Pip Brant: The Propaganda of Everyday Life

By Eleanor Heartney


In George Orwell's classic novel, 1984, giant screens blare the latest thought control messages to an indoctrinated public. Pip Brant suggests that no such heavy-handed techniques are necessary to keep the populace in line. Her work is based on what we might term "found propaganda" embedded in the ordinary objects that surround us every day. Homey printed tablecloths convey messages about domesticity, a cache of '50s era postcards she discovered at a rummage sale in Utah appears designed to reinforce "acceptable behavior," and even today's headlines are subtly permeated with political spin.

Taking these objects out of context and altering them in humorous and ironic ways, she brings out the social and political messages embedded within them. All the works here are inspired by news headlines and in fact, Brant notes that one of her models is comedian Jon Stewart, whose tongue-in-cheek re-presentation of the day's news brings out our leaders' latent contradictions, absurdities, and outright lies.

In Brant's hands, a tablecloth with an apparently innocuous floral pattern becomes an anti-SUV statement with the embroidered addition of flaming Humvees and cartoonish elves bearing homemade Molotov cocktail bombs. The superimposition of Hokusai's wave over a cloth with a geometric pattern becomes a reminder of the disastrous 2004 Tsunami.

Other works are weavings from found photographic images that have been embellished with phrases from newspaper headlines. The disconnect between the placid scenes and the unsettling texts forces the viewer to reconsider the apparent peacefulness of the scene. For instance, a black and white image of a perfect '50s dad proffering a bottle to his baby becomes a meditation on the uncertainties of the future when overlaid with the phrase "Brazil builds nuke facility." A quiet winter scene of a rural meadow punctuated with snow encrusted trees becomes anything but bucolic when inscribed with "Official: Bin Laden likely in Pakistan."

Brant notes that her source materials -- tablecloths, vintage postcards, western landscapes, hunting scenes and family photos sent to her by her brother serve as memory triggers, conjuring nostalgia for her rural Montana childhood. Her use of domestic materials and images, as well as processes like weaving and embroidery, echo the strategy of pioneering feminist artists like Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, who were determined to demonstrate that traditional "women's work" offered a valid subject for art. However, Brant provides these apparently benign materials with a subversive kick. By juxtaposing phrases and images from today's headlines over objects with soothing associations, Brant sharpens the contrast between America's dreams of innocence and its real place in the world. The juxtaposed texts and images serve as reminders that sentimentality can mask the real dangers of the world.

This quality is also evident in The Flying Carpet, an old oriental rug over which Brant has embroidered a map of Iraq. In a pointed comment on the way that oil has determined the history of that part of the world, the carpet has been placed on a chassis with a Dodge truck grill and tail lights from a Taurus car. In an evocation of familiar legends about magic carpets, it can be set in motion with a foot pedal that sends it into vibration mode.

With such works, Brant uses humor and absurdity to jolt us back into an awareness of precarious nature of the world in which we find ourselves. Escapism is no longer possible, she reminds us. Horrors lurk even among the most prosaic objects of everyday life.


About the author

Eleanor Heartney is a noted art historian, critic and contributing editor to Art in America.


Editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 5, 2007 with the permission of the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University and the author.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Caroline Parker, Curator of Education, Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum for her help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.


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