John Wilson's Light in the Window
John Wilson's Light in the Window Credit: Courtesy DePaul Art Museum

If you’re looking for an art exhibit to give you an in-depth look into a single artist or a single art movement, “Fires Will Burn,” which just opened at the DePaul Art Museum, is not the exhibit for you. Instead, the selection of work from the museum’s permanent collection around the theme of social injustice tells dozens of smaller stories. And that is just as DPAM curator Louise Lincoln intended it.

“What I realized as I was putting the show together,” she says, “and this is not a coincidence, is that it’s a response to DePaul’s institutional interest in issues of social justice, the university’s moral and religious character. This is a teaching collection, not just for studio arts or art history, but for areas across the university. We’re looking at material that addresses cultural, political, and social issues, and issues of how artists respond to political questions.”

In other words, this is art that makes its meaning very clear and accessible for anyone who takes the time to really look at it.

Many of the works in the exhibit address the painful histories of blacks and Hispanics in America. John Wilson created a series of six lithographs based on Richard Wright’s short story “Down By the Riverside,” about a slave who steals a boat to get medical care for his pregnant wife, with tragic results.

“The treatment of the body,” Lincoln says, “you feel it so viscerally. It’s flung down.”

Perhaps the best-known pieces in the exhibit are Sun Raid Raisins, Ester Hernandez’s riff on the Sun-Maid raisins logo (guaranteed deportation . . . product of nafta), and Striking Worker Murdered, a 1934 photograph by Manuel Álvarez Bravo of a man lying in a pool of his own blood. (It’s similar to its neighbor, Wounded Soldier, a painting by Diego Rivera, but less stylized and therefore much more horrifying.)

Some of the work, such as the small collection of Vietnam-era protest art, is clearly a product of its time. (The pieces had been part of the collection of Sam and Blanche Koffler, a wealthy couple who amassed a great deal of work by midcentury Chicago artists.) The most recent piece is The Justice Chair, a 2012 installation by Gerda Meyer Bernstein that pays tribute to the POWs detained at Guantanamo.

As I Sit Here Musing, Fires Will Burn, the painting by the American-born artist Negar Ahkami that gives the exhibit its title, is an examination of the lives of women in Iran. The central figure, an Iranian woman wearing a burka that covers her entire body except for her feet, is surrounded by a confusing array of images from American and Iranian culture: the Yellow Brick Road, the Nike swoosh, and young blonds who grind on a dance floor and make out with each other contrasted with mosques and ancient Persian warriors on horseback. What’s a young woman to make of all that?

“It’s taking on issues of overlapping cultures,” Lincoln explains. “It’s a great piece, a teaching piece. You come to it without knowledge, and you can discern things.”