Political expression: MCAD faculty kicks off the school year with an exhibition of political art

WHITTIER — By the time this year’s class of Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) freshmen complete their first semester, they will have lived through a momentous moment in history.

First, the GOP gathers on their college’s doorstep for a convention in September. Then, they vote in their first major election in November. And around the time they get back from winter break, a new president will be sworn into office.

That should be plenty of fuel for their artistic fires. Just for good measure, though, their professors jumpstarted the art-and-politics conversation with “Position and Imposition: MCAD Faculty Responds to Politics.”

This year’s annual faculty exhibition sets the tone for a semester that will also include the college’s first all-student art project. “Dear President ____:” is the students’ opportunity to use their creative talents to design a letter to the next president.

If they need any help translating their artistic thoughts into political expression, there are some textbook examples in “Position and Imposition.”

One could, for example, co-opt military propaganda techniques, as media arts faculty member Piotr Szyhalski does in his inventive project, “IF/THEN: You Decide.”

Szyhalski borrows the design of leaflets air-dropped on the battlefield during Operation Iraqi Freedom, replacing the content with his own thought-provoking messages on war, politics and the role of the citizen in the political process. Two Szyhalski-designed dispensers rain leaflets down on the gallery like trees shedding their foliage in autumn.

A collaborative piece by Margaret McGee and Ulana Zahajkewycz challenges our often two-dimensional view of past presidents.

Their “Museum of Visible and Unvisible Forces” is a collection of carved and painted wood sculptures of political figures, including the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and presidents Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft. Look closely and you’ll also spot Mark Twain, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and actor Robert Goulet, too.

By mixing the politically famous with the artistically famous, McGee and Zahajkewycz pose questions about celebrity, what we know about these historic figures and why.

Ursula Murray Husted’s “Dis’Armature,” a large dove puppet, was created to take part in the political process. Worn on a harness that suspends it 15 feet above the ground, the puppet will have a bird’s eye view for its hidden, web-linked camera, which Husted planned to use to capture crowd reactions during Republican National Convention events.

Some of the pieces seem to reflect a cynical view of American politics, like comics professor Barbara Schulz’s woodcut print “Capitol Consumption,” depicting Obama and McCain fleeing the all-consuming monster that is Washington politics.

Brad Jirka presents two unappealing choices with a collection of found objects titled “Swing Vote: Balancing Salt and Sulfur.” A pendulum hangs over two miniature Radio Flyer wagons — one red, one blue — filled with crystals of yellow sulfur and white salt, respectively.

Aaron Van Dyke and David Goldes each examine the role of information — or the lack thereof — in forming political awareness and opinion.

Van Dyke offers two untitled pieces, each a large sheet of white paper with splotches of black toner, his interpretation of a redacted document. The bits of hair glued to the paper hint that when information is withheld, we lose a vital contribution to our national debate.

Goldes’ “Reading the New York Times” shows several pages of the Gray Lady obscured in white and black paint, with only a few images — a tomato from the Dining Out section, the mug shot of an accused war criminal on the front page — left uncovered. Here are nearly all the world’s current events worth noting, distilled into 50 pages of newsprint and delivered to the doorstep and what do we absorb? Too little, Goldes seems to say.

For some of the contributors, the act of art-making was political in itself.

Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl, who specializes in collaborative projects, worked with alumni of Club de Arte, a student art group she began at Jefferson Community School, to create a mural on one gallery wall. Cedarleaf Dahl said the students in Club de Arte were mainly Latinos, many of them from undocumented families.

“There’s a big chunk of our population that isn’t represented in the political system,” she said, referring to the undocumented families whose immigration status prevents them from participating fully in the political process.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions, she said; quite the opposite. So, she asked them: If you could vote, what would you vote for?

Their answers take the form of life-size self-portraits, and their opinions — on immigration, war, the election — hang in word balloons on the large, white canvas.

Like the other pieces on display here, it’s art with something important to say.

Go see it

“Position and Imposition: MCAD Faculty Responds to Politics” runs through Sept. 24 in the main gallery at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S., www.mcad.edu