Keith Haring at the de Young

The de Young museum has a powerful collection of Keith Haring’s more political work. His familiar style can sometimes mislead one into thinking it’s a “one look fits all” type of work but these images grab the viewer by the lapels more often than not.

One of the best known of Haring's political images

One of the best known of Haring’s political images

Striking is their scale and simplicity. Often made on tarpolins with store bought paint, and many dashed onto vacant advertising panels on New York subway trains, the images are stark and mesmerizing. Like the Aboriginal dream paintings that his repetitive use of symbols and icons resemble, the images transport us to a dream, or nightmare, world where ordinary humans are sujected to endless tortures, dismemberments and death at the hands of large, looming figures that are animalistic or machine-like more often than not.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring's figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring’s figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

It can be easy to think of Haring as an “easy” artist: easy on the eyes, easy on the mind, easy, sometimes, on the pocketbook with his accessories, knockoffs and mass produced items, but a political motif runs vividly through this show, if not his oeuvre. He clearly finds little solace in the Great Society or the war in Vietnam, or Reagonomics or the continuing, and still continuing, racism, exploitation and media circus that surrounds him and that he both cultivated and subverted.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

The museum gift shop is chock full of Haring-abelia for the acquisition minded, but the real gift is in the work itself. It haunts and moves and provokes and reminds us that there is a dignity in the gesture of resistance, of a great refusal of that which is everywhere celebrated and normalized… until it isn’t.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

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Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

Geographies of Detention_panel 060113

The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.