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In The Arts: Politics as usual blurs fiction and reality

Unless you are boycotting the world and everything that is happening out in it, you likely know that we, here in the U.S., are in the middle of a presidential election campaign season. The reminders are everywhere: visuals on the TV, sound waves from the radio, bumper stickers in traffic, buttons on lapels, signs spotting the landscape. Even one of the candidates noted that he was getting tired of hearing himself "approve this message." There is no escape.

Enter John James Anderson, an installation artist whose "interdisciplinary" work uses software, video, painting and unconventional tools to make a statement about what is happening in the world, and in the case of his current solo show at McDaniel's Rice Gallery, that would be "Politics as Usual."

As you approach the gallery, you might think you're headed for a political rally, not an art exhibit. Candidates' signs fill the lawn in front of Peterson Hall. But look closer and you'll notice that the names, while not those of any current candidates, are, nevertheless, quite familiar, like William Mitchell, and Andrew Shepherd. You've heard them before, and perhaps even remember their campaign slogans from somewhere. But where?

Once inside, the full title of the show, which puts "Acting Presidential:" in front of the "Politics as Usual" tips you off. As you walk from poster to political poster, you notice Kevin Kline as William Mitchell, Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, James Earl Jones as Douglass Dilman, actors all who were acting presidential. And suddenly Anderson's installation becomes quite thought provoking. Are all of our politicians merely actors? Is there any difference between the fictional and the real, between the scripts and the truth?

In the center of the room is an old fashioned metal ballot box, wired shut for security, a slot in the top for receiving secret choices. Directly behind stands what passes for a voting booth today in which you can stand and vote for any of the fictional candidates using a punch card butterfly ballot. Once I figured out the confusing ballot, I ended up with a "hanging chad" (for which the booth instructions told me to check). Hhhmmmmm.

On the surrounding walls, canvases full of "Empty Rhetoric" comment on the political process, with such observations as "This is little more than political theater" and "The American people are tired of their elected leaders playing politics."

The impact of this work might be enhanced in a smaller space where the sense of inescapability would be heightened, the message more in your face. No matter. Walk through, get familiar with the candidates, listen to the rhetoric, and by all means vote. It may take a day or so before it all makes sense.

Then don't forget to do it all again in the real world, in November.

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