At the Fuller Craft Museum, the art of politics
The Boston Globe
By Cate McQuaid
Published 05/23/2016

BROCKTON — One person’s art may be another person’s propaganda.

An example: “Creep,” Melissa Maddonni Haims’s installation in “The Faces of Politics: In/Tolerance,” now at the Fuller Craft Museum through Aug. 21. Haims memorializes children killed by gun violence in the United States in 2015, crocheting a ball for each one; the total came to nearly 3,000.

They’re not all here — that would overwhelm the gallery — but those that are spread over the wall and around the corner like black mold. Visitors are invited to sit at a school desk where Haim has left a list of the fallen, and write one of the names on a long ribbon, which she will incorporate into another artwork. In red pen, I recorded the name of Honesty Jackson, 11.

“Creep” hit me in the gut with its sheer numbers, and the grandmotherly love associated with crochet. I favor gun control, and I wondered, what would I think if I stood on the other side of the Second Amendment divide?

“The Faces of Politics: In/Tolerance” is perfectly timed. In the last couple of years, civil rights issues have been in the forefront: race and police brutality, immigration, gay marriage, and now transgender people in public bathrooms. Plus, it’s a wild election year.

Political art’s challenge is to complicate polarized debates, not to stand on one side hectoring. This show, curated by Bruce D. Hoffman, director of Gravers Lane Gallery, in Pennsylvania, succeeds largely because the work is provocative but not one-dimensional. “Creep” has a powerful cumulative effect; its furtive expansion looks ominous even before you know what it’s about, yet it’s cozy, alluring.

Legendary bead artist Joyce J. Scott packs her magnificent and outrageous “Lynched Tree” with mystery. The title, calls out America’s history of racism, and Scott strings a glistening beaded woman upside down with her insides spilling out. There’s no tree, but glass branches scatter around her.

The figure is flayed, overturned, and gutted, yet it’s jewel-like, brilliant and glistening. The work bemoans violence — against blacks, against women — but there’s also an unexpected glow of triumph about it. The woman has brought the tree down with her, and with it all the physical and metaphorical support required for a lynching.

Often in the presence of violence and violent speech, people stand by, silent. It’s called the bystander effect. Korean artist June Lee’s poignant, sharp “Witness (And Then There Were None)” features heads clad in satiny gray fabric, with brilliantly covered hands popping against the gray, covering eyes, mouth, or ears.

“Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” is an old saw, usually portrayed with three monkeys, and easy to make into ham-handed, preachy poster art. Lee gives us a larger group, underlining the social pressure of silence. We may think of the violence at Trump rallies, or of the thundering silence spurred by oppression in North Korea. Or of the last time we didn’t speak up.

On a lighter note, Amy Orr’s “House of Cards” has a literal title: She cut up credit cards, health insurance cards, AAA cards, and more, and joined the shards together in plastic marquetry to build a dollhouse. I first thought she had just used credit cards to make a point about runaway debt, which would have added another twist to the title. Employing all kinds of cards, she drives home the social and commercial links that are the foundations of our lives.

Humor goes a long way in Marcia Docter’s piece decrying President George W. Bush’s war on terror, although the art was made just last year. Docter takes the hardest stance in the show, calling out real politicians.

Her exquisitely embroidered cartoon characters in “‘And those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music,’ Friedrich Nietzsche. The Axis of Evil was not dancing . . .” includes Catwoman and four dogs from mid-20th-century comics and illustrations, lampooning Bush and his national security team.

I laughed out loud, seeing Vice President Dick Cheney identified as a smug bulldog in a spiked collar. It’s not just the satire that makes this punchy piece hit home. Historically, embroidery was the busy work of well-to-do ladies who stitched patterns and homilies, not angry dogs, vampy villains, and politicians.

Similarly, Russell Biles mimics Staffordshire porcelain figurines, only his don’t depict pink-cheeked hunters and fairytale characters. Biles renders his memories of the tensions integrating schools in the South during the Civil Rights era. There was one black child in his first grade class, six in his sixth-grade class. In “Baby, Baby It’s a White World (First Grade),” a little black girl has a Dick and Jane book on her desk. Everything is white, from the characters in her book to the chair she sits in. She alone is not.

“The Faces of Politics: In/Tolerance” may anger some, and the museum acknowledges that; press materials include a “Freedom of Speech Commitment.” The show’s larger message isn’t about any particular issue. It’s this: When fear shapes society, people end up dismissed, hurt, and killed. Art helps us to see and understand fear.