Art takes a noir look at modern politics

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What started off as an exhibition exploring the impact of the film noir genre has developed into an investigation into its political undertones. 

Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos Community College debuted its show “Noir: Defining the Melodrama” on Feb. 1. It was the product of two years of planning, initially intended, as director and curator Juanita Lanzo put it, to “mix art with popular culture.” 

“Film noir’s a little more elusive in terms of how you define it,” she said. 

But two years later, as the exhibition opened against the backdrop of a Donald Trump presidency and protesters rallying for the defense of civil rights, there is a different interpretation waiting to be unpacked. 

“I think [the show’s tone is] going to feel more pessimistic now with this government,” she said. “I think artists responded with how they felt and now their fears, their anxieties, their accomplishments, what they feel is important to them is going to be highlighted because it’s in disagreement with the administration.”

Noir is best known as a genre of film that tells melodramatic crime stories with defining characters such as a protagonist detective and an alluring femme fatale. It was popular in the early 1940s to the late 1950s with films such as The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.

An open call to artists was sent out in October of last year, a month before the presidential election, according to Lanzo. Out of the 41 artists who submitted pieces, 26 were selected to grace the gallery space with multimedia art that included classic interpretations of the film genre, political statements about police brutality, mental health and more.

Lanzo said she saw parallels between America’s public views on communism in the late 1940s and today’s debate about terrorism.

“Some things have not really changed much in the last 70 years,” she said. “So that was something that I find striking.”

At a time when politics and art will continue to intersect a lot more frequently, it begs the question: Will the gallery host a politically driven show in the near future?

“I’m saying yes, because a lot of exhibitions here are going to be featuring artists that are part of the LGBTQ population,” Lanzo said. “We will do that very respectfully and we won’t insult the administration but the shows will be politically charged because they’re going to talk about issues that are uncomfortable.”

The issues, she said, could include gender inequality, gentrification and displacement or racial inequality.

However, when it comes to the gallery’s current exhibition and its future events, Lanzo encourages visitors to share their views––no matter what side of the political aisle they’re on.

“This is an opportunity to continue that conversation,” she said. “It’s a place where you can feel safe expressing ideas.”

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