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Artistic Protest

‘Scoundrels’ Exhibit Opens

When most people comment on artist John Aaron’s satirical exhibit “Beware the Ides of March,” now showing at the Zenith Gallery, the reactions are rarely ambivalent.

“They are either primarily in agreement or they want to punch him,” said Zenith spokeswoman Nancy Tucker, adding that the gallery is known for its provocativeness.

Subtitled “The Pantheon of Scoundrels,” the collection includes 17 politically oriented pieces — viciously skewering Bush administration officials, corrupt CEOs and the collusion of faith and war in American life.

The pieces, several of which are reliefs in the della Robbia style — a form of religious pottery popular during the Italian Renaissance — are meant to express Aaron’s disgust with a U.S. administration he believes hides behind a shield of “God and country.”

In “St. CEO #1: The Explanation,” a figure with a formless head bearing an eery resemblance to a scrambled elephant gazes out under the motto, “Patron Saint of Theft and Greed.” In “Don…Chill…,” an insidious looking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld juts out from a backdrop of a desert, dotted with oil derricks and plumes of smoke, under the foreboding phrase: “Not One, Not Two, But Three Fronts.” Other pieces touch on Afghanistan, the Columbia shuttle tragedy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of Aaron’s porcelain sculptures also use applied objects such as Barbie doll legs, dimes and silverware — a common feature in pop art, explained Suzanne Alessi of the Zenith Gallery.

While the vast majority of Americans have rallied around the flag in the face of U.S. military action against Iraq, the 50-year-old Aaron, a former Vietnam War protester, questions the independence of their views, asserting, “As of late, America has been ordered to think a certain way.”

However, he said he remains supportive of U.S. troops and prays for them often.

Zenith Gallery owner Margery Goldberg brushed off the suggestion that Aaron’s irreverent depictions might be inappropriate given the nation’s forces are now engaged in a major conflict.

“There’s a huge tradition of political statement in art,” said Goldberg. “Art is the emotional history of our time,” she added, noting that she supported removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Aaron, who is based out of his Modern Arf studio and gallery in Arlington, Va., is an accomplished artist whose pieces are displayed in collections all over the world, from Denver to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He points to the anti-war tradition evident in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and Robert Arneson’s series of works exploring nuclear war as the inspiration for the current exhibit.

Indeed, the show’s “Ides of March” title refers to the day Julius Caesar was murdered in the Roman Senate — March 15 — which is also the date the exhibit opened. The significance of the date is not lost on Aaron. It is, he says, a day which presages ominous happenings on the horizon.

“I don’t think this country has a clear mandate to do this,” he said. “Whether the American public wants to agree with me or not, we all have the right to agree or disagree.”

“Beware the Ides of March: The Pantheon of Scoundrels” runs through April 30 at the Zenith Gallery, 413 Seventh St. NW, near the Navy Memorial. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday; from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon to 7 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

All pieces in the show are for sale.

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