Anger is a powerful catalyst in human behavior. Since the election of Donald J. Trump, anger and outrage have manifested in all spheres of life, both public—Charlottesville in 2017 is one of many poignant tragedies—and private. Each of us deals with anger and outrage in a manner befitting ourselves and our means; some resort to protests, some resort to passive aggressiveness, some resort to blissful ignorance, and some grasp onto anger and bend it to form something wholly different. The recent opening reception of artist Robin Bell’s OPEN installation at the Corcoran School School of The Arts and Design fell squarely in the latter.
If there is a redeeming quality to anger, it’s that it usually spurs on an action that would otherwise exist only in intention. Within the confines of art, especially “protest art,” the symbiotic relationship with anger spans generations and movements; some good examples are John Heartfield’s 1932 Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin, Glenn Lignon’s 1980 Untitled (I AM A MAN), and Copper Greene’s 2004 iRAq: 10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent. Each of those examples found inspiration in the unimaginable and the absurd, and Bell’s OPEN is driven by two focal points of outrage: the decision in 1989 by the Corcoran to cancel the planned retrospective Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, and the Presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s planned exhibition in 1989 came at a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was ravaging America and was to feature more than 150 works that included homoerotic and sadomasochistic imagery. Mapplethorpe himself would be a victim of the epidemic, dying three months before the show was set to open from complications from the disease. The Corcoran’s cancellation of the exhibition due to fears of how the show’s “controversy” would impact funding was met with adamant protest, culminating in the artist Rockne Krebs projecting images of Mapplethorpe and his photography on the Corcoran’s facade. This particular aspect of past linked to present is especially relevant to Robin Bell, who, in 2007, projected the Constitution’s emoluments clause on the front of the Trump Hotel on 12th Street to protest the rampant corruption of the Trump presidency.
The historical implications of Bell’s OPEN exhibit are undeniable, but in the confines of the spacious Corcoran, and on a night where the space was packed with people, the impact was unfortunately diluted. This is usually where a better writer would hit you with a diatribe of how social media has altered how we consume art in a public setting, but I’ll spare you. Bell’s projections of text, faces, and colors were striking and did well in asking questions of transparency and openness, but in an atrium full of bustle, conversation, and music it was hard to really “feel it” beyond the visual cues. With that being said, this exhibit is not to be missed. Go alone to absorb the impact of the exhibition. It’s free and open to the public for its 6 week run.
For all of the outrage we feel on a daily basis, for all of the news cycles we live through, the role of art to encapsulate raw emotion into something existing outside of the parameters of Twitter or an iMessage argument is unspeakably powerful. Robin Bell’s OPEN is not only art for the present-day reality we live, but a glimmer of hope that flutters somewhere in the future.
Photos by Claire Edkins, Words by Ruben Gzirian