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Activism on Display

Artspace's new exhibits push political ideas through an artistic strainer.

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Images of lovers kissing — open-mouthed, tongues entwined — confront the viewer upon entering the gallery. These lovers are young men, prosaically sketched in pencil and oil pastel by Pierce, who is from Richmond. Their pedestrian imagery and modest execution belie the social taboo they portray: How can anything so normal be abnormal? "Simple Equations" is about such schisms — between good and evil, darkness and light, beauty and ugliness. Its centerpiece is a set of portraits of two other young men, Russell Hen-derson and Aaron McKinney, who brutally murdered gay college student Matthew Sheppard in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.

In these large drawings, based on news photographs, the killers' faces are frozen for our scrutiny. They look belligerent, bored, bland. Do their defiant smirks signify inscrutable wickedness, or are they merely amoral simpletons? Pierce realistically renders each in a springtime palette of pale yellows, warm salmon pinks and cool blue-greens. They are handsome drawings of human monsters. We study their faces for clues — to their callous disengagement from humanity and to whatever kinship we might share with them. Pierce's only misstep is his use of blocks of printed text — "SAINTSINNER" or "SINNERSAINT" is written below each portrait — to elucidate his duality theme. Such underscoring is unnecessary and sacrifices subtlety for grandstanding.

Text is used more effectively in Block's "Human Rights Painting Project," a touring exhibit of the Washington, D.C., artist's portraits of activists, political prisoners and refugees, co-sponsored by civil rights advocacy group Amnesty International. Here, biographical placards augment the images, telling the story of each subject. Some, like Gandhi or Chinese dissident Wei JingSheng, are well known, but most depict unknown men and women — victims of war, displacement and despotic regimes from Burma, Iran, Colombia and other global trouble spots. The United States, incidentally, is not spared: "Shaka Sankofa" portrays a black Texan executed for murder in 2000 despite widespread doubt about his guilt when his final appeal was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush. The accompanying caption reminds us that the U.S. is the only NATO nation that still practices capital punishment.

The paintings themselves are executed in an expressionistic style that evokes nearly every modern figurative painter of significance from de Kooning to Kokoschka. This backward-looking, hodgepodge style identifies Block — a liberal Jew interested in spirituality as well as politics — as an unreconstructed modernist, committed to beauty, humanist values and changing the world with art. He describes himself in interviews as a fierce anti-elitist who hopes his work will reach a mass audience.

Block's mission is noble, and one that has garnered attention from a broad sector of the public. But formally the work is uneven. Some of the smaller paintings seem cramped and reveal too readily their flat, photographic sources. But with room to breathe the results can be spectacular. "Rivera Kalenzo" portrays a woman who fled civil-war-torn Burundi for a refugee camp in Tanzania after four of her children were killed. She stands in a tall, asymmetrical composition — hands folded, face tilted, grim eyes meeting ours. But a dazzling red, gold and green palette and riotous Matisse-like patterning on her garment are more joyful than tragic.

Strube, also a Richmonder, revisits Pierce's kissing theme. Yet her digital prints — small, tightly wound works that pack densely layered curvilinear forms into bright, carnival-colored compositions — are distinctly apolitical. Carefree and delightful, they evoke every necking teenager's favorite pastime with intricately superimposed ribbon, balloon, and liplike shapes. Like Block's, Strube's work is partly rooted in the past. But Strube's work is more playful than its modernist predecessors, and its lightness of touch and meaning end a dynamic show on a gentle note. S

"Simple Equations," "Human Rights Painting Project" and "Kisses" are on display at Artspace Gallery in the Plant Zero complex at 0 East Fourth St. through Aug. 1.

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