PICTURED: Daggi Wallace, “Eye Study #2,” 2021

by Michael Pearce

There is a specter haunting the Studio Channel Islands gallery, and it is the specter of propaganda. 

Richard Barnett, “Renewal”

Publicity slogans marketing the show claim that the exhibition “explores our differences and our commonalities,” but in reality, it is almost uniquely focused on re-stating the political agenda of the American left, and this ideological emphasis will doubtlessly alienate members of the community who do not share the socialist inclinations of the artists. The slogan E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) is the motto of the United States. It is a patriotic statement about the unity of the American people regardless of their political affiliations or sociological backgrounds, not a socialist doctrine, and it is sadly ironic that the artists have used it to describe a show which is surely destined to divide.

Richard Barnett, “Ferguson,” 2021

The bulk of the show is devoted to Richard Barnett’s painted copies of photographs snapped by people attending left-wing political rallies and demonstrations. They are busy crowd scenes painted in oils over projections, and deserve little comment for technique, and not much for content. A former Corpsman who served in Iraq, these days Barnett is an anti-war activist and woke propagandist. A pair of two long oil paintings of soldiers training, one titled “Persistence and Pain,” the other “Morning Run,” are the most dramatic of his paintings, but any thoughts they might inspire of the virtues of national service or military sacrifice are deliberately contrasted with one of Kerstin Zilm’s short inspirational poems printed large onto the wall, punctuating the paintings with a call to march for collectivist causes, and praise for those who raise the fist of egalitarian unity which is the international salute of supporters of Marx’s violent revolution.

Richard Barnett, “Vegetarian Mecca,” 2021

Art and activism have been tied together with an umbilical cord since the French Revolution, when Henri de Saint-Simon insisted that artists should be in service to the socialist cause. For over 200 years, propagandists have attempted to make art the dogmatic servant of collectivism, and for 200 years artists have preferred the calls of imagination, freedom and individuality. Some artists have a foot in each camp, like the third participant in the show, Daggi Wallace, who is a highly skilled and sophisticated figurative pastel painter, whose work is loaded with individual style, which can only develop after years of solitary studio practice. While she is an enthusiastic propagandist for the left, she is subtly imaginative in her egalitarian messaging, and her paintings are those of an admirable connoisseur of traditional pastel and watercolor technique. Despite its title, her “We all Bleed Red” is an excellent series of small graphite head studies of individuals, immigrants and citizens, each precisely drawn in painting pastels, charcoal and scarlet ink, all very affordable to first-time collectors and well worth the investment. Her work merits a visit to the exhibit, even if you don’t share the artist’s politics.

E Pluribus Unum on exhibit through May 28 at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 E. Ventura Blvd., Camarillo, 805-383-1368,  studiochannelislands.org.