Flagging Power questioning the authority of a symbol
by John McKinnon
The diametrically opposed political parties in the country of America stand out today as much as ever. Whether Republican or Democratic, one can feel the split. Artist Joel Ross, in his show titled A Place Some People Call America, bluntly pointed to the fact that many citizens are aware of this split but feel conflicted in their chosen affiliations. By weaving in symbols such as our national flag, Ross juxtaposes potent images and text to voice a view of America that invites others to take a stance. His work references televised scenes of the President with text like “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned across the screen behind him.Ross’ messages modify those kinds of familiar slogans and bring up their conflict with known social sym bols. As a result, the show functions as a powerful gauge of today’s split political atmosphere.
His exhibition at Chicago’s Monique Meloche Gallery, which ran through November 12, engaged passersby with its front window. In it sat a large lightbox fitted with the American flag; a text across the top of it read “World Famous.” The country has definitely made its world presence known through recent actions, and Ross reiterates this. Acknowledging the nation’s notoriety, his statement then begs the question of whether or not America’s reputation is positive. One may have become self-conscious when faced with Ross’ flag, and may no longer be able to see it as an innocuous, domestic decoration, but rather as a catalyst for asking questions about America’s worldly role and responsibilities.
After that powerful message, one entered the exhibition to find a mirroring lightbox with Iraqi flag displaying the text “Now Open.” This piece obviously and quickly recalls the present war in Iraq, and every misstep that the U.S. has faced along the way. The word “open” could be interpreted as a suggestion of success, or as an acknowledgement of the challenging beginnings of a new government. Either way, the immediacy of the bold texts that Ross presents on the two juxtaposed flags confronts today’s political events directly.
His exhibition continued with 22 works on paper of American flags with small imperfections. The flags are not characterized by the bold lettering of the lightbox, but upon close examination convey an equally provocative message. Ross states, “They are replicas of flags I’ve burned.” Each drawing serves as documentation of an actual flag that he desecrated in a simple, private act of defiance. Part of Ross’ quiet protest is the replication of the flags on paper and the delicately scrawled message at the bottom of that paper. While each of these works is written proof of his flag burning performance, he also took great care to paint them (though he is not a painter). After representing his contempt for a changing symbol of patriotism in America, Ross recreates it and gives rebirth to the defiled symbol.
During a torn period of America’s history, Ross has the courage to let his position be known. Through his confrontational messages, he asks others to question the ideals of our nation. While the experience of Ross’ reflection on America may be a rude wake-up call to some, it is only a reminder to others. Such an ambitious exhibition acts as a place marker for today’s fragile political climate.