The Pursuit of Happiness
Fight or Flight? Idolatry and Indignation in Danielle Spradley's Pursuit of Happiness
An arrow, a jet, a battle cry. Howard Zinn meets Miller Lite. A flock of red-winged blackbirds beating back wind. Character as carrion.
The art of Danielle Spradley has claws. Mining iconography high and low, natural and fabricated, her work is revisionist both in its sense of past and in its process of re-seeing our fettered present. The military, the government, the corporate maw - all the artist exposes as nationally sanctified birds of prey. The Pursuit of Happiness skewers a system in which those without can't lift their wings, martial law rules the land, and vultures lurk in the corner.
Forging a visual language in strident dialogue with the hypocrisies of our country, Spradley takes no prisoners. Blue-jays mimic invasive cops stalking a sparrowed sidewalk. F18s fly from crushed beer cans, cigarettes butt against pretty blue pills. Our idols topple like stuffed plutocrats, skeletons posing on piles of cash. In an especially timely "Saint Robert" (2014), Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch dons the holy robes of Robert Bellarmine, the cardinal who hunted Galileo. Is this the "America" we were taught to love? Are the wings of democracy savagely clipped?
Complicating popular conceptions of nation and state, Spradley organizes many of her canvases around Native American war patterns and their concomitant trickster folklore. In "Blackbirds" (2015), a flock of nineteen fan out across the handmade paper surface, each thwarting a line of arrows rising from a mound of carcasses. Inspired partly by her role as educator at two St. Louis city pre-schools - one largely Mexican, one predominantly African-American - the artist calls attention to the still pervasive tribalism of today.
"Annuit Coeptis" (2015), a large-scale pyramid comprised of forty printed birds cut out and mounted to the wall, demonstrates how hierarchies of power mirror the casual brutality of the food chain. Referencing the Latin phrase meaning "He has blessed our undertakings" - a maxim stamped on the back of every dollar bill - the piece throws into stark relief the institutional complicity at the heart of American inequality. Blackbirds and sparrows represent the disenfranchised, hawks and eagles the leaders (tyrants) exploiting them. Towering over all, an owl glowers, making the most of reputed wisdom.
"Hope is the thing with feathers," penned a young Emily Dickinson. In Spradley's lurid, gothic vision, flight is but a means of narrow escape.
- by Eileen G'Sell