The presidential election has made its way into the Manhattan art gallery scene.
For Freedoms, believed to be the first artist-run super PAC, was born to counter other super PACs funded by large corporations and national organizations. The group is the brainchild of six artists: co-founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Grottesman, Wyatt Gallery, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, Michelle Woo, and Albert James Ignacio. More than 50 major artists have affiliated themselves with the organization.
The name For Freedoms come from Four Freedoms, a widely reproduced series painted by Normam Rockwell in 1941 that has served as the inspiration for the artists behind the PAC, reminding them that art and politics can work in tandem to spark social change.
The group is currently showing exhibitions at two Jack Shainman Galleries, one on 20th Street and one on 24th Street. The 20th Street gallery focuses on the larger themes of war and race. In the far room, gallery goers are drawn to an intricate tapestry made by Jim Ricks. The rug features a Google earth image of Osama Bin Laden’s compound, complete with a large Made in U.S.A manufacturing tag on the rug’s edge. The gallery also displays Rockwell’s 1964 “The Problem We All Live With.” The painting depicts an account of racial integration in New Orleans. A small black girl walks calmly amidst racial slurs and hostility. On the adjacent wall sits Jackie Nickerson’s towering photo “Flag,” which shows an African-American hidden behind a burning confederate flag.
At the 20th Street gallery, the PAC’s guiding statement greets visitors: “Our medium for this project is American democracy, and our mission is to support the effort to reshape it into a more transparent and representative form.”
The 24th Street space, which also serves as For Freedoms headquarters, offers a different political environment. Bustling with visitors and artists working on making posters and material for the PAC, the gallery feels like the inside of a grassroots movement. Pieces of art are interspersed with tables urging individuals to sign petitions and join other movements, like the #HerBodyHerVote group. The gallery also hosts weekly events, like talks with Domingo Borges, an inmate who is pursuing a college education with the help of the Prison to College Pipeline movement. The headquarters and PAC itself could be viewed as a fluid piece of art, transforming as more people enlist and as more artists contribute to the space.
Abby Folger, an intern for the Jack Shainman Gallery, found that working within the For Freedoms space has made her more politically informed. While she is still unsure who to vote for in the fall, or if she should vote at all, the art in the gallery has made her much more aware of larger political issues and the function of a super PAC.
Her favorite piece is Wyatt Gallery’s “Go Trump,” a photo of a whiteboard with scrawled remarks like “#Feelthebern” and “Go to hell Trump.” The photo plays on the uneasy and sometimes frustrating indecisiveness that has surrounded the upcoming election.
“I feel it like to reflects how people are really feeling about this election,” she said. “It’s a disaster and no one knows who to really vote for.”
The 24th Street gallery back room tackles more specific issues. Glowing fluorescent pink in a corner hangs Zoë Buckman’s Champ, an outline of uterus constructed from neon lights. At the end of each ovary rests a white leather Everlast boxing glove. The piece comments on the stance women should take in the fight for their own reproductive rights.
Equally visually powerful are the works of Mikhael Subotzky. His two pieces show different pictures of African-American youth, but the glass protecting the print has been shattered in the same pattern as if a bullet had stuck through it. His two works allude to gun violence’s disproportionate affect on minority communities. The 24th Street gallery also features an arcade machine filled with replica automatic weapons, drawing on the theme of gun accessibility in the U.S.
Devan Owens, an associate at the Jack Shainman Gallery, said that For Freedoms, while being a super PAC, has chosen not to officially back any candidate. Its goal is to open a discussion about politics within the sphere of art and to use the idea of a Super PAC to open up discussion about campaign finance reform.
Each piece in the gallery offers the viewer a more personal experience with a factor sure to come up in the upcoming elections. For Freedoms recently extended its stay at the Jack Shainman until August 5th. After that, the PAC will focus more on fundraising and launching a national advertising campaign.
Owens thinks the PAC’s physical presence in the gallery helped unify the ideas of politics and art. “It brought in normal Chelsea gallery visitors who became interested in politics,” she said. “It also brought in a lot of people who wouldn’t normally go to galleries.”