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“Come out of your houses even if it is difficult for you, do away with your individual isolation, let yourselves be possessed by the ideas of the working masses and help them in their struggle against a rotten society.”
-George Grosz, 1920
Erica Sheets is an Oakland, California based multimedia artist whose work represents an update of German Socialist Realist work of the 1920’s and 30’s. Sheets blends historical and contemporary references to an effect that is profound, sobering, and visually striking.
Sheets makes a contemporary, American type of Tendenzkunst, or “tendentious art.” Tendenzkunst refers to a type of art being made in Germany after the first World War by such artists as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and John Heartfield, that addressed collective, social concerns as opposed to the personal abstractions of Dada, surrealism and expressionism. A principle of Tendenzkunst is that any artwork not blatantly allied with social change, blatantly represents the dead weight of the status quo.
Much of Sheets’ work deals with issues of labor, class, culture, politics and social struggle. Frequently, her work examines the way that these issues are expressed in and by the body. The machinations of culture and politics maim and deform the proletariat and the bourgeoisie alike. In a work entitled “Fame,” Sheets presents an image of Angelina Jolie morphed with Mickey Mouse and laden with Oedipal associations. The eyes are plucked out, replaced with reflective surfaces, and radiating red string.
Below, under a magnifying glass, is a small image of crippled rat inside of a matchbox.
“Fame” is an appropriate contemporary response to Otto Dix’s 1920 painting Der Streichholzhandler I (Match Seller I), which depicts a blind quadriplegic man seated on the sidewalk, selling matches as the bourgeoisie pass by above.
Sheets makes wise material choices in her work that raise the metaphorical value and befit the subject matter of each piece. Great mental gymnastics are not required to read red string as analogous to veins or rivulets of blood. In Sheets’ paintings “M-2” and “M-3,” which bear images derived from posters urging factory safety, the point is symbolically made by red blood staining yellow skin.
The artwork of Erica Sheets skillfully emphasizes the collective over the individual, social consciousness over narcissistic preoccupation, and practicality over oblique ambiguity. She reminds that art has the power to be at once direct and poetic.
Erica Sheets is co-director of the Basement Gallery in Oakland, California.