and traced the origins of western democracy back to depictions of Greco-Roman government. During my research, I remembered a medieval fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti that I had visited eight years ago during a study abroad program in Sienna, Italy. “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” was a stunning sight, with an epic juxtaposition of good and bad government spanning three large walls. In its composition, civic officers and magistrates are guided by stately figures, angels, and demons. Other parts of the fresco not depicted here display the effects of good and bad government playing out across the city and country. As the viewer stands in the middle of “The Allegory’s” moral ultimatum, they are forced to compare idealisms between the work and their own political reality. In the context of today’s American democracy, the experience evokes a sense of responsibility in determining one’s moral priorities and how they manifest as a political choice with cascading effects.

"The Allegory of Good and Bad Government" by Zoë Shulman

It was then that the subject had become clear to me: I knew that if I could locate a moral definition of government, I could achieve my political goal of promoting a more ideal democracy. My process involved translating Lorenzetti’s fundamental allegoric structure into a system of geometric symbolism that could convey a moral American government. There was only one problem: How do I approach this flat, illusionistic fresco of seemingly dualistic and universally moral subject matter from my post-structuralist position? I felt conflicted, as if I was arrogantly touting my moral superiority as the epitome of righteousness. How could I take on such a proposition when the American political landscape has multi-dimensional complexity with connected and contradictory spectrums of truth that are relative to each individual?

Central to my work is the concept that painting, whatever the painter's definition, does not exist in isolation. I believe that it is relative to the architectonic dimensions of all other media, and that there are multiple “right ways” to paint. Many of my paintings are made without paint, exist within multiple spaces simultaneously, and break down the frame by engaging the viewer’s bodily subjectivity. For me, the wall presents an oppressive paradigm of purist-modern-formalist-objectivist dogma that has a history of excluding the perspectives of women, LGBT individuals, and people of color. When I use the wall, it is with extreme caution and my primary intention is to inform the growth of my works off-the-wall. From this vantage point, making a moral work of art for the wall felt like two plus two suddenly equaled the cow jumped over the moon.

"Electro-Pop Lady Grids I & II" by Zoe Shulman

And then, an epiphany. Intentionally-political art, regardless of morality or spatiality, is always about perspective, and it pushes back against the white male painter’s narrative of so-called “pure art for art’s sake”. Furthermore, I realized that Lorenzetti’s “Allegory” was just that — an allegory! It was not to be taken literally as a universal truth, but rather as his idealized Sienna, in which morality and politics come together to shape our pragmatism and give us a sense of control over the future. And within the individual’s moral and political subjectivity, duality can exist and achieve affirmation through the frame and flatness. So then I understood my need to flatten my political work and put it on the wall: I simply needed to affirm my values and locate myself within the larger American political zeitgeist.

Ultimately, we can acknowledge our subjective truth and still accept relativism as a larger condition of that truth. This is the key to making any work active. Fascists won’t appreciate the truth in what I'm making, and I think that's incredibly powerful and important at a time when democracy itself is being likened to mere “political correctness”. For me, this is the real stuff of painting. Being engaged in painting is more than just medium specificity; it’s a larger conversation about how our experiences get expressed through space, dimension, and surface so that we may delve more deeply into the nature of truth.

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