James Gill­ray: Shock­ing satire two cen­turies old

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi Den­ver Post Fine Arts Critic

Any­one shocked by the dis­taste­ful tone of po­lit­i­cal dis­course this elec­tion cy­cle ought to take a look at the work of James Gill­ray on dis­play at the Cen­ter for Vis­ual Art. The guy was rough. Don­ald Trump rough. And then some.

Un­like Trump, though, the in­ven­tor of what we now know as the po­lit­i­cal car­toon was gifted with fine art-making skills and a sense of hu­mor. His skew­er­ing of Euro­pean pol­i­tics and so­cial cus­toms around the turn of the 18th cen­tury was bru­tal, but it was funny and ex­pertly ren­dered in scores of hand-col­ored etch­ings.

The CVA is show­ing them in an ex­hibit ti­tled “Un­der the Guil­lo­tine: James Gill­ray and Con­tem­po­rary Coun­ter­parts,” pair­ing the Bri­tish leg­end’s work, col­lected over the years by Univer­sity of Den­ver pro­fes­sor Arthur N. Gil­bert, with three liv­ing artists who delve into satire, Molly Crabap­ple, Chris Dacre and Deb Sokolow.

The present-day trio of­fers some keen per­spec­tive on the ef­forts their car­i­ca­tur­ist fore­fa­ther. They are, quite sim­ply, not as vi­cious.

Of course, they didn’t have Gill­ray’s era to work with, a time when roy­alty was dwin­dling

and Napoleon was ris­ing, when revo­lu­tion was in the air and free­dom of speech was, lucky for the artist, tol­er­ated.

Even to­day Gill­ray couldn’t pro­duce the sort of things he made with­out some so­cial cen­sor­ship, re­pug­nant im­ages of the aris­toc­racy por­trayed as ei­ther gaunt and ghostly or roly-poly fat with the spoils of their riches and power.

Con­sider: “Sin, Death and the Devil,” from 1792, which de­picts the very Queen of Eng­land naked from the waist up and don­ning a ser­pent’s tail, her hand can­didly on the crotch of a can­di­date for prime min­is­ter she was ru­mored to have fa­vored, and slept with. It’s slightly dirty, overtly mean.

Or the work de­scrip­tively ti­tled, “More Pigs Than Teats, or — the New Litter of Hun­gry Grun­ters, Suck­ing John Bull’s Old Sow to Death.” The draw­ing puts the heads of politi­cians on pig bod­ies and has them scram­bling to suck the life out of a tired mother hog, a stand-in for the English state. The faces are rec­og­niz­able and the crit­i­cism pointed.

Noth­ing was above Gill­ray’s tar­get. He took on the wars and scan­dals of his day, tak­ing sharp aim at Napoleon him­self in many pieces. He was sav­age about health care, busi­ness prac­tices and con­sumerism.

He did have a lighter side, sort of. In one pair of car­toons, he mocks mar­riage, first show­ing a couple in courtship, star­ing ador­ingly and making mu­sic to­gether. The sec­ond presents a scene long af­ter the wed­ding, in a house dis­rupted by scream­ing cats and ba­bies and the gri­maces of mar­i­tal dis­cord.

Gill­ray got away with all of it, pos­si­bly be­cause his draw­ings are in­fin­itely en­ter­tain­ing. His pen was pre­cise, cre­at­ing scores of tiny lines that come to­gether to cre­ate both crys­tal clear im­ages and del­i­cate shad­ing that adds vis­ual and emo­tional depth to his work. His tint­ing is never sub­tle, with bright greens, reds and yel­lows adding an un­sa­vory air to the scenery. Al­ways, there is a lay­er­ing of de­tail, telling ob­jects that build char­ac­ter and re­late sto­ries.

The cur­rent-day work is its own brand of ex­treme. Dacre seems clos­est to Gill­ray's direct ap­proach. The mil­i­tary vet­eran makes posters ques­tion­ing his own choice to join the ser­vice as a teen. They have stark, vi­o­lent im­agery and slogans, like “Aim High,” making fun of the U.S. Army’s ad cam­paigns.

Crabap­ple’s de­tailed draw­ings link her ad­mirably to the old mas­ter, as well. She, too, has a way with a pen, cre­at­ing evoca­tive pic­tures of chil­dren scav­eng­ing through trash bins for food in Is­lamic State-oc­cu­pied Syria, or Don­ald Trump him­self ca­vort­ing with an Arab sheik.

Sokolow has her own unique sense of hu­mor, cre­at­ing a se­ries of posters that treat death-cult leader Jim Jones as a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date; “JIM JONES KNOWS PEO­PLE” one reads. She also has a se­ries of draw­ings based on the lo­cal con­spir­acy the­ory that Den­ver In­ter­na­tional Air­port har­bors some sort of se­cret gov­ern­ment base un­der­ground. It’s ex­cerpted from a pre­vi­ous show at Abrons Art Cen­ter in New York City, where it was less con­fus­ing that what’s on the walls at CVA.

But cu­ra­tor Ce­cily Cullen’s pair­ing of the new and the old works ter­rif­i­cally. It’s a tal­ented group, and there’s a sen­ti­men­tal con­nec­tion be­tween the ob­jects.

More im­por­tantly, it makes Gill­ray’s car­toons fit bet­ter into the gallery. The CVA is really stretch­ing here by show­ing two-cen­tury-old draw­ings in a place de­voted to con­tem­po­rary art. He should tech­ni­cally be off lim­its in this space.

But he proves rel­e­vant. Politi­cians still suckle off the state. Rev­o­lu­tions con­tinue to dis­rupt or­der, and mar­riage re­mains dif­fi­cult for any­one who dares.

Gill­ray is, al­ways and prob­a­bly for­ever, con­tem­po­rary.

Pro­vided by The Cen­ter for Vis­ual Art

James Gill­ray, “The Plumb-Pud­ding in Dan­ger; – or – State Epi­cures Tak­ing un Pe­tit Souper.” Hand-col­ored etch­ing. 1805.

James Gill­ray, “The Cow-Pock – or – The Won­der­ful Ef­fects of the New In­oc­u­la­tions.” Hand-col­ored etch­ing, 1802. Im­ages pro­vided by The Cen­ter for Vis­ual Art

Molly Crabap­ple, “Clock­tower, Raqqa un­der ISIS, 2014.” Pen, ink, pa­per, 2014.

Chris Dacre, Se­ries: “As Seen on T.V.” Pen, ink, pa­per, 2014.

Deb Sokolow, “Cam­paign Sign 1.” Graphite, ink, acrylic, col­lage, tape on pa­per, 2013.

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