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Fact, Fiction, Paranoia and Conspiracy Theories in the Work of Deb Sokolow

Picture of Jessica Ransom
Jessica Ransom
Updated: 27 January 2016
The artwork of Deb Sokolow begs viewers to navigate through complex plots diagramed through text, images and false artifacts, to piece together meaning in elaborate installations. Jessica Ransom looks at the artist’s exhibition SOME CONCERNS ABOUT THE CANDIDATE, which ran from February 7 to June 30, 2013 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

In her solo exhibition, SOME CONCERNS ABOUT THE CANDIDATE, Deb Sokolow probes America’s growing obsession with conspiracy theories, the cult of personality and flat out paranoia. She does so by using the names of recognisable public personalities in works that mix graphic style and text that reads dramatically as if ripped from the headline news. Physically the exhibit contains five large wallboards of text as well as six ‘rejected’ posters, two books, and assorted ephemera. As the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Matrix artist 166, Sokolow imagines a run for Congress by the fictional candidate Jim Jones—invoking the name of the notorious founder and leader of the People’s Temple cult who persuaded hundreds of his followers to commit mass suicide at their Jonestown, Guyana commune in 1978. In Sokolow’s complex and fantastical tale, the narrator becomes enmeshed in the intrigue of this questionable candidate’s run for office. That narrator’s stream of consciousness thinking continues through the panels of the exhibit, at one point asking: ‘But if this helps Jim win the election, then it’s ok. Right? Right. Because this is about something bigger than you. This is about electing the one person to congress who listens to people. Regular people. He understands people.’

 

While engrossed in Sokolow’s world, ‘you’ are the narrator, but on another level you, the viewer, are that larger consciousness, the populace that elects each US Congressional candidate. You, on all levels, want to believe that your candidate will win and for the right reasons. You, Sokolow’s narrator, note that, ‘Jim has a waterbed in his room. You know he’s going to be president one day.’ It is with such blatantly ironic statements that Sokolow wrenches her viewer out of any preconceived notions of high-minded morality and into the present of elected representatives who perpetrate offenses including waste and corruption. Nonetheless, psychologists have observed that we as humans have cognitive biases that can distort our judgment and allow us to maintain preconceived notions despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We have, for example, a tendency to see patterns where none exist; we tend to interpret new information and recall old information in ways that reinforce our expectation, and we are often unable to recognise that our perceptions are not the objective truth. Perhaps this explains why Sokolow’s narrator, and perhaps the American public, can continue to ignore corruption or believe conspiracy theories even when overwhelming evidence to the contrary exists.

 

Sokolow’s text is written in blocky capital letters on lines ruled as if for a kindgarten student. As in the trajectory of much abstract art, the ‘hand’ of the artist is visible—words erased, whited out, or even blacked out as if from a redacted top-secret document—all desired pentimenti that reveal the author’s work process. Images support the text, hand drawn graphs or schematic, if imagined, drawings of rooms or buildings, others fuzzy black and white apparently photocopied images or linear schema of fictitious power structures. Sokolow deftly weaves recognisable names and places into her narrative. The candidate, for example, visits the Wadsworth Museum for a fundraiser. The graphic novel narrative moves at the pace of a thriller, drawing the reader into the obsessive story like a combination of all the cheesy thrillers ever written. Knowing that it is all too bizarre to be true, the story remains engaging in its oddity.

 

Though it is not immediately clear upon entering the exhibit, even the ephemera are not real. The unspectacular brown briefcase sitting lonely and begging to be opened on a central pedestal reportedly belonged to Jim Jones’ campaign consultant David Copperfield—yes, the famous magician. A rectangular plexiglas case holds scraps of fabric apparently cut from a man’s suit. Signage referencing the wall text explains that ‘you’ had cut them from thrift store clothes to sell to adoring fans in order to supposedly fund Jim’s soup kitchens. The exhibit text reads: ‘It was one of the easier lies they told you to spread’. Because comments are presented in a straightforward, perfunctory way, and all text is printed in non-gendered, capital block letters, it is hard to read the narrator’s intent or emotion. People absorb what they want to hear. Early in the narrative ‘you’ note: Yesterday Jim whispered in your ear: ‘You’re one of my special ones. You give the campaign something very, very special.’ Parenthetically, in smaller block lettering off to the side, ‘you’ note: ‘His words were always making you feel special.’ An associated visual item is the small pieces of paper with swatches of various shades of red—one labeled ‘too pink,’ another ‘too light.’

 

Matrix exhibitions are meant to call into question preconceptions about art and open viewers to a wider understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. Sokolow shares the Matrix title with the likes of a diverse group of artists such as Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, and Sol LeWitt. Matrix was initially funded in 1974 as an experimental pilot project with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and has shown more than one thousand works of art produced by over 160 artists. Matrix is a historically appropriate initiative for this important museum. Though downtown Hartford is no longer the thriving metropolis that it once was, early on the legendary art historian A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin served as the director of the Wadsworth. A Harvard classmate of the similarly renowned New York City Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred J. Barr, Chick Austin ran the Wadsworth from 1927 through 1944 and brought such famous figures as George Balanchine, Gertrude Stein, Alexander Calder, and Salvador Dalí to Hartford. Following in the footsteps of its innovative former director, Matrix has been a forum for current, often challenging and sometimes controversial art.

 

Sokolow’s Matrix exhibit is merely a continuation of the neurotic style in which she has practiced at least since receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. As part of the February 1 – March 10, 2013 group exhibit How I Wrote Elastic Man at Invisible-Exports on New York City’s Lower East Side, Sokolow’s work stood out among the deliberate obfuscation that was apparent in all the chosen works. Like the Matrix works, the pieces are composed with graphite and acrylic on paper and are mounted on panels. The two large ‘Chapters’ presented in the Invisible-Exports show dealt with her version of a conspiracy theory surrounding the construction of the Denver International Airport. Again Sokolow set up her page with hand drawn lines that mimicked a young child’s theme paper. Her print hovered between that of a child practicing penmanship and a typewriter. Both chapters had a great deal of erasure and white out, as if the child was unsure of the story. The paranoid questions within the text asked about people or places. For example, in pencil above the main text of Chapter 8 she asked the question: ‘Do you trust this guy’? The response, in definitive blue ink states: ‘No. You can’t trust him.’ Sokolow draws her own semi-scientific drawings of the digging and bowels of the airport where she claims the conspiracy lies. She uses what appears to be a black and white newspaper clipping of Frederica Peña questioning his decision-making on the project. Peña, who formerly served as Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Energy, was in fact the Mayor of Denver and pushed for the construction of the airport. In Chapter 12 Sokolow questions the likelihood of a Dairy Queen employee following ‘you’ in the same airport and negates the possibility as highly unlikely and, therefore, highly unusual. It is Sokolow’s juxtaposition of actual and recognisable names and places with the highly unlikely scenarios she describes that make her work both engaging and thought provoking.

 

By Jessica Ransom