This installment of Contemporary Humanist artists includes Danish based painter and printmaker John Kørner; Chicago based painter and printmaker Jeff Lassahn; New England based painter Wendy Cross; Iranian-American and Detroit based artist Sheida Soleimani; and Brooklyn based artist Michael Scoggins.
“Contemporary art is your daily life – you have to believe it” – John Kørner
John Kørner’s paintings and lithographs are important visual narratives of contemporary Danish life. For example, Kørner’s War Problems series addresses the lack of journalistic documentation of the soldiers whose lives were lost in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. Because there was a ban on images depicting the dead or wounded soldiers, Korner envisioned these tragic scenes, painted in a very expressive manner, using vibrant colors and imagery, which recall Nancy Spero’s War Paintings (1966-1970). Kørner’s titles reflect the actual names of each of the 42 Danish soldiers who were killed in action.
Another strong set of socially engaged imagery are the Women for Sale paintings. These paintings took impetus when Kørner noticed three prostitutes standing outside of a gallery opening. This led the artist to delve into the question of prostitution and its role in Demark’s society. There were many different considerations that the artist had when contextualizing this subject as is discussed in an interview with arts writer Pernille Albrethsen:
“Perhaps the question should be linked to the discussion concerning strong women and to a whole series of interesting perspectives on what goes on in our contemporary society as well as to our ambitions of a life where you realize yourself – as the father or mother of a family with a full-time job, creating an existence for yourself that harmonizes with your conception of what it means to be a good person and have a good life.
Looking from above at the ramifications of expectations and relationships, it could be said that the prostitutes also do a good job. I don’t want to look at it only through politically correct glasses, in the way that certain politicians does. It provokes me when they goes at it full speed, justifying victims they have appointed as such themselves. I lack a counterpart. Where are the others? Where are those who frequent the prostitutes? What do they think?”
Chicago based artist Jeff Lassahn’s primary focus has been social justice, war, and the economy within the United States. His paintings and lithographs depict a bleak reality as a result of political action, social injustice, the prison and military industrial complex, racism, and the environment.
After the bombing of Najaf, Iraq (2005) is a painting constructed from materials obtained from abandoned industrial sites in the United States. The painting references the August 2004 Battle of Najaf between American forces and Iraqi Forces against the Islamist Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. The gritty and worn down material heightens the emotional level of the painting. Like the unoccupied sites where the materials were gathered, the soldier’s faces depict a vacant sense of existence. Lassahn is also the Assistant Director of The Cluster Project, “an ongoing online artwork that explores the thriving world of war and its relationship to mass culture.”
Wendy Cross depicts existential scenes that portray the dark nature of humankind as a surreal nightmare. Cross’ paintings deal with the dichotomy of the American experience in the contemporary era. There are extreme dualities in many of her works such as the lives of the rich and poor; technological landscape and the natural environment; life and death. Paintings like Used to be Somewhere recall Michael Fauerbach’s series of abandoned barns and desolate city blocks.
Soleimani’s collages from the series National Anthem are poignant for the use of shocking and grotesque imagery, which raises critical awareness about social injustices and cultural and political oppression within the Iranian regime. The use of national symbols like the flag, where Soleimani replaced the coat of arms with a banana split results in a powerful protest image. She uses both political iconography and images from Iranian popular culture to construct a dark portrait of contemporary life.
Michael Scoggins’ art may appear innocent at first. The artist has masterfully recreated the essence of childlike scribbles that most of us recall engaging in during our own upbringing. This playfulness, however, is a gateway for a powerful socio-political form of art making. Combining fantasy, humor, anxiety, curiosity, and popular culture, Scoggins has developed a sophisticated vocabulary that responds to the dark side and the absurd reality of contemporary life. By exposing political corruption, social injustice, and other dark forces as childlike and laughable (think of today’s stubborn politicians refusing to share and throwing tantrums), Scoggins has created a unique, fun, and powerful statement.