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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Artist Honors Communist Principles and His Family in New Harbor Art Gallery Exhibition


Family portraits cover the wall next to an armchair and dress which have Communist propaganda printed on them.  



“Lifelines: Recent Work by Avram Finkelstein” debuted in the Harbor Art Gallery (HAG) on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. This was Finkelstein’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. The show focused heavily on portraits of Finkelstein’s family members, and the most shocking aspect of the exhibit was its open promotion of radical left politics.

Finkelstein’s show makes excellent use of the HAG’s two rooms. The smaller room contains, among other things, a series of family portraits: a bas-relief woodcut of an unusually strong hand (a portrait of Finkelstein’s father); a cell phone photograph of a five-point star picture frame surrounding the face of a young boy (an older relative of Finkelstein’s); and a small installation (a portrait of Finkelstein’s mother) featuring a red armchair, red wallpaper, and a red dress.

Upon closer inspection, the wallpaper has been printed with an image from news coverage of the violent White Night Riots which followed the assassination of America’s first openly-gay politician, Harvey Milk. The dress is covered with printed Communist Propaganda.  The Chair is covered with an advertisement for an early AIDS medicine that turned out to have lethal side effects.  When the medicine became illegal to sell in the United States, the federal government ruled it legal to ship off the remaining stock to Africa where drug companies could still profit.

In the larger room, a series of bigger pieces dominate the exhibit. Each piece appears to be a series of lines or a few words on a gessoed canvas. The words were originally written on the back of photographs taken by the artist’s father on family trips when he was younger. The marks are the lines on the hands of Finkelstein’s friends and family.

Finkelstein explains the marks in terms of Jewish mysticism and palm-reading. More than that, as a Communist, he considers the marks on the hands of his subjects a sign of their class identity. Finkelstein admires the deeply-creased hands of the working class. He portrays the violent protest of the White Night Riots as honorable and pays tribute to Communist literature, which is often disparaged in a post-Cold War United States, as honorable.

The work in “Lifelines” advocates for Communism in its subject matter. This message can only be taken seriously because it is being delivered by Finkelstein, a kind, soft-spoken artist who has dedicated his life to unimpeachable causes such as raising awareness of AIDS and helping to end the homophobic treatment that some of the first men to get AIDS suffered at the hands of medical staff and the U.S. government.

Finkelstein’s essential kindness shows through in interviews as well as in his art, and that kindness challenges the biases of his audience. Americans are often taught that Communists are evil. However, evil people aren’t typically capable of the sort of love that typifies Finkelstein’s family relationships. Evil people don’t take the sort of moral stands that Finkelstein has.

Finkelstein was invited to show his work at UMass Boston by Aaron Lecklider, an assistant professor in the American studies department who volunteered to curate the show. Finkelstein himself was present for the opening. He also lectured a “Queer Visual Culture” class offered by the UMass Boston art department on Thursday, Feb. 21.

Everyone would benefit from seeing this exhibit, not necessarily because they agree or disagree with its subject matter, but because “Lifelines” humanizes Communists, who have often been demonized.

The HAG is open from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The exhibit ends March 14.