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Robin Bell never asked for permission to project onto the front of the building as part of his solo show. Administrators at George Washington University should have seen it coming.
“IF YOU CAN READ THIS FROM YOUR OFFICE, YOU MIGHT BE PART OF THE PROBLEM,” read the broadcast on the façade of the former Corcoran Gallery of Art, now home to the university’s arts school. While the light projection was only active briefly during the show’s opening, it served to link the work inside the gallery with the work happening across the street (at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building)—momentarily recruiting the college to his campaign against the White House.
Another achievement unlocked for Bell: The artist has mounted dozens of anti-government projections across every corner of federal Washington, from the Trump International Hotel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. His light-show graffiti is direct, even confrontational: all caps, sans serif, and to-the-point. OPEN is the culmination of the artist’s Guy Fawkes Night-like spree of guerrilla demonstrations, and the opening-night installation offered the same meme-like punch that viewers have come to expect in his protests. OPEN is also something else: an attempt to slow down and ground his work in the context of art. This time, Bell’s outing is a partial success.
“The Swamp” (2019), the centerpiece of Bell’s exhibit, is a showstopper: a composite video projection onto four pillars that take the form of stacks of blocks. Each cube’s surface serves as a screen. Faces of familiar politicians materialize then disappear, sometimes in moving portraits that span multiple blocks so that smiling, blinking mugs break like jagged Cubist paintings. (The video mapping is slightly off, so the effect is sometimes unintentional.) At times, upward of 80 different swamp creatures appear before the projection summons a new horde of politicos. “The Swamp” offers a who’s-who guide to Washington. Visuals that complete the video, including word clouds and infographic treatments, place the piece somewhere between an MSNBC election special and a Illuminati mood board.
At times, Bell’s contempt for his subjects is unequivocal: His “Swamp” portrait of former White House aide Sebastian Gorka possesses burning demonic eyes. But the broader narrative thrust in “The Swamp” involves bothsidesism—“the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes,” according to the New York Times’ Paul Krugman. This conviction explains how Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar winds up in the same criminal cloud as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bell is having it both ways, ridiculing the Trumpian meta-commentary about “the swamp” but also indulging in the populist impulse to condemn everyone with the same broad brush.
Other artworks might as well be #resistance posters. Projections at either end of the Corcoran’s atrium read “The President Is Closed” and “Jamal Khashoggi Was Murdered and the President Did Nothing”— no closer reading necessary. (Although it’s worth noting that one of Khashoggi’s daughters attended school at the Corcoran.) Another projection across the balustrade landing between the first and second gallery floors declares the president “canceled.” There are two sculptures on view: both screens bearing text (“It Is Happening Here”) attached to glowing light strips. On one end of the gallery, the lights are red; at the other, of course, they’re blue.
OPEN borrows plenty from Jenny Holzer, an influential text artist whose aphorisms take the form of every medium imaginable. Bell also has an eye for finding new ways to pull off his projections—on the face of the U.S. Department of Justice, for example. Sometimes these experiments fall short, as in the projection running along the stairs leading up to the Corcoran’s Rotunda, a video that is unwatchable under ambient light, at least during the daytime.
Arguably, OPEN ought to be limited to just “The Swamp” alone. A small-scale presentation of a sculptural installation, one that queues up visions of sculptor Nam June Paik’s towering walls of televisions, would have given viewers a taste of Bell’s artwork outside his protests. The message in “The Swamp” is more nuanced than the other projections on hand (or at least, there’s a lot going on there). These projections are the post-minimalist equivalent of political cartoons: punny, compact, and pointed. In “OPEN,” they don’t add up to an exhibition, like an album that wants to be an EP, or even a single. Bell’s work is still best seen in its original context: as a transgressive gesture.
At George Washington University’s Flagg Building to March 31. 500 17th St. NW. Free. corcoran.gwu.edu.