Ruthann Godollei, DeWitt Wallace Professor of Art, says she has never lived in a worse political climate than that of the present.
“It is not just one errant leader, or a set of craven elected office-holders; it is a corrosive cultural climate raining fire, gleeful at causing others pain,” she said.
Godollei has been a prolific voice in the art as activism community for many years. She makes art that encourages thought and discussion on provocative topics. Last Friday, Jan. 26, Godollei opened the exhibit “Hellmouth” in Macalester’s Law Warschaw Gallery.
“The hellmouth is a medieval motif in art, but it’s also in other cultures besides European ones where there’s a monster whose mouth is the entryway to hell,” Godollei said. “It can also lure you down to damnation. It’s the idea that this horrible speech and behavior is opening the jaws to hell, is allowing fascism to rise again. It’s the form of hate speech from the current administration.”
Godollei’s exhibit features antique circus imagery inspired by the work of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch and the Mexican printer José Guadalupe Posada. Both artists used the hellmouth motif to depict people’s poor treatment of each other. Godollei uses the hellmouth in her exhibit to highlight the current political administration’s “big show.”
She creates a circus of her own, complete with key political figures portrayed as children’s toys and circus wagons. The largest piece in the gallery is a wagon hand-painted to look like President Trump. It has tiki torches and 75 yards of red, satin ribbon acting as the tongue, on which Godellei has printed dozens of his most popular tweets, such as “stable genius” and “little rocket man.” Drawing inspiration from American showman P.T. Barnum, who once stole Jumbo the Elephant from the London Zoo and paraded him down Broadway Avenue, Godollei created four elephants who pull his wagon. These elephants represent Republican politicians’ embrace of his behavior and the catalyzation of bigoted actions.
Above the wagon hangs orange pennant flags reading “Welcome to Our Town” followed by various truths that Godollei believes American cities should be ashamed of, like “we hid the homeless for the superbowl” and “now clean water optional.”
Across the gallery are shelves of vintage toys Godollei found then refashioned with faces of Republican politicians. There’s Mitch McConnell as a beaten up dalmation toy that makes whimpering sounds when pulled and a bunny with Paul Ryan’s face that pushes a cart of screen-printed American cheese — a parody of the chairman brandishing a wedge of Gouda at an international trade hearing. Mike Pence’s face is pasted onto a crucifix-shaped spoon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is portrayed as a dog with false eyelashes and an apple pokes fun at Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Godollei believes that those in power are spreading lies and ignorance about immigrants, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, the environment, the unions and the underrepresented. In creating “Hellmouth,” she wanted to reframe the context in which words are often heard and suggest an empathetic, rather than selfish approach to policy.
“One goal is to feel solidarity with other people who feel the need to protest, another is to encourage others to take action themselves, another is to create history… a permanent record for organizing, encouragement, teaching,” Godollei said. “There’s a piece, for example, that lists all the programs up for being cut: there’s this conscious dismantling of all the gains of civil rights, social justice movements, as policies that these words create. It’s that the words coming out of this hellmouth is the emboldening of the alt-right, but also the actual policies that come out of that thought, the mindset they create.”
Jehra Patrick, Director and Curator of the Law Warschaw Gallery, recognizes the risks associated with hosting such a politically charged exhibit.
“There’s risk in presenting any work [that] has a strong message,” Patrick said. “It’s important for galleries to take risks and invest in artists who document our current moment in history. If you look back throughout history, there has been artistic documentation of outrage, upset, rebellion and political differences. In our catalog, for example, writer Sheila Regan recalls back on World War II-era artist, Käthe Kollwitz, who depicted the impoverished bystanders of war, or someone like Mauricio Lasansky, who depicted the Nazis through a series of grotesque drawings. These documented moments in history through the eyes of artists.”
While much of the Macalester community values the expression of political discourse and welcomes the challenge of objectionable thought, Patrick points out the strong possibility of attracting criticism.
“Ruthann… is documenting this historic moment, when a large faction of our population is upset by the spoken words and policies of our current president and his administration,” she said. “We haven’t received criticism, but this is a bipartisan city, and campus, and… it’s possible that this exhibition could be met with criticism — any exhibition can, and most do. A good exhibition ignites conversation and a thoughtful gallery encourages it!”
Patrick is also passionate about making sure artists and activists continue to be heard.
“I think galleries (museums, presenting organizations), as leaders in their field, have a commitment to advocacy on behalf of the work of artists,” she said. “As public platforms, often with institutional support and broad audiences, it is important to leverage that visibility for good. Our role is to create a space for artists’ voices… rather than say the show is somehow activating the political leanings of the gallery. Our role is to support artists, like Ruthann, and ensure that their work is made public and their ideas remain uncensored.”
Godollei views her role as an artist as one with a clear purpose.
“My idea is that sometimes humor is an effective tool to get a message across and that for some artists, their job is to promote the beautiful or the good, and for me, my job is to critique and expose,” she said. “And that’s my position from the art world, and I’m trying to use it to my ability to bring about social change that I think is needed.”
“Hellmouth” will be open until March 4, and a public discussion with Godollei and fellow printmakers from the community will be held on Thursday, March 1, from 7-9 p.m. in the Law Warschaw Gallery.