Funny Dictator x 8

John O'DonnellImages of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un are alive, well, and colorful in Heads Will Roll, a jaunty and provocative show about political caricature and satire opening today at Artspace.

Ruth SackThe show is a companion exhibition with Vertical Reach, a globe-trotting show about art and activism and what curators Sarah Fritchey and Martha Willette Lewis term the “militant aesthetic” of modern political protest. Both shows run until May 2. Artspace will be throwing an opening bash.

Heads Will Roll, mostly from area artists in Artspace’s flat file, is a kind of solidarity exhibition with the artists of Charlie Hebdo and their compatriots everywhere, holding aloft the the banner of free speech, even and perhaps especially of the nervy kind that bothers.

Kim Salander

It features primarily cartoons, broadsides, and photos that comment on a wide variety of subjects. David Thompson’s “No Boundaries,” for example, juxtaposes a scampering corporate logo for a running shoe with a desert landscape to make you think about issues of immigration from an unexpected angle.

Vertical Reach‘s reach is more ambitious. It is an international show with a focus on Eastern Europe, seeking to lasso documentation art inspired by street actions of groups such as Pussy Riot and individual artists, as well as collectives from Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.

David K. ThompsonBecause Vertical Reach was conceived as a collaboration with an Apr. 17-19 academic conference at Yale — “Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism,” organized by Marijeta Bozovic at Yale’s Slavic Languages department — the curators sought out and placed at center stage artists from that often darkly authoritarian part of the world. Eastern Europe has seen some heavy times lately, and the art from there is stamped with urgency.

The Polish artist Zbigniew Libera has half a large room for his installation about the economic crisis.

Yevgenia Beloruset’s “Maidan: Occupied Spaces Series” is a series of digital prints and haunting text about the Maidan sit-ins in Kiev that triggered the current stand-off in Ukraine.In the text accompanying Belorusets’s photographs (pictured) of the Maidan protesters begins with these words: “Nowadays the taking of prisoners has become the conventional initiation ordeal. Once a person has been captured, he or she usually realizes that the most favorable outcome will come from self-infliction of non-mortal wounds which nevertheless look dramatic. When the captors suddenly discover they’re harboring a wounded prisoner, it usually spoils their mood, and they don’t want to play anymore.”

Allan Appel Photo“Our Barricades/Barrier in a Valise” (pictured) is a mixed media assemblage by Gregory Sholette that argues, in part, that when you demonstrate, you better be prepared with that overnight bag.

You’re likely going to be spending time elsewhere, and it is like not going to be a four-star hotel.

The suitcases containing Sholette’s tires — a number of the retreads nicely supplied by Hamden tire shops — are stuffed into metal suitcases that eerily remind me of the style of the “valise” that contains the nuclear launch codes.

In selecting the works for the exhibition Lewis acknowledged there’s “a lot of earnestness out there” and she has nothing against it. She embraces it. But the works in the show also have what she generically called “nuance.”

“There’s a longer-term reading. You can go back many times and get something out of it. You can fill in the blanks,” she said.

Fritchey added another quality that drew her to the work selected: “The kernel has to be commitment, conviction of what you’re doing as an artist.”

That said, she added: “Everything has a risk in the show, maybe of excess commitment.”

The exhibition also has lots of humor and color, however. You can learn about the intense race for New Haven’s “31st Ward” from performance artist David Livingston. His mixed media and performance installation, “Vote For 2015 Alderman Campaign 2015,” will feature the artist himself discussing his campaign for the non-existent ward. You can check out his campaign literature as well.

If you’d like your head examined for paying attention to such things, Livingston’s installation has him slipping into the co-role of shrink; you lie down on the couch in his campaign office and he’ll help you understand — lots of luck — how it is you project your morphing dreams and dark nightmares (the paintings on the wall) onto a candidate, who hands them right back to you. Or something like that.

Laura MarshLocal artist Laura Marsh’s quilty American flag and phallic kid pop-up bags (pictured) also have a happy, lets-not-be-too-serious quality about them, without sacrificing punch. The curators said Marsh’s work is going to be juxtaposed in the same alcove with a Pussy Riot video, “Punk Payer — Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”

I asked, given the Charlie Hebdo experience, if Artspace were taking any special precautions for the exhibition, like hiring a security guard. Lewis’s answer: “Absolutely not.”

There have been no threats so far — only internal conflict among some of the Eastern European artists whose political takes, for example, on how best to satirize or go after Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, differ dramatically.

Providing a platform for that kind of airing is also part of the aim of the show, and very good, added Fritchey.

The Feb. 20 opening reception kicks off at Artspace at 6:30 p.m. Companion programming will include an evening of “protest karaoke” at Cafe Nine on Mar. 7. It’s going to be emceed by two of the artists in the show, Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere.

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