The Contract With America is "an instrument to help repair a fundamental disconnection between citizens and their elected officials," according to its Republican drafters. The 367 candidates who signed on last September thought their legislative agenda was in sync with the thinking of average citizens.
But Chicago artist Mary Ellen Croteau wants to let them know otherwise. "They make it sound like the American public is in total agreement with it," she says, "when in fact most people are not, if they even know what it is." So Croteau queried artists nationwide to contribute to an exhibit on current political topics addressed in the contract ranging from welfare reform and orphanages to abortion and gay rights. The result is "Contract on America," a nonjuried show of 40 pieces--16 by Chicago artists--at Artemisia Gallery through April 1. Some works directly attack the contract's ten-point plan to jump-start America's moral and fiscal consciousness, but most of the show is an indictment of right-wing beliefs and in some cases blatant character assassinations of the right's leaders.
In a pencil drawing resembling a textbook diagram of the evolution of man, Jesse Helms is the latest specimen: Homo phobos. Unlike his alleged ancestors--Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens (Neanderthal and modern)--Helms faces front, wearing only his glasses. Beate Minkovski, a founder of Woman Made Gallery on the north side, depicts Helms with ill-proportioned, long arms, folds of flesh around his tummy, welts on his body, and a minuscule penis. Minkovski says the portrait made her feel "empowered."
Helms fares no better in Bonnie Lopez's Jumpin' Jerx, a diorama depicting a vaudevillian scene. As a paper doll on a stick, Jesse's "cut-out playsuit" is a white KKK robe, while "Naughty Newt" Gingrich has a Nazi uniform. "It may be stretching it," Lopez says, "but I don't trust their motives." For the past three years, Lopez has used toy themes to critique the political and religious right. Her product line is called Grand Old Playthings (GOP), and she hopes to soon publish a catalog of the fictitious toys.
Bonnie Peterson Tucker is even more literal. Transferring photocopied images onto pieces of fabric, she sewed a quilt out of press clippings about Gingrich and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Tucker also wrote her own topical triggers, like "Newt's 4.5 million," referring to his botched book contract. The work is called Freudian Slip, and one of Tucker's favorites is a quote by Gingrich that she found in the New York Times: "If combat means being in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections and they don't have upper-body strength. Men are basically little piglets. If you drop them in a ditch they roll around in it."
Then there's the quote from Limbaugh--"I say to those of you of the leftist, militant, homosexual crowd: Take it somewhere else. Get out of our schools. Get out of our churches. Take your deadly, sickly behavior and keep it to yourselves."
As a commentary on conventional ideas of patriotism, Stephen Velky, a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute, chewed 1,200 sticks of Wrigley's Big Red, Winterfresh, and Spearmint gums and sculpted the mushy remains into a five-by-three-foot American flag. "I didn't chew the sticks enough to suck out the flavor, just 30 seconds," Velky says. "They were still glazed with sugar." As a result, a fragrant odor emanates from the piece. This is the third gum flag Velky's made. The first one was stuck to the floor of his studio. To create the second one, he ripped the first one off the floor and rechewed it. "It was disgusting. It had sand and hair in it. I got sick after finishing it."
Across the room from Velky's flag is another symbol of American democracy--the Statue of Liberty--in a work called Sleeping in the Lap of Liberty, by Vietnam veteran Michael F. Devlin. Instead of standing, a human-scale version of lady liberty sits on a bus-stop bench. The bench's advertisement is Emma Lazarus's familiar expression of faith in an America that protects the oppressed: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The exhibit "Contract on America" is at Artemisia Gallery, 700 N. Carpenter. Gallery hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; admission is free. Call 226-7323 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Michelle Litvin.