It's no surprise, then, that the work of politically charged artist Hunter Levinsohn is currently on display on the walls of Carrboro's Town Hall. This isn't your normal office art; it isn't landscapes or even Georgia O'Keefe blossoms. These handful of mixed media works, put up to mark the Fourth of July, are about as razor-edged as you'll find, biting at the Bush administration and blind patriotism.
There's "Fairway, Fair Way," a black and red U.S. flag on a checkerboard of images of racial strife and civil rights warriors. For a more pointed piece, there's "Bush's Bomb Bag," a hanging lantern of a picture of President Bush's determined war face. It's stuffed with toy rockets underneath and a single warhead on top, draped in images of John Ashcroft, Bush and Tom Ridge. The price listed to the side reads, "You can't afford this one, none of us can!" Ridge gets his own with "Security Alert Purse with Tom Ridge Paper Doll & Six Outfits."
There's "Ice Nine Exists," a shout-out to Kurt Vonnegut, that's a chilly chrome flag with red-alert pictures of explosive warfare below. "Cutest" of all is "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," a yarn and cotton bag with felt sheep's ears surrounding the visage of Bush. Inside are various political newspaper clippings, cartoons and quotes; the top selection is from Julius Caesar: "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a doubled edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind."
The work isn't always that hard, as in "Flag 7," an oil painting of Old Glory on a beaten tin roof. It's Dust Bowl--defiantly, wearily patriotic.
But one piece proved too daring even for Carrboro, and is responsible for stirring up recent controversy. "Trying to Make Black and White Out of the Red, White and Blue" features an American flag with a swastika of stars. In a statement on Levinsohn's site, she describes the work as, ... a protest against the flag amendment the first Bush administration was attempting to push through the Congress. The flag is a symbol of American freedom and justice," she says. "This amendment to the Constitution seemed to be an assault on our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The use of the American flag design with the stars in the shape of the swastika was intended as a protest against the proposed flag amendment."
But after receiving complaints while Mayor Mike Nelson was out of town, Mayor Pro Tem Alex Zaffron removed the work, and others, from the exhibit. "If the artist could be here to explain the concept for the piece to everyone who bristles when they see the swastika, that would be great," explained Zaffron in a press release. "She can't be though, so we removed the disturbing pieces." In a release about the removal of the work, Nelson had this to say: "This is the strongest art exhibit we've had to date in Town Hall. Some of the pieces are cute and sweet, some are angry and critical. What is truly poignant about the show is that the artist succeeds in exploring the meaning of patriotism, through the symbolism of our flag, in a way that both reaffirms our patriotism and challenges us to ask tough questions."
Nelson, himself, hung the piece in question on his office wall, with a statement of explanation. Carrboro officials have also rallied behind the piece, noting that artist Levinsohn is Jewish. Levinsohn insists the piece isn't about the swastika or what the Nazi symbol stands for, but that the work means to remind viewers of America's civil liberties--that the right to put up a swastika should not be forgotten. The one piece not done by Levinsohn, and the largest piece in the exhibit, is the one most people seem to overlook. It's a giant paper flag from Carrboro's celebrated Fourth of July bash, with dozens of children's traced handprints and sweetly familial, patriotic messages scrawled across it. For any taken aback by Levinsohn's work, this piece colors the rest in a far more benign light.
Carrboro's patriotism is, if anything, reaffirmed by the exhibit's willingness to question the endurance of civil liberties and emotions for America. It is, of course, the right and duty of Americans to question the government. At Carrboro's Town Hall, that's not just writing on the walls.
The work will be on display until Sept. 15 at the Carrboro Town Hall, 301 West Main Street, Chapel Hill. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ("Trying to Make Black and White Out of the Red, White and Blue" will be reinstalled for one night, on Sept. 11, from 5-7:30 p.m., in the Town Hall board room, for the closing reception of the exhibit.) For images from Levinsohn's work, visit www.hunterlevinsohn.com.