Capital Offenses, The Artwork of Stephen Barnwell

Publisher's Weekly, August 22, 2014


Through a series of reimagined banknotes, coupons, and stamps, Barnwell, in the manner of much activist art, appropriates the aesthetic of the establishment in order to comment on and critique it. His is an art of juxtapositions and provocation: "Indebted States of America," reads a $1 trillion "Oriental Reserve Note" bearing the signature of erstwhile U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and featuring a presidential portrait of "Chairman Dow"—who looks very much like Mao Zedong. More controversial perhaps is the "United States of Islam" series: U.S. currency depicting scenes of historical Islamic military victories, such as the fall of Jerusalem in 638 C.E. But Barnwell's criticism is not limited to foreign policy and finance. With "American Excess," a coupon similar to an antiquated bearer bond that depicts Uncle Sam tied to an oil rig, he ably criticizes the extent to which energy and other corporate interests influence American government and imperil the nation's future. Barnwell's work exposes the contradictions and hypocrisy of various power structures and even underscores the intricate elegance of currency as an aesthetic experience.