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How we all love our moral values, those superhuman powers to peer into another's soul and pass judgment. Is this how we exercise democracy? The very idea of the various ways in which we exercise democracy comes under scrutiny at a new exhibit that opens this Sunday at Hyde Park's Renaissance Society, in "A Perfect Union...more or less."
In places and among people whose customs differ from our own, we're more inclined to let our pants down than lend a hand, a stance Chicago photographer Joeff Davis has documented the political seedbeds of in our own electoral process. A photography instructor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Davis' photographs have appeared in Time, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. The series of nine images appearing in the Ren exhibit were taken on location at the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the run-up to this year's presidential election. Clueless Democrats will want to pay close attention particularly to the RNC images. All the usual suspects are present: John McCain, Reverend Billy Graham. Alan Keyes. A listless Dick Cheney peers back emptily into the lens. But Davis' crowd-level photographs tell a more compelling tale: two fresh-faced young Republicans weep during the 9/11 tribute, "A Nation of Courage"; placards litter empty seats and are hoisted aloft in a sea of hands. A kind of indecision lingers in the space between these images: does our need for the world to see us as courageous justify acting as though it were true? Does it matter? Riot police swarm blurred streetlights. Many of the artists in the show take a stance critical of the political circus and the obsessed clownery used to bolster the discussion surrounding cultural values. Rob Conger, who creates portraits of public figures such as Leona Helmsley and Jane Goodall in latch-hook rugs, offers his "Greenspan Praying" and "Greenspan Attentive," photorealistic woven acrylic yarn on quarter-inch canvas. They're a smirking critique of how, as the artist puts it, "we confuse our desire for beauty with our desire for money." St. Louis artist Van McElwee offers "Flag and Its Shadow," an image of an American flag processed so that its colors are reversed. Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker points out that the image demonstrates how "you can't have the colors come out that way and still have the flag," much like you can't preach moral values and act in direct contrast to them.
Tale of the tape
Among those who obliged, Elijah Berger assembled a complete pre-Riot Grrrls history of women in punk rock, spanning ten years from 1978 to 1988, available on three sixty-minute cassettes. Dawn Reed and Carl Warnick produced T-shirts with cassette pockets. Dan Tinenda and art collaborative Total Gym paired up and made recordings using original sound that Tinenda played through speakers he made in birdhouses and tufts of moss. John Phillips compiled a collection of obscure Chicago rock and blues recordings. Hannum made his own collection of one-minute mixes, contrasting thirty seconds or so of classical selections such as Schoenburg with thirty seconds of "power violence" screeches and banging.
"A Perfect Union...more or less" shows at the Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, (773)702-8670. Through December 19. "Mix Tape" shows at Gallery 400, 1240 West Harrison, (312)996-6114. Through January 29.
Also by Michael Workman