In honor of our intriguing upcoming production Caught (August 17 – September 18), our theme at the Hub this week is SECRET ART. Today we’re looking at five of our favorite contemporary artworks that contain secretly embedded political messages. Enjoy!
1. Yang Yongliang’s Viridescence series (2014)
Yang Yongliang is a young Chinese artist, trained in traditional calligraphy. At first glance, his 2014 collection of digital artworks, titled Viridesence, appear to be serene landscapes in the classic Chinese style, complete with iridescent green mountains and hovering mist. However, when you zoom into the image, you discover that the paintings are actually composite digital images of modern China – the jagged cliffs are made up of skyscrapers, telephone lines and construction rubble.
The political thrust of Viridescence is pretty self-evident: Yongliang is making a powerful statement about the destruction of the Chinese natural environment in favor of aggressive urbanization and superfluous construction. “The development of our cities is at the expense of nature,“ Yang says. “Modern life is comfortable and convenient, but we rarely think about what we exchange for that.” Check out his amazing Viridesence series here.
2. Nelson Shank’s Bill Clinton Portrait (2006)
In 2006, portraitist Nelson Shank admitted that he had included a secret reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal in his official White House portrait for Bill Clinton. Shank explained that the shadow cast on the mantlepiece behind Clinton was actually shaped like Lewinsky’s infamous dress. With this work, Shank joins the ranks of American artists who have exploited their commercial connections with the political establishment in order to create political art (check out our earlier hub post here about Jill Greenberg’s controversial Portraits of John McCain).
3. Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller of the Universe (1934)
For the newly built Rockefeller Center, wealthy magnate Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural titled Man at the Crossroads. However, he did not anticipate that Rivera’s mural would include a heroic depiction of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin.
Rockefeller quickly had the mural destroyed, so Rivera repainted it in Mexico City. In the new version, Rivera added not only a larger image of Lenin, but also a hidden insult to Rockefeller. In the upper left hand corner of the mural, Rivera placed a portrait Rockefeller’s father next to a seemingly innocuous series of scientific symbols. However, the bacterial cell directly above Rockefeller Snr. is actually syphilis; a subtle jab at his infamous womanizing.
4. Wangechi Mutu’s Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies (2005)
Wangechi Mutu’s fantastical collage art often contains encoded political messages in the physical textures of her materials. In “Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies,” Mutu creates a phantasmic image of a woman and child from a wide range of texts and images, including Victorian medical illustrations, fashion magazine cutouts, and painted-on reptilian skin. While the image itself is surreal and equivocal, it is Mutu’s materials that endow the work with political resonance, evoking her potent themes of cross-racialism, objectification of the female body, and social injustice in the African diaspora.
5. Yuki Katsura’s Teiko (1952)
Katsura’s “Teiko” (“Resistance”) is generally considered to be a commentary on the Subversive Activities Prevention Law, one which curtailed political activism in Japan following the Bloody May Day riots of 1952. This hidden political message only emerges, however, when the painting is turned 90 degrees. As it was exhibited, Teiko seemingly depicts three subjects: an impassive face, a person clinging to a bird’s leg and a crab. However when the painting is turned, it looks dramatically different. The human subject appears to be screaming as the crab pulls his or her long hair, a powerful iconographic statement against the Japanese government’s suppression of personal liberty.