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?
Understand the Jan. 6 Investigation
Both the Justice Department and a House select committee are investigating the events of the Capitol riot. Here’s where they stand:
- Inside the House Inquiry: From a nondescript office building, the panel has been quietly ramping up its sprawling and elaborate investigation.
- Criminal Referrals, Explained: Can the House inquiry end in criminal charges? These are some of the issues confronting the committee.
- First Sedition Charges: In a major step forward in the Justice Department’s investigation, the F.B.I. arrested the leader of the Oath Keepers, charging him with seditious conspiracy.
- Garland’s Remarks: Facing pressure from Democrats, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed that the Justice Department would pursue its inquiry into the riot “at any level.”
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.
Key Figures in the Jan. 6 Inquiry
The House investigation. A select committee is scrutinizing the causes of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which occurred as Congress met to formalize Joe Biden’s election victory amid various efforts to overturn the results. Here are some key figures in the inquiry:
Donald Trump. The former president’s movement and communications on Jan. 6 appear to be a focus of the inquiry. But Mr. Trump has attempted to shield his records, invoking executive privilege. The dispute is making its way through the courts.
Kevin McCarthy. The panel has requested an interview with the House Republican leader about his contact with Mr. Trump during the riot. The California representative, who could become speaker of the House after the midterms in November, has refused to cooperate.
Mike Pence. The former vice president could be a key witness as the committee focuses on Mr. Trump’s responsibility for the riot and considers criminal referrals, but Mr. Pence reportedly has not decided whether to cooperate.
Mark Meadows. Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, who initially provided the panel with a trove of documents that showed the extent of his role in the efforts to overturn the election, is now refusing to cooperate. The House voted to recommend holding Mr. Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress.
Scott Perry and Jim Jordan. The Republican representatives of Pennsylvania and Ohio are among a group of G.O.P. congressmen who were deeply involved in efforts to overturn the election. Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Jordan have refused to cooperate with the panel.
Fox News anchors. Texts between Sean Hannity and Trump officials in the days surrounding the riot illustrate the host’s unusually elevated role as an outside adviser. Mr. Hannity, along with Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade, also texted Mr. Meadows as the riot unfolded.
Steve Bannon. The former Trump aide has been charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena, claiming protection under executive privilege even though he was an outside adviser. His trial is scheduled for next summer.
Michael Flynn. Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser attended an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 18 in which participants discussed seizing voting machines and invoking certain national security emergency powers. Mr. Flynn has filed a lawsuit to block the panel’s subpoenas.
Phil Waldron. The retired Army colonel has been under scrutiny since a 38-page PowerPoint document he circulated on Capitol Hill was turned over to the panel by Mr. Meadows. The document contained extreme plans to overturn the election.
Jeffrey Clark. The little-known Justice Department official repeatedly pushed his colleagues to help Mr. Trump undo his loss. The panel has recommended that Mr. Clark be held in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate.
John Eastman. The lawyer has been the subject of intense scrutiny since writing a memo that laid out how Mr. Trump could stay in power. Mr. Eastman was present at a meeting of Trump allies at the Willard Hotel that has become a prime focus of the panel.
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.