Jean Toche: Impressions from the Rogue Bush Imperial Presidency
John Hope Franklin Center
Through Nov. 29

The individual works are untitled, identified only by the date of their creation. “October 30, 2004” presents an almost ghoulish image of the artist’s face, digitally pushed to an unnatural pink.

It’s an older face, with wiry white facial hair. The face is shot from below at a severe angle, emphasizing the bulging, taut tendons of the artist’s neck. The eyes are fierce, opened wide to reveal the whites of his eyes in symmetrical crescent moons. The facial expression is both terrified and indicting, set aglow with an almost morbid intensity in the contrast of hot pink against the abyss of the image’s black depth.

Beneath the image are words in bold capital letters: “STOP RAMBO. STOP INTOLERANCE. STOP LIES. STOP THE JAILING OF REPORTERS. RESTORE BILL OF RIGHTS. STOP MILITARY OCCUPATION OF IRAQ. PUSH BUSH OUT. ABSOLUTELY.” Beneath this, in a much smaller font, “We must stop this run-away train: it will crash and kill everybody.”

The artist is Jean Toche, 1960s punk, prankster, shapeshifter and agitator. The gallery at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke has been reconfigured as a repository for more than 100 such tracts printed on cheap paper. The exhibit, Impressions from the Rogue Bush Imperial Presidency, represents a fraction of more than 50 years of political and artistic output by the artist. The show focuses on the year 2004; the bulk of the work on view consists of a collection of small, 4-inch-x-5-1/2 inch missives that were sent through the mail, originally loosely organized as a journal titled Of Piss @N Puss.

Since his move from Belgium to New York in 1965, Toche seems not to have wavered in his tenacious pursuit of commitment to a life of art, protest and subversive antics. He was associated with such art action collectives as the New York Destructive Art movement, the Artist Workers’ Coalition and the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG), which he co-founded with Jon Hendricks. While his engagement in protest and activism was part of the tsunami of cultural and political upheaval of the time, Toche stands out as having sustained a decades-long practice as a vigilant witness, sounding a perpetual alarm.

Toche presents a unique opportunity to think about art and protest in the ’60s through the lens of the work he continues to produce today. Looking at Toche gives context to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2006 re-creation of Irving Petlin’s 1966 collaborative Peace Tower and Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recent book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era. It also sets a historical stage for manifestations of art and protest being done today by groups like the Journal of Aesthetic Protest.

On April 10, 1969, Toche addressed an open hearing of the Art Workers Coalition at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He outlined a strategy to bring about social change and end the war in Vietnam through protest and actions initiated by artists. In his talk, Toche invoked the uprisings in France and the riots at the previous year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “As to tactics, our first objective should be to find out exactly who controls, behind the scenes, the policies of the museums and other art establishment institutions,” Toche said. “We should then proceed to tarnish their public image in order to force them to prove publicly who they really are, that is, the bosses of cultural institutions which manipulate people and are basically at the service of the repressive forces of society.”

The notion of forcing those in power to “prove publicly who they really are” has remained at the core of Toche’s project. That same year, Toche and other GAAG artists entered the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and staged a conflagration in which they spilled animal blood and distributed manifestos titled “A Call for the Immediate Resignation of All the Rockefellers from the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art,” bringing public attention to the industrialist family’s involvement in the production of military weapons being used in Vietnam.

But rather than merely calling out those in positions of power, from the beginning Toche’s demand for public revelation has applied equally and formidably to himself. In his seminal 1968 installation/ performance “I Accuse” at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, Toche distributed flyers that implicated everyone, beginning with himself:

I am a prostitute,
You are a prostitute,
He is a prostitute,
She is a prostitute,
We are all prostitutes . . .

And, as if answering his own call to “prove publicly” who he really is, Toche went on to declare:

I work with aggressive lights,
I work with aggressive sounds,
I work with aggressive situations.
I am against aggression.

Throughout Impressions from the Rogue Bush Imperial Presidency, the image of Toche is reiterated, photographed from various angles, in color and black-and-white. As Kristine Stiles, Duke art professor and curator of the show, points out in her catalog essay, Toche often pays homage to other artists in his self-portraits. Decorative floral wallpaper signals Matisse. A photograph of a toilet mirrors Duchamp’s readymade urinal. Toche’s focus on his own body, clothed and naked, aligns him with performance and body artists like Lucas Samaras, Dennis Oppenheim, John Coplans and Carolee Schneemann. In the repeated use of his own likeness, especially where color pops in unnatural hues, Toche echoes Warhol. And Toche’s use of the postal service to disseminate his tracts connects him with correspondence artists like Ray Johnson.

Indeed, Toche comes off less as an artistic innovator than an aesthetic magpie, borrowing freely from pre-existing aesthetic vocabularies to accomodate his expressive needs. Employing the tactics Fluxus artists like Yoko Ono, in 1971 Toche sent a letter to President Richard Nixon:

Guerrila [sic] Art Action, to be performed every day from May 1 through May 6, 1971, by Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States of America:

In contrast to Toche’s extreme facial expression in “October 30, 2004,” Toche looks placid and introverted in “May 21, 2004.” The color tones of his face have been washed out, leaving a stark compositional divide between the white upper third of the image and the black of Toche’s T-shirt, which bears the word “UTOPIA” in bold white letters. The accompanying text quotes a New York Times editorial on the subject of torture at Abu Ghraib, which in turn cites an outrageous statement by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “After all, ” he said, “they were probably guilty of something.” Toche’s blank expression suggests that he’s found a dismal equanimity, a bitter calm in the face of absurd injustice. The word on his shirt underscores the great divide between an ideal world and the insanity of the world we’re living in.

With the exception of “May 21, 2004” and a few other works, Toche’s printouts tend to fail aesthetically. The compositions are not well resolved, and they are inconsistent in their design. Toche attempts to use standard fonts expressively, but with a few exceptions, the layouts are graphically impoverished, amateurish. However, there are benefits to Toche’s lame design skills. One is that the works defy slickness. They do not deliver Toche as a brand. Further, Toche’s graphic failure feeds into the current cult of the “Fail.” Scores of Web sites have emerged over the past few years collecting and celebrating instances of typos, botched communications and wrongheaded attempts at everything from architecture to loading a car with furniture. Aside from the base delight at someone else’s idiocy, the success of the Fail phenomenon seems to arise out of a deep hunger for change. The celebration of the Fail reveals a fervent wish to unearth the fault lines and flaws of existing power structures. It is no coincidence that the Fail’s popularity hit critical mass concurrent with the 2008 financial collapse. Exposing cracks in the seamless, seemingly unperturbable surfaces of corporate, technological and governmental mega-structures unleashes a flash of hope, that this all-too-human qualityfailureis still part of the equation. I see this paradoxical construct of failure-as-hope expressed in Toche’s bad design.

Toche’s abrasive, inflammatory approach has always been his modus operandi. In “I Accuse” Toche turned glaring lights into the eyes of viewers, set sirens blaring and played prerecorded political rants at piercing volumes. Toche has a contemporary cinematic counterpart in that other political prankster, Michael Moore. One can draw parallels between these two societal irritants. Both make clear their political intentions and both work in aesthetic media. Preconceptions about art and movies do not easily apply to either Toche or Mooretheir respective forms serve personal ideological agendas, and often standard critical criteria simply aren’t relevant to their projects. By the way, Moore’s current film, Capitalism: A Love Story, features Moore engaging in a bit of street theater that echoes GAAG’s 1968 MoMA action. Moore patrols the AIG building in downtown Manhattan, armed with a megaphone, declaring: “I am here to make a citizen’s arrest of the board of directors of AIG!”