Polemics and meditations

It has been said that all art is political—but some art is certainly more overtly political than a painting of a bowl of fruit or a mountain landscape. There are artists whose work points out the foibles of governmental, religious or corporate policies and actions.

Heinz Kossler’s “Golden Spike.”

Can this work change the world? Probably not, but who can deny the impact of Käthe Kollwitz’s charcoal drawings and etchings of suffering mothers trying to secure a safe future for their children during the two world wars? Or Goya’s “Executions on the Third of May”? Or the biting drawings of George Grosz, or Sue Coe’s ruthlessly pointed depictions of all the abuses visited upon the powerless by corporate America? Then, of course, there’s “Guernica,” Picasso’s masterpiece about the “experimental” bombing of a Spanish town just to see if aerial bombing really worked. It did.

Two local galleries are hosting exhibitions with strong political messages, with the work and subject matter coming from the personal experiences of both artists.

Heinz Kossler was a 14-year-old student at a German boarding school in 1968 when he and his classmates saw black Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos receive their gold and bronze medals in Mexico City. Then, with the American national anthem playing, the pair raised their fists in a “black power” salute in protest. Chaos exploded in the school’s dining hall: There was screaming, overturned furniture, broken dishes and windows. Kossler says he has never forgotten the impact of those raised fists.

More concerned with message than with medium, Kossler’s Polemic exhibit at the Pump Gallery begins at the entrance to the gallery space, where viewers are admonished to “Think” by 18-inch ceramic letters standing on a narrow 4-foot-high pedestal. From here, the theme of a fist as a symbol of defiance begins. One expression of that theme is through the serigraphs of fists lying in challenging postures on tables.

Strongly phallic ceramic fists rise from small black shelves on the gallery walls. The ceramic works are beautifully crafted. Some are unglazed, others are glazed or stained, but all express defiance.

There is also a large mixed-media work of the iconic image of the two Olympic athletes on their podiums with raised fists. This is not a new theme for Kossler—it has haunted him for many years and has arisen fresh in his memory as he observes the current American political atmosphere, which he refers to as the “Texas Inquisition.”

But it isn’t just foreign-born artists who are capable of expressing concern over the state of American politics. At the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Board Room Gallery, narrative painter Skip Rohde offers his Meditation on War series. A U.S. Navy officer for 22 years, Rohde became a full-time painter and printmaker after his retirement in 1999.

His firsthand knowledge of the loneliness and desolation experienced by military personnel and their loved ones is evident in his diptych “You Don’t Understand.” Featuring a dark-gray sky fading into pale oranges above a bleak, stony landscape, one panel presents a dejected young soldier perching on an uncomfortable folding chair, head down, loosely holding a blue satin jacket. In the opposite panel, an equally unhappy young woman with bare shoulders and feet stands in a blue satin dress, her arms folded across her chest. The soldier’s fatigue hat lies collapsed at her feet. Though separated by an obvious distance, the two turn away from each other in their misery.

Skip Rohde’s “You Don’t Understand.”

Smaller works in Rohde’ exhibition include images of bullet-riddled walls and shelled homes, depictions of locations he witnessed during his time as a peacekeeper in Bosnia.

Other works, such as “The Soccer Player” and “Village Resurrection,” evoke the efforts of the citizenry to pick up their shattered lives and work toward normalcy.

Rohde could not resist one sardonic poke at phony, thoughtless “patriotism.” In “Pleasantville” (actually part of a related series of paintings, Bush League), an all-American family stands happily in their suburban back yard, smiling confidently, their dog lying obediently at their feet. It looks like a pretty innocuous family photo, until you notice that each family member is holding an assault rifle, and all of them—including the collie—are wearing flak jackets.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]

who: Heinz Kossler’s Polemic and Skip Rohde’s Meditations on War
what: Two artistic examinations of politics
where: Polemic is on display at the Pump Gallery (109 Roberts St.), and Meditations on War is on display at the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Boardroom Gallery (11 Biltmore Ave.)
when: Polemic is on display through Wednesday, Oct. 31. Meditations on War is on display through Friday, Oct. 26

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