Bozo’s Post-Modern Shrapnel: Artists React to Election Year With Machine Gun in the Clown’s Hand

by Rachel Jones

Pierce Williams’ Hillcrest apartment is littered with endeavors. A monstrous, metallic robot towers in the corner-a vaguely menacing example of Pierce’s work. The red and green walls are decorated in a sort of stalker nouveau, haphazardly pasted over with clippings, posters, stickers, and art. They’re all mementos from the people Pierce is obsessed with-the artists he represents.

Pierce founded Radioactive Future and Funerals of Distinction almost five years ago. It’s a singular artists’ collective, divided into two separate websites because of the large number of artists involved. Twenty-seven have current work posted on the sites.

Pierce prioritizes regional talent, and has turned away nationally acclaimed artists in favor of those closer to home. Many live in the nearby neighborhoods of North Park, South Park, Logan Heights, and Golden Hill. If Pierce, the curator was not also a pacifist, there are some people depicted on his walls he might be inclined to ritualistically do away with. Our current president, for example, whom, Pierce is quick to argue, was “not democratically elected.” Members of Bush’s family and administration are also in the crosshairs. “I’ve always had a strong political undercurrent that has permeated what I’ve done, ” Pierce explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a show that hasn’t had at least one political piece in it. Even if I have to sneak it in, it’s gonna be there.” This being a year for kissing babies, Pierce was eager to curate a show that contributed in a more creative manner than, say, decorating their front lawn with poster propaganda for their favorite candidate. So, along with Radioactive Future artists Yoni Laos, Pierce complied a full-on political art exhibit featuring the work of fourteen artists, eleven of which are local.

If the event had a keynote speaker, it might be Al Franken. It’s doubtful Bill O’Reilly or Bernard Goldberg would pencil this one into their Palm Pilots. The title, Machine Gun in the Clown’s Hand, is taken from a spoken-word album by Jello Biafra, the former vocalist for political punk band The Dead Kennedys. In Pierce’s version, photos, oil paintings, and silkscreen prints explore current and historical political issues, such as Bush’s close ties with corporate America or the scandal at Abu Ghraib. In his work, collage artist Jason Sherry draws parallels between our current state and the Red Scare.

As one might guess (or as Linda Rondstadt might tell you), Machine Gun in the Clown’s Hand is bound to be a controversial show. Two different spaces backed out of hosting the exhibit, and the opening date has been pushed back numerous times. As Pierce explains, “I’ve been very fortunate in a way, because I’ve had many trials and tribulations setting up this show, and the timing worked out pretty good. It was a complete accident-maybe a little bit of karma-that it worked out so well.” Despite the difficulties in securing a host site, Pierce refused to give up. It’s important, he says, to not only facilitate discussion of the political issues, but also to add validity to an art form that’s often marginalized.

“Probably my favorite kind of art is political art, and I believe as a medium, it’s not understood very well, for lack of a better term, ” says Pierce. “People tend to… dismiss it as a political cartoon or think it’s basically a glorified demo banner or something. And one thing that I’m hoping to accomplish with Machine Gun in the Clown’s Hand is to show people how diverse political art can be-it’s not a one-dimensional medium.” He also hopes that people attending the show will gain a new appreciation for San Diego’s underground art scene.

“With contemporary art, especially underground art, it’s always going to be difficult to get unanimous acceptance,” he says. “There’s always going to be some people who look down on a piece that’s done on a pallet instead of a nice, framed canvas., But to me, there’s more purity, there’s more honesty, and there’s more depth of feeling on that pallet than most of the things I see on canvases…This is much more interesting. I live with it every day and it never gets boring. That’s the stuff that I can look at every day, and that’s what this city has produced. The thing about the underground art culture in San Diego-and it’s such a strong, vibrant scene when you find it-is that you’re amazed that you didn’t know about it. It’s almost this weird kind of secret, a little bedroom community. But once you’re in it, that’s it.”

When asked for their expectations of the show, Pierce and Laos say they have the standard hopes-to initiate discussion and heated debate, possibly even motivate the artistic crowd to actively participate in political and social change. All good things.