It's 7:30 p.m., and I'm standing in line outside the packed PAS Gallery. There are 22 people ahead of me, waiting excitedly to see "Art With an Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas." Within five minutes, there are 20 people standing behind me.
I've never had to wait in line to see an exhibit in Orange County. That the crowd—concerned citizens, children, bluehairs and hipsters, among others—is there to see artwork instigated by the tragic life and brutal death of Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by Fullerton police, is an extraordinary thing.
The gallery's opening salvo is a powerful one: Using the harrowing black-and-white surveillance video of the beating as inspiration, John M. Sollom* (who co-curated with Stephan Baxter) has painted a series of small canvases, titled Stations of the Cross. Aside from the questionable religious title (more about that later), the murky confrontation between the mentally ill man and the aggressive officers moving silently toward a horrific ending quickly sets the tone. Andrea Bersaglieri also confronts the viewer with her modest work, Kelly and Anonymous Kelly. Variations on the same portrait of a young Thomas, with a large square obscuring his face in the latter, as viewers move from one picture to the other, their faces are reflected in the glass over the blank square. Using a completely different tact is Abraham Acosta's painting Ragdoll, awash in a pensive Van Gogh blue, with its subtle image of a toy missing an eye, the tiny face swollen and bandaged offering an unexpected poignancy.
"Art With An Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas" at PAS Gallery, www.2pas.org. Open every Thurs., 1-5 p.m. Through July 26. Free.
If you've had the misfortune of watching the beating on YouTube or elsewhere, one of the most distressing things you'll hear is Thomas crying out for his father to help him. Ron Thomas wasn't present when his son was Tasered, kicked and pummeled with a flashlight, but someone calling for help to an unhearing father figure is echoed in the most moving picture in the show (and one that had me catch my breath to keep from crying), untitled and without the artist identified on the night I attended: A blown-up photograph of clouds in the sky with the words Dad! Dad! Dad! Photoshopped over them.
Susan Olsen's graphic Still Life takes a cop cliché—the doughnut—and succinctly turns it on its head by setting it on the ground in a pool of blood, illuminated only by a dropped flashlight. Equally strong is a photograph of a pair of hands pulling on rubber gloves in Christian Fuhrer's Now See My Fists? Bathed in a red-orange glow reminiscent of the light bar on a squad car, it feels intensely violent without showing a single drop of blood.
Much has been made about some of the in-your-face work in the exhibition, but if you've been to more than one art gallery during your lifetime, you've probably seen worse. The use of Thomas' brutalized face as art (Ricardo E. Gonsalves' Sadistic Desire, for example) is questionable to my mind, void of subtext as it is, but far worse is the poverty of imagination involved. With many of the artists reveling in reactionary "shocking" images of policemen as pigs—grotesque cops clutching celebratory hard-ons as they transform into pigs and encircle a forlorn Thomas; severed pig heads; "pigtraits" of Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, the two officers due to stand trial for Thomas' death, as scowling porkers; Rene Cardona's porcine beret-wearing, club-wielding Fascist—what's most head-shakingly pathetic is that these artists aren't offering any insight.
If an artist portrays the target of his ire in a reductive way as some thing lower than himself—an animal commonly (and incorrectly) associated with shit and stupidity—what makes his world-view all that better than that of the public servants who blatantly disregarded the humanity of their victim? The flip side of this is the equally moronic idea that homeless people are universally beatific angels, murdered by a society that destroys the saintly. While only a couple of artists falls prey to this, there are still far too many Christlike images of Thomas, dressed in white or with the suggestion of a halo. It's cheap and ridiculous—and too easy. Sentimentalizing mental illness and homelessness is just another tactic to push the uncomfortable away from us, letting us off the hook while simultaneously robbing those on the street of their fragile humanity. Fervency and passion (for justice or revenge) may explain the two extremes, but it doesn't excuse them. It also doesn't make good art.
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Kelly Thomas deserves better.
This review appeared in print as "Piggish: Art exhibit dedicated to Kelly Thomas has some good pieces, but others lack true insight."
* Mr. Sollom's name was misspelled in the original story.