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Gods of Power and Greed Clash with Human Bones and Depleted Uranium at Duke Art Show

DURHAM, NC.- When Duke University offered to host an art exhibition for accomplished artist Robert Mihaly they had no idea what they were getting into. It turns out two decades of chiseling elaborate stone and marble sculptures for the Elite had prepared Mihaly for a fight.

In 1997 he’d taken the Washington National Cathedral to small claims court over what he considered a point of honor. Now, like a mad Quixote, he’s battling greater foes: those he sees as Modern Gods: “Global Military Empire, Central Banks, the Brainwashed Herd.”

Typically this deviant Transgression wouldn’t be tolerated at an Elite Bastion of Privilege like Duke. But his work seems to have slipped passed the gatekeepers. Perhaps Duke was expecting work similar to the gargoyles he carved for them in 2002. Indeed the 40 works in this solo show demonstrate his brilliant technical aptitude with oil paints and chisels. However, he's gone a few standard deviations beyond the expected. He's plastered the walls between his artworks with 54 pages of documents and quotes attacking economic and military injustices perpetrated by the elite.

The artwork itself employs media such as Human Bones, Blood, and even Depleted Uranium (actual radioactive waste obtained in a roundabout way from Oak Ridge National Laboratories.) This shocking break with decorum seems to be a hit with the students. VisArts Committee Director Grace Huang says, “it's drawing a lot of attention and spurring a lot of wonderful conversations.” Even Janicanne Shane, staff advisor to the Duke University Union's VisArts Committee said, “I’m very taken by it. It is extremely powerful.”

Mihaly is intransigent. He said, “Dr. Martin Luther King spoke on these hallowed grounds, and I return, demanding justice! I consecrate these bones in the name of all the beleaguered human beings tormented by Secret Agencies and the War on Terror.”

It may be that people are so dazzled on a purely visual level that he gets away with impertinent messages and what some might see as sacrilegious materials. Though not exactly religious or irreligious, the works employ traditional accouterments of religion such as in his 23k gold-leafed, 45” x 54”, oil painting “The God of Central Banking.” The stylistic appropriation of Christian veneration symbolism is complete with a halo about Ben Bernanke’s head. Carved into the wooden frame are the Federal Reserve and World Bank logos, dollar signs and more. The chalky white dusting upon the work is actual bone dust, and the red coloring imperfectly covered by the gold leaf literally includes blood. Mihaly has apparently flung black paint onto the final graven image.

Mihaly, who considers himself a Guerilla Teacher, paces the gallery lecturing visitors. In his arms is a sculpture entitled “Cherub.” It is a sock monkey incorporating actual human bones as limbs and a jauntily-positioned human vertebra upon its head.

Mihaly has lived solely on sculpture commissions for twenty years and this has allowed him to remain the ultimate outsider. A self-taught workaholic, Mihaly even built a four-story castle known as Castle Mont Rouge upon Red Mountain in Rougemont, NC. Mihaly says his maverick existence has allowed him to “escape the asylum of the controlled matrix.” Contemporary artists usually opt for ambiguity when it comes to prodding at the elite power structure. As John Dillinger said, “That’s where the money is.”

Like a jester of the Middle Ages, Mihaly says what just isn’t said in the manicured gardens of the Elite. His work points to dark shadows of inhumanity. Typically, images of all artworks are submitted to Duke several weeks prior to exhibits at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery so that they can be documented for insurance purchases. By some fluke, this did not happen this time. The work was not pre-approved by a bureaucracy that typically protects its charges from blasphemies, secular and otherwise.

Thus at 2:00 a.m. the night before the March 7 opening, an Outsider with a Burning Vision and Passion for Justice slipped these Masterpieces of Cultural Resistance past confused guards. The work remains, and has been extended for a second month.

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