Riot photography is nothing short of dramatic. The figures are stretched and twisted, blood spattered, arms up and out, scared and ecstatic, and on occasion, limp. And it’s intensified when in black and white.
Asheville artist Dustin Spagnola has taken such figures and cropped and pasted them, in black and white of course, onto an array of canvases for an exhibition at The Satellite Gallery aptly named New Work. A collection of protest imagery has been scattered across red, white and blue spattered canvases. It’s the antithesis of Toby Keith. But that doesn’t imply anti-patriotism.
For those familiar with Spagnola’s work, don’t expect mass portrayals of the esteemed Civil Rights leaders and African-American cultural icons that he’s been painting for the past few years. He’s left those behind.
The imagery and background styles are new for Spagnola. And for the fist time in years, the entirety of the show builds on itself. In other words, each painting lends itself to the next, rather than existing as a disconnected ideological dream-team consisting of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X.
His backgrounds come in layers of red and blue smeared and sprayed with white. Stars occasionally appear in the corners, pulling together the show’s overarching motif: the American flag. The mix of colors behind a white fog screen create murky, tear-gassed landscapes that the figures actively move through.
On most of the canvases singular figures occupy the lower third section, often popping up from the bottom. It gives many of the works a photographic element. One not tied in realism, but more to action shots depicting partial figures against the greater landscape. He’s effectively echoing the frozen moments of on-the-move foreground figures that we see in riot photography.
There are a few canvas awkwardly split fifty-fifty. Half up top, half on bottom — an artistic faux-pas. On a few, Spagnola’s stenciled in silhouetted cityscapes, such as Paris (there’s an Eiffel Tower). In “What’s Your Reason For Existence, Do You Believe In Anything?” he’s used the half-and-half split in conjunction with an oil rig, a separately reoccurring motif. The masked protest figure jumps across the canvas, but the background’s harsh line makes him hover rather than bind to the canvas.
And if some of the figures seem familiar that’s because they probably are.
The painted peoples are lifted from photographs of French student uprisings in May of 1968, late 2000 Muslim protests in Paris and London and the most recent conflicts in Syria. Bruno Barbey, a celebrated French photographer, took some of the most famous photographs of the ’68 student riots, which have been subsequently dissected and reclaimed onto Spagnola’s canvases.
The centerpiece to this exhibition, and surely the show’s strongest work, “Striving To Be, With Bitter Ideals Of Justice” takes its lineage from the Syrian uprising. A solitary figure rises from the bottom of the canvas, Molotov cocktail in hand. Despite the police wrestling two Occupiers just to the right, this serves as the show’s most violent image. It’s still, almost quite, but not for long. The overlapping of colors creates dark patches against the white. And on this canvas, more so than the rest, Spagnola’s spray-bottle painting method closely mimics blood-spray.
Looking at these paintings, there’s no way to tell who these figures might be. Most have masked faces or are turned away from you. But they are all acting out for what Spagnola deems a basic lack of rights.
But by no means is he advocating rioting in Asheville, “That’s not the point.” This work serves as commentary on the world’s current state of affairs, namely widespread political and civil unrest. Is there a middle ground? A compromise between violence and the non-violence that often lacks drastic results? “Maybe it’s art,” Spagnola suggests.
And while talk rises of a possible revival of the American Occupiers’ own movement, these images of mass demonstrations see just out of reach, almost becoming utopian.
“We are first-class citizen, living in our own liberal utopia, not just Asheville, but the United States,” Spagnola says, “and we can say whatever we want to, whenever we want without fear of being killed.”
And these things are often heard, but just as often they fall on deaf ears.
Spagnola’s images allude to our desensitization to such protests. National papers give us pictures of mass protests outside of the Kremlin in Russia, bloodshed in central Africa and Greek anarchy while we watch videos of the Syrian uprising on the news, all from a safe distance. So when we pass by a rally in Pritchard Park, they often seem futile, and lack the seriousness that would propel them to gain national attention.
Among the shows multitude of themes and subject are pigs, records and skateboards. The pigs speak for themselves, so we’ll leave it at that. The records and skateboards meld in with the street-style depictions of the protesters, but double as refuse put to good use: art. And in the window there’s a pyramid-shaped installation made from years worth of empty paint cans, buckets, spray-paint cans and trash.
There’s also a large-scale painting of Illinois Representative Bobby Rush speaking on the house floor in March. Rush spoke in protest of racial profiling while wearing a grey hoody. And big surprise, other congressmen didn’t like it. Halfway through a two- minute speech the gavel starts and ultimately leads to the representative’s mic being disconnected.
The Bush-Obama painting resurges once again, but this time as a fully-rendered collaboration painting with Chris King. Spagnola’s use of black and white paintings and cut-outs has been a long-standing point of contention for his foes. Can he paint? This painting serves as a proof that he can do so. But it’s not as striking as its black-and- white counterpart. So it doubles as proof that black and white, particularly in this case, is certainly better.
New Work is on view at the Satellite Gallery, located at 55 Broadway St. Spagnola will also be hosting gallery talks each Thursday at 2 p.m. through May 13. A closing reception will be held May 25.