Rage against the machine 

Hammonds House brims with anger and defiance with two exhibitions

You want angry?

The recent Eyedrum Furious show teased but failed to deliver foaming outrage. But Our Flesh of Flames at Hammonds House Museum brings it.

As nitroglycerin-volatile as the title promises, Our Flesh of Flames is so provocative that it may be a good thing it's tucked away on a leafy, serene street in the West End.

Philadelphia artist Theodore Harris' collages and collage-based prints suggest a newspaper cut up and culture-jammed by a punk-rock revolutionary. Instead of journalistic "objectivity," there is subjective fury. It's a rage directed at a country underpinned by big money and the sedative appeals of God and country. In Harris' work, it's not Iraq that's the war zone; it's America.

Harris' repeated visual motif is the provocative image of the U.S. Capitol turned upside down like an inverted cross.

Mixed in with that vision of a country whose cherished democracy has essentially gone belly-up are images of raging fires, hooded Klansmen, Bubbas waving Confederate flags, police cracking batons on civilian heads, dripping blood, wounded American soldiers, helicopters and demolished buildings.

It's a world under siege, teetering on the brink of apocalypse. And it's not hard to figure out who's suffering the most: frightened black faces peeking out of tenement buildings, crying black children and the well-dressed man in a haunting image culled from the Civil Rights era, his pants torn by police dogs.

Some may recoil at the didacticism of Harris' imagery. The artist marries a rightfully cynical view of American history as seen through black eyes with the imprecision of extreme emotions. But such excess eventually yields diminishing returns. Like the current overuse of the slur "Nazi" to describe political opponents, some of the power of language, both visual and verbal, is lost when it becomes routine and reflex.

If Harris alone weren't firestarter enough, his work is accompanied by poems from the '60s Black Arts Movement founder and activist/poet Amiri Baraka. Baraka ignited a controversy some years back when a post-Sept. 11 poem, "Somebody Blew Up America" – which was deemed anti-Semitic – led some to demand he give up his title as the poet laureate of New Jersey.

Conjoined with Baraka's fighting words, which sound like the explosive rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, the power of Harris' imagery is undeniable. Some of his most gripping pieces are not the one-dimensional prints, but his original collages that profit from a more layered, human touch. In "Police .45 666 Shooter," a child's dime-store-gun packaging serves as the backdrop to that aforementioned Civil Rights demonstrator set upon by police dogs. The collage shows how clashing visual elements of color and black-and-white, history and consumerism can make for a far richer, more pathos-laden work.

Despite Harris and Baraka's taste for visual extremes, the fury expressed in Our Flesh of Flames is a welcome change from a larger culture of apathy. In a fascinating matchup, Hammonds House curator Kevin Sipp has juxtaposed Harris and Baraka's still-smoldering embers of radicalism with some older-school anger.

Hammonds House also plays host to a selection of posters drawn from Black Arts Movement editor and poet Joe Goncalves' collection. These politically incendiary, visually shocking works are culled from the salad days of 1960s and '70s black activism. They were also formative years for Baraka, who is eulogized in one Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas poster on display.

Many examples of Douglas' graphically stark works (also compiled in the recent Rizzoli book Black Panther: The Evolutionary Art of Emory Douglas) are included. Also featured are illustrations by Charles Bible and Larry Neal, whose works often recall Soviet socialist-realist posters but with a closer-to-home, more American brand of fury.

Bible's Jack Chick-worthy 1970 illustration of a righteous black girl toting a gun is an unshakably pointed image and distillation of an era's rage. Combined with a poem, as in the Baraka/Harris collaboration, Bible's image is loaded with narrative juice. Wondering if she should take up the pen or the firearm, the radical girl ponders, "Maybe I should not write at all but clean my gun and check my kerosene supply."

Like Chick's religious comics, these posters often merge darkness and kitsch to disorienting effect. A classic example of the clammy uncertainty many of the images inspire is a 1969 Douglas poster of a heavily armed child wearing a "Free Huey" button. With his massive, pleading eyes shedding fat Margaret Keane tears, the image suggests a Black Panther Hummel. Do you cuddle the despondent child or back away slowly? The posters' architects obviously understood the power of marrying innocence and violence – the images viscerally reject the patronizing, emasculating, mainstream culture's vision of "black."

Though the references to dashikis, "fascist pig cops," jive and the "black boogaloo" can inspire a giggle or two, just wait until the next century digs our supersized cars, porno aesthetics and garish headcheese architecture. The dated words and images are also part of the exhibition's charm. They hark back to a time when people wore their politics on their sleeves and in their "naturals." It was a time in every way unlike our own, when people expected something more.


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