Artists Respond to Jan. 6 With Brushes and Ballots

Late Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, dozens of art world insiders received a fund-raising message from Nancy Pelosi. “I’m in disbelief,” the text began. “Tomorrow is the anniversary of the violent, deadly insurrection on our nation’s capitol, and several reports show Republicans surging in the run-up to the midterms. We need to send a strong message that our democracy is sacred.”

The message was typical enough of the calls to arms blasted by progressive campaigns and organizers like ActBlue and MoveOn. But then, the kicker: “That’s why I need you to show up at the opening of artist Paul Chan’s new exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery, tomorrow …”

“Pelosi” then recited the news release for Chan’s new show.

It turns out the text was a joke. But the subtext was not. The storming of the Capitol Building was too dire to ignore, with half a dozen lives lost, traumatized police and hundreds of rioters facing criminal charges. Chan, an artist, activist and satirist, and a winner of the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize (as the “Pelosi” text emphasized), is not alone among those compelled to face Jan. 6 through their artwork: The anniversary had a handful of other memorial openings.

Was Chan’s toonish but grave exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, a worthwhile response? Where Trump’s followers chose violence, the artist offered “A drawing as a recording of an insurrection.” The show features a single double-sided drawing done in brushed black ink, suspended diagonally across the gallery in a plexiglass frame. One side depicts tumbling, churning masses of protesters urged on by a blustering, Trump-like cloud. The so-called QAnon Shaman is there, centered in the banner-size composition, unmistakable with his buffalo headdress and bare nipples (Jacob Chansley — his real name — was sentenced to 41 months for his role). Flanking the Capitol dome, which swarms with rampaging stick-figures, the sun and crescent moon shed tears.

Beneath the zany, energetic portrayal of the MAGA throng, Chan includes the cartoon faces of stricken Capitol Police Officers, given X’s for eyes. The other side takes us inside the House chamber, where more stick figures run amok around the composition’s border, hanging upside down and sideways. They stare into laptops and film one another with their blocky, brushy phones.

The exhibition seems founded in the heartfelt belief — asserted by many artists in the last year — that some response to the events of Jan. 6 was necessary. And how else can an artist respond, if not with art?

But the exhibition also concedes that maybe art isn’t enough: the news release states that Greene Naftali will hold a voter-registration drive for the duration of Chan’s exhibition; those who sign up will receive an original drawing Chan made “as a gesture of appreciation for affirming the basic and inalienable right to vote in America.”

Let’s set aside the likelihood that visitors to Chan’s show in Chelsea will already be seasoned voters. It’s not clear that voting is enough, either, given that the exact event at issue was a rejection of due process, an attempt to void inalienable votes cast in Georgia, Arizona, and elsewhere.

Indeed, crying moon and all, the show’s very earnestness can seem like a joke. According to the news release, Chan painted the Capitol picture with his left, “non-dominant” hand in an attempt to reduce the authority of the artist’s voice, and as an exercise in letting go. This deliberate de-skilling, a faux-naïf embrace of “pure,” even childish expression, puts the work squarely in conversation with so-called outsider art, the bloody revolt of Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls in particular.

Chan, of course, is very much an insider: He has exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, and is the subject of a retrospective at the Walker Art Center later this year. His response to Jan. 6 figures in a dense web of meditations on individual liberty, violence, and society, such as his major video animation, “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (exhibited at both the Venice Biennale and Greene Naftali in 2009), a jittering orgy of silhouetted figures, or his staging of “Waiting for Godot” in the flood-ruined Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. And stylistically, the Capitol drawing follows a series of illustrations Chan made to accompany a new English translation of a children’s book by the terse philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In this context, at least, the overt silliness of the work has an intellectual basis.

But the activist tone of “A drawing as a recording of an insurrection” should be seen in the company of other artists’ efforts to grapple with Jan. 6 and the prevailing political winds. At “Doomscrolling,” an exhibition uptown at Petzel Gallery, Zorawar Sidhu and Rob Swainston presented a suite of large woodblock prints made since the start of the pandemic, comprising anxious images from their newsfeeds carved into the very sheets of plywood that protected Manhattan businesses during that summer’s uprisings. The wild ocher- and icy-hued “January 6” joins their scenes depicting protests after George Floyd’s murder; the Kyle Rittenhouse killings; and the time a fly rested on Mike Pence’s head, among other vignettes from a divided, livestreamed nation.

The artist Andre Serrano marked the day by debuting “Insurrection,” a full-length documentary about Jan. 6, in Washington, D.C. The film continues Serrano’s treatment of America’s darkest political id — which includes a series about torture, and portraits of Ku Klux Klansmen — by presenting a video of the riot in the style of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” (He is also no stranger to the culture wars: Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” has the distinction of having been denounced on the Senate floor in 1989.)

In the past year, Robert Longo, a member of the Pictures Generation, has added an image of Jan. 6 to his catalog of iconic photos of American unrest since 2016, rendered as exactingly detailed, mural-scale charcoal drawings. And the current Prospect.5 triennial in New Orleans includes a fiery history painting of the Capitol attack by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, titled “Don’t You See That I Am Burning, based on a line from Freud’s dream book.

Each of these artists has chosen an essentially realistic, more or less heightened rendition of the chaos and rage as it unfurled on our many screens, as if, through scale or repetition or insistence, a review of the awful facts could emphasize the seriousness of that clash, if not change the world.

But Chan’s approach seems confused. Politically, the work is intensely earnest. Yet the drawing’s waves of sketchy minions are laughable, executed like a throwaway gag. Making and exhibiting the work may have satisfied Chan’s sense of virtue, but the result does little for his audience’s understanding of the attack. And the show as a whole, with its news release and voter drive, is an ambivalent gesture, as if the artist himself isn’t sure how serious he’s being.

For a counterpoint to liberal arts, from a messenger who is nothing if not certain of his mission, see Jon McNaughton’s recent painting, “Solitary Confinement,” posted on the artist’s website in October.

A painter of blunt conservative allegories and a Republican darling (the Fox host and Trump confidant Sean Hannity is a collector), McNaughton first gained notoriety for a portrait of President Obama burning the Constitution. McNaughton’s contribution to the Jan. 6 canon is unexpectedly subtle, and unmistakable: “Solitary Confinement” shows a man huddled and shackled in a cold stone cell, the heavenly light from the barred windows gracing his red MAGA cap and khaki jumpsuit.

Above his shoulder, etched into the prison wall, are several dates: 1/06/2021, of course, but also 11/08/2022 and 11/05/2024—the next two federal elections.

Travis Diehl, a critic, is the online editor at X-TRA, the Los Angeles-based arts journal.