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Election-year exhibition looks at founding ideals and a wide range of artists' views of American society
Skylar Fein (b. 1968), Black Flag (Marcuse), 2009. Painted Wood, 68 x 114-1/2 in.
GHENT, NY.- Ever since the events leading to Independence created our democracy, citizens of the United States of America have demonstrated their pleasure and disgust with government in an unrivaled expression of honesty, passion, patriotism, intellect and love for their country by exercising their right to vote.

“Vote for Me and I’ll Set You Free: Works from the Collection of Lawrence B. Benenson” draws on historical documents, artifacts and works of contemporary art to create a kaleidoscopic view of the political process of voting and the role of the public and the artist in the political process. It touches on themes of aspirations, equality, justice, power, free speech, minority opinion and representation, hypocrisy and what it means to be part of the most fundamental aspect of the political process – the right to elect leaders – regardless of political orientation.

The exhibition is being held at Omi International Arts Center, in Ghent, NY, from September 22, 2012 through November 30, 2012.

Highlights of the exhibition include an 1864 printing of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln to raise funds for wounded Civil War soldiers. It goes on view on the 150th anniversary of the date Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, giving the South 100 days to end the rebellion or face losing their slaves.

Other highlights include an early printing of the Constitution of the United States in The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. Printed less than two weeks after it was approved by the Constitutional Convention of September 17, 1787, ironically, at least to us today, the text of the Constitution is followed immediately by an advertisement offering a reward for a runaway slave.

Also on view is the first engraving of the Declaration of Independence, from 1818, as Americans, newly nostalgic for first-generation patriotism following the War of 1812, wanted to document the country’s historic break from an oppressive colonial power.

Later objects and works of art include important contributions by Modern and contemporary artists whose paintings, drawings and prints recognize the American dream and look at how it has played out in American society. Ben Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti and Their Guards (1931-1932) is a dignified portrayal of the anarchists who were convicted of murder and executed following a notoriously flawed trial. Saul Steinberg’s Truth (1959) illustrates the word of the title with the R inverted and all images reflected and upside down in a calm sea.

Among contemporary works, Skylar Fein’s Black Flag (Marcuse), 2009, re-imagines the American flag with alternating stripes. One set of stripes shows sale-price come-ons (“DISCOUNTS,” “WON’T LAST”) and the other social criticism by Herbert Marcuse. Neo-Conceptual artist Mark Lombardi’s 1999 Oliver North, Lake Resources of Panama c. 1984-1986 (4th Version) charts out in a five-by-almost-seven foot drawing/diagram the spheres of influence that ran through the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s. Michele Pred’s 2005 Star Spangled Banner, is a mixed media work that creates an American flag out of razor blades that airport travelers surrendered to Transportation Safety Administration personnel.

The works on view, collector Lawrence B. Benenson explains in a brief essay, “signify the beauty and the ugliness of humanity.” Throughout the exhibition, which is provocative and affirming and at the same time contains language and images not suitable for all audiences, including Black Panthers posters that use profane or racist derogatory language, the message is that numerous voices exist – and have for over two centuries – in the American political landscape.

And however solemn or outrageous those voices are, each carries the same weight. The ability of Americans to determine the country’s political future comes through the act of voting. Just as loyalists in 18th century Maine sided with King George, racists in the mid-20th century sided with George Wallace and militants in the 1960s and 1970s sought power, it is up to the individual to determine the nation’s future.





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