Pittsburgh doesn't see a lot of overtly political art. But a quirky two-person exhibit at 707 Penn Gallery by Tesar Freeman and Shaun Slifer is a welcome addition. As with the work of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative (of which Slifer is a member), this exhibit doesn't shy from tetchy issues.
The exhibit's inflammatory title, Commission for Treasonous Strategies, is somewhat misleading. Freeman and Slifer appear more artist/scholars than provocateurs, and the exhibit presents reminders of the violence, literal as well as ideological, that runs through American history. Done up in the elegant colors we now expect of high-end art as well as history museums, the exhibit fully exercises the art of display with decorative pedestals, brass plaques and velvet cushions that are far from typical in this contemporary art space.
Freeman, self-described as artist and amateur historian, exhibits a mausoleum-like wall plaque memorializing "E Pluribus Unum," the United States' motto until it was supplanted by "In God We Trust" during the Cold War anti-Commie-atheist era. As a work of art, it pulls you in — clever, elegant, precise in materials and form, and just ambiguous enough to send you in search of explanatory information, which is essential yet inconveniently located in a binder rather than on wall labels.
Freeman also dwells on the tar-and-feathering that was an early anti-tax strategy, here represented by an elegantly framed mess. A handmade flag, "Gadsden/Don't Tread on Me," directs our attention to the rattlesnake as an icon that has been revived by political fundamentalists — this time around as a symbol of disunity, we are helpfully informed.
Shaun Slifer's "Kill the Devil" displays rum bottles that nod toward cynical alcohol marketing by way of labels referencing significant chapters in American history: the slave trade, indentured servitude and the subjugation of Native Americans. Perhaps America does have something to apologize for, after all.
"Attentat: Homestead, 1892" recreates the homemade dagger that Alexander Berkman used in an attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick as payback for his key role in the Homestead Strike fiasco, in which seven workers were killed. Though Slifer reminds us of what motivated Berkman, both artists seem more interested in exploring violence and its sources than in open-endedly promoting treason — definitions and perceptions of which vary, anyway. Dissent, of course, is encouraged. Howard Zinn would approve.