It is a realm traditionally populated by stark, monochrome cartoons, but to the Opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, assemblage artist Susan Tibbles brings texture, along with a dash of whimsy and not a little visual irony.
Initially recruited to illustrate a discussion centered around the Gore/Bush face-off (which yielded “Blah, Blah, Blah,” a cross-the-page verbal dustup featuring the candidates as wooden blocks in the grip of C-clamps, exchanging blows via typed buzz words that connect the two, using an aesthetic that reminds one of turn-of-the-century carnivals), Tibbles was on the Times roster on that notorious day in September 2001, and during the aftermath, for a slew of think pieces from across the spectrum: some navel gazing, some cautionary, some downright worried.
“I was very much into my fine art and staying in that groove. Once you start crossing over into politics, especially what happened after 9/11, things get pretty ugly,” she remembers.
The majority of her work for the Times was completed after 9/11, making it difficult to argue whether the brave array of material she brings into her work was due to a changing political landscape or her own artistic growth. Perhaps it’s a bit of both: Tibbles’ assignments were at the mercy of a variety of commentators, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. arguing “Sand Trap: Indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan would play directly into Osama bin Laden’s Hands,” and Pico Iyer exploring the one-year anniversary of September 11 with “Turning Power Gently: Can a great power wounded learn to treat others more gently?”
Her fine art had never been in response to the political landscape, but more personal subject matter. She did not consider herself a political artist, and so it was her technique, more than the subject matter, that caught the eye of the paper’s art directors.
“Being that it’s in the news,” the self-taught artist says of her Opinion pieces, “99.9 percent of the time it’s going to be politically charged.”
The Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard displays her Opinions, original pieces set alongside the editorials that inspired them, along with the occasional book review illustration. On display are Tibbles’ artistic embodiments of diverse pieces: A Muslim-American woman’s bewilderment at being asked if she could supply a burka to a local women’s group, an argument in favor of taking race into account when studying genetic diseases, a warning that medical science has not caught up with evolving viruses.
Amazingly, all of Tibbles’ work is visually appealing, and gives the sense that one is browsing through a bizarre curiosity shop or receiving a souvenir from a twisted alternate reality. Some, like “Ordinary Time,” are self-contained pieces that require a modern subtext to lend them any more ominous meaning: a battered alarm clock is relatively innocuous and looks as though it’s been pulled from a fire, but the only numbers on it are nine and 11.
Some, like 2004’s “Bully” or 2002’s “Valerie,” look as if they would belong in a women’s pop-culture glossy with feminist leanings; “Bully”’s all-too-iconic tube of Revlon red liptick is outfitted with what seem to be iron wings, as though trying to push a peaceful reconciliation between traditional femininity and empowerment, but the scarlet-tipped thorns underscore a far more loaded meaning.
Many of her pieces have a touch of the vintage — objects and photographs of a different era, iconography of a romanticized, bygone decade. But here, there is some irony; the images seem both in concert with, and a direct rebuttal of, a false, forced nostalgia present in any discussion of a culture war. As “values votes” are courted by politicians anxious to return to a postwar lifestyle, Tibbles questions the real idealism of such a time.
Her 2003 “Kids and War” accompanies an editorial that addressed speaking to children about the reality of the Iraq invasion. A vintage television set sits atop a boxed-in collection of aged wooden toys and the pieced-together school photo of a young girl who most likely came of age during a World War, or at the very least during the Korean War. Building blocks spelling out the word “WAR” seem to struggle to fit in among more playful childhood relics, and the nearby power cord and “warning” tag belies how easy that co-existence appears.
She examines “how things would have been for children in the ’50s. When you look at the time period, and the photographs of kids, there’s a wholesome appeal of innocence.”
The comparison to modern childhood is a fascinating one for Tibbles, who considers that children now are “just saturated with these games and toys and all these little weapons they can buy.” She considers, trying not to betray her generation too much, “We just weren’t exposed to that much information.”
“It seems to be inherent in my work,” she says of the touches of the obsolete trinkets and retro images she is drawn to. “There are a lot of Victorian overtones in my fine art.”
Her work is a testament to her resourcefulness, a keen skill that belies the one- to two-day lead she’s generally given. That is to say, there is a wealth of material poured into her work, but her method is more of the found art variety. She does, after all, have an “Op Ed” section in her own studio, an area stocked with “guns and Uncle Sams and hand grenades, covers of Time magazines.” With a steady supply of all and sundry in her studio, and immediacy to her work, she says, “You’re forced to make a C-clamp mean a certain thing,” Her process is also on display in the Carnegie: a glass case houses a faxed article with the occasional streak of red circling a buzz word, pieces of butcher paper with initial sketches.
“Deadlines are not an obstacle for me,” Tibbles insists, and indeed, none of her pieces seem overwrought. While many of her assemblages are abstract at first blush, the spontaneity of the work sometimes lends itself to a straightforward, almost literal interpretation of the editorial text. Her “Judging Judges” features the requisite gavel set in front of a score card; “Futility” displays imagery of a bygone day stuffed into a syringe whose long needle pokes through a small banner announcing “futility.”
Once photographed, scanned and sent on to the newspaper’s headquarters, the pieces are Tibbles’ property to do with as she likes. They now belong to a collector who prefers to remain anonymous.
“A gentleman stepped forward two or three years ago with the intent of keeping it together,” Tibbles says of her collection. “It cannot be taken apart, sold off separately or dismantled. We have an agreement that it will be shown to the best of his ability and my ability, for educational purposes, to document what’s been going on with the new millennium and this peculiar place in time.”
All but 10 of her pieces for the Times are currently on display at the Carnegie, and it is an odd exercise to look at these Op-Ed pieces displayed in some semblance of chronological order, to judge, by the harsh light of late 2006, how oracular the opinion pages proved to be. Strangely, even the most off-the-mark readings of once-current events now committed to the annals of history don’t drag down the strength of Tibbles’ meaning.
Tibbles acts more as a scribe, a virtual town crier, and though her touch enhances the impact of what Schlessinger et al. have to say, the images remain timeless in a way that an editorial predicting a quick victory in Iraq may not be.