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Clinton Fein: Phoenix Rising


In a world of superficial sound bytes dominated by a generation absorbed with the self and the surface of things, Clinton Fein’s work dissects the vicissitudes of our body politic, pricking the raw nerves that the increasingly conservative mass media tiptoes around. Fein’s politically charged art offers social critique through compelling, aggressive, and daring images. He subverts existing imagery by digitally altering, manipulating, and collaging fragments to create striking images that shock, mock, and amuse.

George W. Bush becomes King Kong atop the World Trade Center, flailing futilely at inbound airplanes. Condoleeza Rice becomes Marie Antoinette, complacent in finery and bewailing the lack of forewarning of imminent turmoil. “The Last Supper” becomes peopled by the President’s cabinet and cronies over a slogan proclaiming “Better Be the Last.” The overwhelmed face in Edvard Munch’s “Scream” becomes Bush’s, or perhaps the American Everyman who did not elect him.

These images are not mannered or labored; they shoot fast from the hip and are produced at a prodigious rate, promulgated through Fein’s website,, in a one-man parallel of the mass media news cycle. On the website, they are amplified by charged “editorial” commentary, whether in prose, verse, or parodies of popular lyrics. This continual program of publication can be read as constituting a type of performance art that simultaneously performs politics through activism.

WARning: About the Exhibition

WARNING! was an exhibition at Axis Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan and ran from August 31 – September 30, 2004.

The exhibition opened the same day as the Republican National Convention in New York City, and consisted of images, video, and photographs of Clinton Fein that captured four years of the Bush Administration. 

Designed in part as a protest, the exhibit was accessible, unlike many of the protests that had been met with staunch resistance in Manhattan.

WARNING! featured photo-based work reflecting on the last four years of the Bush Administration. Fein was a pioneer in using digital technology as an art form and in using web-based art for social critique. A noted First Amendment advocate, Fein maintained a barrage of social commentary through his website, He employed digital photocollage techniques to construct compelling, critical images. To find out more, click here: Axis Gallery

Clinton Fein WARning 2004 Fein was born and educated in South Africa, which has a powerful tradition of resistance art against apartheid. This has colored his view of art as a social and democratic phenomenon capable of addressing the man in the street and promoting social and democratic values, which he does now as a patriotic American. When the US Navy unsuccessfully attempted to block its release, it became the first CD-ROM to triumph under First Amendment protections. Conduct Unbecoming went on to win the prestigious Critics Choice Award and was dubbed “evolutionary” by Rolling Stone Magazine. Fein’s most notable victory was his Supreme Court suit against Attorney General of the United States, challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act in 1997, where Fein’s right to disseminate his art was upheld in a landmark victory for First Amendment rights. His criticisms of the government’s attempts to regulate speech on the Internet were published by The Wall Street Journal, who profiled him as “a player” in their “Names on the Net” special feature. Fein is currently on the board of The First Amendment Project (FAP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition. FAP provides advice, educational materials, and legal representation to its core constituency of activists, journalists, and artists in service of fundamental liberties. In recognition of his actions, Clinton Fein was nominated for a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2001. His work and website have also received considerable media attention both in the US and globally. While art and digital technology are social and political tools in Fein’s hands—whether he is forging images on the internet, on the street, on T-shirts, or in the gallery context—he also works as a stills photographer, producing more meditative essays on such issues as urban blight, graffiti, and the sado-masochistic and homoerotic overtones of militarism. — Gary Van Wyk, Axis Gallery

While the imagery and related content is difficult and sometimes deliberately offensive and hard-hitting, it is also infused with traces of humor and irony. The work is designed to communicate how declarations of war, political rhetoric on all sides and a sweeping tide of emotion and patriotism, unchecked and unbalanced, facilitated the most dangerous and damaging erosion of civil liberties in America’s short history than anything else ever.

How the threat posed by our willingness to blindly trade our freedom for a heightened perception of security was underestimated and has come to fruition in ways most people still do not understand. How artists are being censored, library books subpoenaed, journalists fired, teachers dismissed, lawyers indicted, families destroyed and students arrested while our airports and transportation systems remain as vulnerable as they ever were.

How a power grab seeped in dishonesty, greed, war-profiteering and arrogance, neatly framed as a commitment to a War on Terror, indefinite, brutal and not winnable, led from the ashes of Ground Zero to the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

If the imagery and content of this exhibition appears harsh and shocking it’s only because it stands in stark contrast to the sappy, obsequious corporate-controlled media alternatives, instilling over-produced, high-tech fear into us by simply regurgitating the government’s outdated, inadequately planned, morale destroying, intelligence-compromised war strategies. Delivered by mindless, cosmetically enhanced automatons “embedded” and in bed with the military they’re supposed to be holding accountable, ensuring the manufacturing, packaging and distribution of a sugar-coated, distorted reality — anything and everything but the truth — in five second sound bytes between American Idol and The Apprentice.

This exhibition, on the eve of a pivotal election, is a wake up call and a reminder; a protest and a proposal; a presentation of despair and a challenge. A challenge to shift the path we’re being taken down and reclaim some of what’s already been stolen. But above all, it is a WARNING! And a dire warning at that, because this exhibition represents only four years.

Select Media Reviews

CLINTON FEIN, “Warning,” Axis, 453 West 17th Street, This South African provocateur’s vitriolic, darkly comic digital montages attack President Bush, his cabinet and his Iraq policies. Images include an American flag with the stars and stripes made from the text of the official Abu Ghraib report; a fake movie poster with Mr. Bush as King Kong in a film called “King Con”; Condoleezza Rice as Marie Antoinette; and a “9/11 Anniversary Series” of posters in which the twin towers are replaced by giant Coke bottles and a sleek building in the form of a swastika (Johnson).

Ken Johnson, The New York Times


Clinton Fein: “WARning!” protests the Bush Administration’s record, Fein’s art and website,, read as performance and perform politics.

Gallery Guide


“Who says what’s officially annoying? Is that a business we really want our government to be in?”

CLINTON FEIN, purveyor of the website complaining about a bill in Congress that would make it a federal crime to “annoy” someone over the Internet

Verbatim, Time Magazine


You’re dying to know, aren’t you? Does anyone take on Bush? Yes, that would be Clinton Fein, a San Francisco artist who recently showed at Chelsea’s Axis Gallery. One of two digital prints, Like Apple Fucking Pie (2004), uses an inflammatory favorite, the American flag, but don’t be fooled by the stripes (texts from the shockingly graphic Abu Ghraib report) or stars (50 profiles of the iconic hooded prisoner on a box dangling electric wires — yikes!). This work has a stunning, subtly nuanced sense of color and composition.

Fein’s website,, is relentlessly anti-Bush and a lot of other things, too. This get-tough attitude, in the “Art of Engagement” tradition, is very West Coast but also has the punch of South Africa, land of Apartheid and diamond mines, where the artist was born and raised.

Sidney Lawrence, Capital Roundup, Artnet

The Images