White Bird Dance Paul Taylor Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Art review: What do you mean by THAT?

Critic Paul Sutinen considers Tad Savinar's newest show of political provocations. They aren't always what you think.


To everything there is a season… Ecclesiastes 3:1

We are right in the final innings of our quadrennial playoffs—in the seventh inning stretch. A Report on America’s Weather 2016-2020: Selected Works by Tad Savinar on the Eve of an Election at the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space, invites speculation on the fundamental nature of the American democratic enterprise itself. In these prints and sculptures Savinar gives us “political” works, but absent sloganeering or cliché melodramatic imagery.

Tad Savinar, America 2019/Courtesy of the artist

For example, AMERICA 2019, with “America,” one word, floating in a clouded sky. Just a word. “America” not as a place, but as an idea. Is the “America” we imagine here a concept only—that elusive “pursuit of happiness?” Or is it the America of “America—love it or leave it?”—the America unquestioned. The America depicted here will never be graspable. Always beyond reach.

It feels romantic, dreamy—the America of America the Beautiful. Maybe the “American Dream”? What is the American Dream? 

James Truslow Adams said that the “American dream” is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”  (The Epic of America, 1931) 

But what of those who are innately in-capable, physically or mentally, or maybe because of their un-fortuitous “circumstances of birth or position?”  “That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”—George Carlin.

In America 2016 there’s another word: DЕМОКЯАCY, a combination of Latin-script and Cyrillic fonts—foreign and domestic, but we can read it. Why the combination? Colors from the flag of the People’s Republic of China, letters from the “Russian alphabet,” a visual oxymoron.  Why? Is “democracy” important in Russia or China? 

Tad Savinar, America 2016/Courtesy of the artist

“Democracy.” What is democracy? There are many kinds of democracies, past and present, and some are pseudo-democracies—democracies in name only (e.g. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], Lao People’s Democratic Republic [Laos]).

DЕМОКЯАCY leads us to question that “democracy” of which we are so proud. We believe in “one person, one vote.” But what about voter suppression (“a practice commonly employed by the US Republican Party to stop voters who are more likely to vote against them because of cultural reasons”—Wikipedia) or gerrymandering (and now the postal service!)? What about money=speech?

In 2018 an Axios poll found that only 51% of Americans have faith in democracy.

“A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won’t cross the street to vote in a national election”— Bill Vaughan

With AMERICA 2017 we have a version of the statue of seated Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French—a small, cast stone, touristy souvenir—on the wall, upside down. A martyr inverted. 

Lincoln upside down! Sacrilege!  The Lincoln Memorial is the American equivalent of the Mona Lisa. Every American knows what it is and brings their own meaning to it. It is ubiquitous, not on scarves and postcards, but on our money. From 1959 (the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth) to 2008, the memorial, with statue visible through the columns, was depicted on the reverse of the penny, and it has been on the back of the five dollar bill since 1929. The Lincoln Memorial has the aura of a sacred place. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech from its steps in 1963.

Tad Savinar, America 2017/Courtesy of the artist

How dare he do this to a national icon? (There is something disrespectful about the cheap little reproduction itself.) Upside down—some kind of distress signal? According to the United States Flag Code, an American flag (certainly an icon) upside down means a sign of distress or great danger—perhaps this is another kind of distress signal. 

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The title, AMERICA 2017, matters. This is America in 2017, after the inauguration of a new regime. Lincoln is turned upside down. Picasso would not allow Guernica to be sent to Spain until the Franco regime ended. Will this Lincoln ever be righted? 

Lincoln, the first Republican president, in the midst of the most divided time for our union, sought, “malice toward none, … charity for all” (second Inaugural Address, 1865). Things are topsy-turvy now. But as Lincoln also noted, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” 

Several of Savinar’s images here predate the current regime. In CHAMP, 1983, a lavender map silhouette of the lower 48 United States is superimposed over a vertically divided black (left) and red (right) field, the letters C H A M P spaced out across the map. The superimposition of the word over the map implies equivalency. The USA is the CHAMP. Like many of Savinar’s best political pieces this is a one-worder. It’s all about choices, of the word and of the image, and, in this case, unfamiliar colors.   

Tad Savinar, CHAMP/Courtesy of the artist

I first saw this CHAMP image as a 12-foot-tall wall painting in 1983. It seemed glib to me then. That was in the midst of the Reagan years (the first president to say, “Let’s make America great again”). Thirty-seven years and a lot of conflict later I find more in the image.

It’s the presentation of the word in this visual context—not just in the middle of an otherwise blank page. We know the outlined shape means “USA” and it is labeled CHAMP as if “United States of America” or even just “America” has been replaced by the new nickname. The image could become a lapel pin or a T-shirt. But then it would have a different meaning, because the context would sloganize the image, making it a less questioned one-liner. It is as “fine art” that the image stimulates inquiry.

Who says it’s the champ? Why is it the champ? How did that happen? Is it the champ? What is a champ? Are there winners and losers? Most importantly who believes it’s the champ?

USA, the champ! We won! Who lost? The USA is our team, and we root for our team. We want to be able to say, “We won!”—but we are not really the winners unless we are on the field. We want to identify with “our team.” It’s human nature. Two thousand years ago the Roman emperor Caligula rooted for the “Greens” chariot racers. The team is our surrogate tribe. WE are THE CHAMP. We want to be the “champ” even as couch potatoes.

Maybe we’re the CHAMP because the USA is “The greatest country in the world!” Therefore “champ.” 

How so? According to the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Countries ranking, the United States is #8, ranking #1 only in the category of Power.  Power could be considered an aspect of muscular athleticism, so maybe our team of armed forces is powerful—but while we continue 19 years of stalemate in Afghanistan? Can we be “great”—the “champ”—if we have millions without healthcare (and 200,000+ Covid-19 deaths)? Or is healthcare just beside the point? What about ever-expanding homeless camps? People who cling to the idea that the USA is “champ” ignore the inconvenient categories. “Give me your tired, your poor” was believable when it was our ancestors who were tired and poor, and once upon a time a president encouraged a “kinder gentler” nation.  How about now?

CHAMP is an empty slogan, but people like slogans. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Be happy with the hubris.

And so it goes—no rants, no sloganeering, no truisms, no platitudes. It’s rare to make political art without a “message.” Savinar turns down the volume, seeing how far it can be lowered before it clicks “off.” Here are some great examples of something Bruce Nauman spoke of: “There is a tendency to clutter things up, to try to make sure people know something is art, when all that’s necessary is to present it, to leave it alone. I think the hardest thing to do is to present an idea in the most straight-forward way.”  

So, these pieces do not editorialize or criticize. By withholding a stance, or even identifying clear issues, they tease the viewer’s mind to wander into questions of political philosophy, to push outside the clichéd stances—if that mind allows that kind of consideration—with no clear implications, leaving open our inferences. Not “What does he mean by that?”—but, “What do I think by that?” 

We view these covertly political works through the lens of our particular views of the political situation today. We look at Savinar’s works, like all art as critic Peter Schjeldal recently wrote, “with contemporary eyes, the only kinds of eyes there ever are.”


The entrance to the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space,
3033 NW Yeon Street

Note the limited hours: Noon-4pm, October 4, 6, 13, 18; or by special appointment: contact the artist tsavinar@teleport.com

Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space, 3033 NW Yeon Street. Though the address would imply otherwise, it is at the traffic light intersection at 26th Avenue. Look for the small green “Savinar” arrow.

Paul Sutinen began writing about art in 1973 for the Portland Scribe. He was the art critic for Willamette Week from 1974-1983. He is an artist and a founding member of Nine Gallery.

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