|Dramatically sited amidst the ruins of Charlotte Street in the South Bronx, John Fekner’s 1980 murals –DECAY and BROKEN PROMISES — are the best known work of this early street artist noted for his use of stencils for a political purpose. The works live on today in photocopy posters that Fekner made at the time for the South Bronx art space Fashion Moda. Gallery 98 is now offering two of these posters, both signed.
The story of the murals pictured in the posters is politically twisted. Back in 1980, the South Bronx was a cauldron of both art and social activism. Fekner had originally painted the murals for the People’s Convention, an outdoor gathering of local activists who wanted to call attention to the plight of the South Bronx at the time when the Democratic Convention was meeting in New York to re-nominate President Jimmy Carter for a second term. Fekner’s Xerox posters, which show Carter’s Republican opponent Ronald Reagan standing in front of the murals concern the next chapter of the story.
Shortly after Fekner completed the murals, but before the People’s Convention, Reagan — the master of the photo op — decided to use the Charlotte Street site for his own news conference. Today one might think that the charge of “Broken Promises” was directed against Reagan, when in fact it was directed at Carter who had visited the South Bronx in 1977 making promises that he never kept.
Fekner was no fan of Reagan but he welcomed the media coverage that came with the candidate’s visit, as well as the attention it generated to the plight of the Bronx and to his own art. And time has added yet another ironic wrinkle. As memories of the original events have faded, the image of Reagan in front of Fekner’s stencils can now be interpreted as a reminder of Reagan’s speech and his own broken promises.