The Trouble with Political Art- Molly Crabapple's Shell Game

Lori Zimmer
Apr 29, 2013 7:59PM

From my recent review on ArtSlant

Shell Game: Beyond the Political Cartoon by Lori Zimmer

Translating politics into art is tricky. One false move, and a poignant statement can become overreaching or worse, preachy—its message trounced by the annoyance of the opposition or apolitical. It is a magic moment when an artist brings politics into art in a manner that is both visually stunning and conceptually provocative, which is the case with Molly Crabapple’s exhibition of new paintings. "Shell Game" does this beautifully. In these works inspired by the birth of Occupy Wall Street, Crabapple's "Shell Game" takes on the tradition of massive satirical painting, focusing her attention on uprisings like Occupy Wall Street, the Anti-Austerity Indignant Citizens Movement in Greece, Anonymous hacktivists and American healthcare—all in vivid imagery that is more than meets the eye. An artist whose subject matter has tended towards indulgent nightlife scenes and burlesque girls, Crabapple was inspired to work in a more political mode after getting involved with the Occupiers, whose Zuccotti headquarters were right outside her studio. When Occupy Wall Street erupted almost on her doorstep in the Financial District of Manhattan, it changed the artist’s view on her own politics and personal oeuvre forever.

Like the works of James Ensor or Georg Scholz, “Shell Game” goes beyond the political cartoon, using the historic genre as a jumping off point to launch into a series of epic allegorical paintings, rife with hidden meanings, dualities and symbolism. Calling these pieces “political cartoons” would be a gross understatement, but with the nature of the topic of social unrest, one can’t help but bring them to mind. Crabapple goes far, far beyond political cartoons, which are usually simple and sarcastic, driving a singular point with a satirical thrust. This isn’t the case with “Shell Game.” Figures like the top-hatted fat cat may conjure the political cartoons of the 1920s, but Crabapple uses them in more complex arrangements, as one of the many symbols in her version of history painting.

Upon first glance, the nine major works in “Shell Game” appear like Crabapple’s other work—colorful, playful, and evocative of the circusy-burlesque influence that she is known for. But take a few steps closer to the canvas, and one begins to see that the smiling animals and beautiful girls hold a perverted duality. In a way, the idea of the paintings reminds me of the Simpsons—as children, we love the show because of its cartoon quality. But as adults we come to understand the writers’ wit and social and political references, making the show a perfect mesh of high and low. “Shell Game” is the same; the striped curtains and dancing animals would make any child squeal with delight. But once you realize the masked birds are typing on antiquated laptops (in Arabic), or the ribbons hanging from Lady Liberty’s arms are really zip cuffs, you get the sophisticated and perverse jokes that only adults can understand.

Each of the pieces centers around a female figure, who stands as a near goddess-like symbol of each event. For Occupy Wall Street, Crabapple painted Our Lady of Liberty Park (2012) with a battle skirmish of protesting mice as the 99% engaged with protesting the 1% fat cats, while pit bull New York City cops charge at the players in the chaos. Lady Liberty’s dress morphs into the makeshift tents and camps that the Occupiers constructed for themselves in Zuccotti Park, while the park’s familiar public sculpture (ironically named Joie de Vivre) by Mark di Suvero doubles as her crown. Lady Liberty herself stands between two grand American flag curtains, claiming her place on the world stage. The most personal of all the paintings, Crabapple even included herself amidst the sign carrying, pepper-sprayed mice ensemble, as a mouse in a black dress in the lower right corner. 

Crabapple approached the research for these paintings as a journalist more so than an artist and this may have contributed to the success of the work. She went on a pilgrimage to Greece, Spain and England, interviewing dozens of hackers, activists, journalists, protesters and bystanders who experienced political unrest in their hometowns first hand. Like many unlucky protesters, the artist saw the inside of a New York City jail cell after being plucked off a sidewalk. Fortunately, it was an experience that inspired further action and powerful artwork.

Lori Zimmer