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Howl’s “American Exceptionalism” is Activist Art

Artist Ken Howl says his political ideology is, “all the way to the left.”

“That means that I want health care for all, no question,” said Howl. “I think if we’re put on this planet in America, we’re one of the richest countries in the world, we should all have health care, we should all have education, we should have civil rights, equal rights. We should have rights over our own body. We should dictate what we can and cannot do with our body, especially when it comes to procreation.”

The Lexington-based artist’s politics are a theme in his show, “American Exceptionalism, Degenerate Counterculture, and the 100 Seconds Till Midnight,” which has been on display in the main gallery of the Loudon House since September 18 and will run until November 6.

“This is activist art,” said Howl. “I created this work over the last few years because I needed a way to sublimate. I’m still angry.”

The exhibit is a combination of multimedia videos and a series of paintings. Howl, who has a background in broadcast journalism, draws his footage from the news and his own video shot at local protests.

“I use video as a medium because it’s accessible to everyone,” said Howl, who uploads his work to YouTube. Howl says because he can’t get exposure on TV, he uses the internet as a channel to spread his art and activism.

Underscoring the hours-long series of clips is Howl’s original music. “The music is meditational a lot of times,” said Howl. He says that the songs take him four or five hours to make. For a time, he says, he was making a new song every day.

Howl says he began the videos after Donald Trump announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015.

“I’m a quarter Cuban,” said Howl. “My family crossed the Rio Grande and escaped from communist Cuba.” Howl criticized Trump’s campaign announcement speech in which the now-President called Mexicans rapists and said they were bringing drugs across the border. “That is racism from the very beginning,” said Howl “So, when I heard that, I was livid.”

Concerns over race in America is a theme that underpins Howl’s videos. Howl is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I feel like with Floyd and Taylor, and a lot of disproportionately African-American people, there is no justice for them because police officers are not being held accountable for what’s happening in that community,” said Howl.

“I feel like we are standing on a cliff where white power is going to get normalized if we’re not careful. Where a lot of norms that we used to experience are just going to get blown out of the water. If there’s no accountability for our police force, if there’s no justice in our courtrooms, then how are we a society? What is the line that we can say we are a society as opposed to some kind of gut-filled, rat-fest of stupidity.”

Howl believes the solution to America’s problems are rooted in empathy, which he sees as lacking.

“Empathy is so important,” said Howl. “If we lose empathy of our neighbors and of people that we are surrounded by I mean are we even a society anymore?”

Alongside the TV monitors running Howl’s videos in the gallery, are walls covered in Howl’s abstract paintings.

“My art is very frenetic,” said Howl. The artist says he uses painting as an outlet for his anxiety and aggression. Howl says he doesn’t having anything specific in mind when he paints, but that he likes using jagged lines, which he feels reflect how we feel in this moment. “It’s just rigid. We can’t get out of this divided space. There’s a lot of forced angles and edges and it’s almost like being trapped a little bit.” Howl believes if his art can capture that trapped feeling, he no longer needs to feel trapped.

In addition to his exhibit, Howl is a producer of the Mitch McConnell Retirement Committee, a Facebook Live show that runs Monday nights and serves as a critique of Kentucky’s senator. The show has featured Kentucky Democrats including Representatives Attica Scott and Charles Booker and Senate nominee Amy McGrath.

Howl hopes people are inspired by his exhibit. “I just want people to know that anybody can be an activist and anybody can do and make something and be a part of their community,” said Howl. “And I think that’s what our community needs is more people to step up.”

He sees art as an effective way for people to both take a stand and find some release.

“What I want people to take away from this is that art is important for our own personal emotional stability. It’s important to get some release, some time away from screens. And it’s a good way to balance everything.”

Ken Howl’s “American Exceptionalism, Degenerate Counterculture, and the 100 Seconds Till Midnight,” is on display in the main gallery of the Loudon House until November 6.