Labor Pains 

Jan Hankins' dangerous politics.

On the way home from the AMUM Artlab after seeing Jan Hankins' politically charged "Out of the Janitor's Closet: A Quest for Universality," I was listening to talk radio. While the national emergency has ended partisan bickering for now in Washington, one can count on right-wing spinners not to curb their dogma one iota. One caller wondered why the NBA has not offered the country an apology, given that so many of the players have adopted Muslim names, and earlier in the day Rush tagged some well-known liberals with Arabic pet names like Mustafa and Ahmed. At this writing, there have been over 40 attacks on Arab Americans and Muslim targets and one suspected death, but God forbid that these pious zealots should surrender to political correctness.

"No liberal softies on the radio," says Hankins, who is as troubled as I am that much of the media has discarded even the aspiration to objectivity (a la talk radio) and is actively courting war. I was interviewing the artist in hopes of deciphering the symbols of his ambitious installation, which is about the strata of labor and the "widening gulf between the classes." While the work was installed a couple of weeks before the terrible events of September 11th, Hankins has a heightened sense of unease, worried that his politics may not be welcomed in its aftermath.

We get the sense that the nationalistic fervor has reached such a fevered pitch that the social climate increasingly demands compliance to the prevailing bloodlust or, at the very least, quiet acquiescence. To be so bold as to speak out against war or to question authority is considered tantamount to treason. Hankins recalls wearing a black arm band on Moratorium Day during the Vietnam war, which incited some local jocks to flex in his face and taunt, "Chicken to die, chicken to die?"

An impolite sociopolitical bite has always made Hankins' paintings offbeat, but this installation, with that trademark conspiratorial bias intact, offers something extra in the autobiographical. The paintings on the wall are not discrete rectangles but fragments of pictures and objects accumulated over the years. Jumbled together on the floors and walls, each is a little masterpiece in its own right, and the amalgam is a kind of twisted mixture of Dali and Rauschenberg. Mops and rollers are bolted to the paintings, and sections of planks cover the floor and wall, spelling out "Labor" and "Money do." The individually painted planks actually spiral off the wall, unfurling as a red flag. It is a bold statement for labor solidarity and quite provocative in this political climate.

But why the janitor's closet? "Because I spend a lot of time in janitors' closets," says Hankins, whose day job is repairing and refinishing gymnasium floors. This work is derived from the artist "reconciling the different parts of my life. I have to work to survive and I likewise have to do art." Hankins is all too aware of the worth ascribed to various kinds of labor and finds it humorous that when he is on his hands and knees refinishing a gymnasium floor or painting a mascot he is treated with more dignity than when doing his own art. Despite the pro-labor rhetoric, the artist generally works alone and is unsure if he could function in a union. Thus, yet another quest for universality: "to unify my ideals with practice."

Perhaps the apprehensiveness that both Hankins and I feel in regard to his pro-labor message derives from its bitter timing, considering the injured economy and an expected 100,000 layoffs in the airline industry alone. The magnitude of suffering wrought by the violence of September 11th demonstrates the fragile interdependence of humanity.

Recently, the threat of war prompted a friend to issue an appeal against the shedding of more innocent blood, but its sentiments are applicable to the scope of human affairs. He said, "We cannot afford the god-like perspective of looking at others as a group of anonymous beings subject to our will, whose individual fates are irrelevant to the larger purpose. From my perspective as an embodied individual consciousness, my continued survival, health, happiness, and freedom are of primary importance. I believe this is true of all the other individual embodied consciousnesses living in this world. It is not too big a leap to suggest that maximizing the potential for everyone to accomplish these goals maximizes my own hopes for achieving them."

Through October 4th.

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