Friskics-Warren, Bill. “Tucker Neel explores how political iconography shapes our individual and collective identities,” The Tennessean, September 28, 2008. 



For his new show, Monuments to the Pres(id)ent, Los Angeles artist Tucker Neel curated an assortment of 18th-century prints from the collection of Snow Gallery and then responded to them with works of his own. Fascinated with how memory and memorabilia shape individual and collective consciousness, Neel used things such as political cartoons and images of national monuments to create drawings, prints and installations. The works provide commentary on how political iconography shapes our sense of who we are and what matters to us.

Along with his solo exhibition at Snow Gallery, which opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Neel will be the first artist-in-residence at the James E. Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University this fall. Collaborating with faculty and students, he will create a limited edition print on the replica of an 18th-century printing press at The Stones River Press.

My art practice investigates the memorializing impulses underpinning personal and national attempts to solidify both individual and collective memory in a material form. My work attempts to ask what makes events, people and ideas memorable and unchanging. I utilize project-specific media, primarily drawing, sculpture, video, installation and the Internet, to highlight and transform the unrecognized, overlooked and spontaneous traces of memory left behind by human experience. I am fascinated by the rehearsed texts, hidden objects, lapses in judgment, jumbled narratives and creases in history that implore us to remember, and allow us to forget, how we got to the present time in the first place.

For this exhibition, I was invited by Snow Gallery to curate a selection of prints from their extensive collection and then make work in response to these choices. After much consideration, I selected two distinct groups of work by seemingly disparate artists, William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).

I became fascinated with Hogarth's An Election Entertainment series, a fantastic suite of etchings lambasting the corruption of politicians and the gullibility of a voting populace. These works are bubbling over with ludicrously debauched figures imbibing, politicking and cavorting in extreme, almost inconceivable situations. They are not picture-perfect renditions, but some of the first examples of political cartoons. And like all political cartoons, they stem from an unabashed desire to subjectively depict the politics of the present — in this case, Hogarth's present.

After researching Piranesi's practice, I discovered that his astoundingly detailed renderings of crumbling Roman architecture were often faked, that the vistas in his pictures were collages of different sites, crammed together in pleasing, yet impossible, pairings. During the 18th century, his work provided wealthy European tourists the most popular vision of the Roman Empire, a time revered by travelers immersed in their own colonial and imperial ambitions. It struck me that Piranesi's monuments derive sentimental and political import from a place that, like in Hogarth's work, is imagined and cobbled together from subjective interpretations.

Creating work inspired by these great printmakers gave me license to play with my own imagined take on the present political environment, reassemble the accoutrements perennially associated with political campaigns and the office of the presidency.

While the individual works . . . are admittedly heterogeneous in both form and content, they each evince an imagined, fantastical or subjective take on questions of party ideology, allegiance, leadership and historical uncertainty. Sometimes subjects overlap, sometimes they don't. Some work calls attention to an impossible situation contextualized by a political reality. Others mine the easily understood lexicon of nationalist memorials and monuments, reworking these objects' implied meanings. Select works also explore the nightmare/fantasy oscillation that accompanies campaigning for/against candidates and the anticipation and anxiety about the future attendant to this devotion.

This exhibition doesn't attempt to make a statement for or against a particular candidate or party, but instead provides a springboard for a dispersed conversation about how we hope and fear, remember and forget, discuss and remain silent, come together and alienate ourselves as participants, both willing and unwilling, in a politically charged environment that is fragile, that makes up and re-imagines its history as it goes along.

— INTERVIEW BY BILL FRISKICS-WARREN, STAFF WRITER
Tucker Neel