The familiar visages of a dozen national pundits have descended on New Haven with a message: Maybe once in a while, could you turn us off and pick up a book?
That was the take-away for this viewer of Red, Blue and White Noise: A Photographic Pageant, local artist Keith Johnson‘s new show. It features easy-to-take irony about the in-your-face world of so- called communication in which we are plunged. The show opened Saturday at The Institute Library on Chapel Street a block from the Green.
The Library, an historic gem, has made a fine comeback under Director Will Baker’s leadership with programs including art installations in the gallery.
That’s the third-floor space liberated from time and grime, along with a permanent (until it’s bought) display of a Nathan Lewis painting that ironically riffs on our most hallowed traditions, like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.
The newly opened Keith Johnson exhibition is below and in the rear, a first-time use for art installation of the sedate rear reading room, which still beckons with museum-quality round library table, and a fabulous crank adding machine.
Into this room Johnson has barged with DREADED MEDIA.
His two long rows of photographs, almost all of talking heads from cable TV, surround and seem to be screaming not only at the viewer down below among the books, but at each other and and at politicians such as President Obama, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan.
They in turn shout or scowl or browbeat or fall asleep right back at them from their own sheets.
By the evidence Johnson has been favoring the liberal cable media, because the preponderance of the images are of MSNBC personalities like Rachel Maddow, Rev. Al Sharpton, and the two Chris-es, Hayes and Matthews. We have Anderson Cooper of CNN and Gwen Ifill of PBS. There’s even a Fox-y Karl Rove in evidence in this mostly liberal photographic hen house.
By my count each of the 30 sheets of low-luster paper contains 20 or 25 images, about four and half inches square. The images are all portrait-style faces of the selected political pundit or anchor, with three or four expressions repeated in no discernable pattern.
It’s as if Johnson has run together his version of enlarged passport photos, both those that passed and those that should have been rejected.
That adds up to 750 faces, some drooping with sincere wisdom, like that of the Mark Shields, but many images scowling or trying to sell you a bill of goods, opinion-wise.
My favorites are from the lowest row that sits atop the history and non-fiction shelves: the bespectacled faces of Karl Rove and Chris Hayes that seem to peek-a-boo at you as you walk by.
As I looked at them, I accepted their challenge. Their gazes took me downward six inches where I found William Manchester’s 1968 The Arms of Krupp or Thomas Boyd’s 1929 biography of Revolutionary War general Mad Anthony Wayne.
Then there’s my very favorite newly discovered book which I plan to borrow from the library (I am a member): Triumph Over Pain: The Story of Anesthehesia by Rene Fulop-Miller. It was a Literary Guild selection from 1938 and appears it hasn’t been touched since.
I certainly hope nobody takes it out before I have a chance to go back there. Thanks, Keith Johnson.
Because Johnson calls his show a pageant, and he has neatly reversed “red, white, and blue” so that white trails and he can add “noise” to it, I take it that a detoxifying irony is intended.
The individual photos themselves, especially as they repeat show that your trusted anchors and opinion purveyors are just human folks like us, passport-like photos of people, transient voices like those of the old books below them. Here today, gone tomorrow.
We are not the founts of eternal wisdom that you think or hope or expect that we are, Johnson’s installation seems to suggest.
We are wrongly elevated, they might also be saying from the high perch of their installation. Not only that, as you can see, we repeat ourselves, whereas check out the books below us: unique voices, in endless variety, and many, alas, not touched either by a human hand for decades.
Johnson said he wanted a place as soon as possible for the post-election timeliness of the show and unlike many venues that are booked months in advance, the library was available.
“I am pleased with the space (think of the high vantage point as a frieze and now part of the non-fiction),” Johnson wrote in an email.
Stehen Kobasa, who is the general curator of the spaces at the Institute Library, said he wanted to provide Johnson with a space as soon as possible. The rear library room presented itself.
“It is visually interesting in ways that I had not anticipated, given the regular patterns of color on the shelves as well as above it, but that is coincidental,” Kobasa commented.
Johnson said he might change the configuration of the exhibition as he explores whether new walls at the library become available. At that time he said he’s also considering adding a subtitle to the exhibition: “A Quiet Pundit Rant in a Library.”
Johnson did not comment on whether he would have preferred, or was able, to place his installation above the fiction section; that’s where through the decades people have been trying to tell the truth by making up stories.
The show runs until Jan. 22 during library hours, Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.