It makes sense that Harry Shearer's contribution to the art world is TV footage. On The Simpsons, Shearer does Mr. Burns, Flanders, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy. It's also perfect, snarkeriffic revenge that Shearer's art strips the voices away from public figures and newscasters, leaving them in silence. You can gaze at Shearer's mute art in a small traveling show at the Henry Art Gallery called The Silent Echo Chamber. What you see is a constellation of TV screens, each featuring footage of talking heads sitting in silence just before the cameras go live. Shearer calls his project "Nontalking Heads" for short.
This is celebrity art that incorporates the position of celebrity: Nobody can miss the fact that a comic genius famous for his voice-overs is turning the tables here. People like Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, Dr. Phil, Chris Matthews, John McCain, Ben Stein, Hillary Clinton, and Obama himself—all included in The Silent Echo Chamber—become like obedient children: They are seen, but not heard.
In real life, Shearer—just an entertainer, wink—is the rebellious kid, and politicians and pundits are the grown-ups of the world. The son of Jewish immigrants, Shearer has been living the classic American role of the antiauthoritarian, and exploiting it beautifully in his work, for a long time. (American trivia: He was once on-screen with Abbott and Costello.) As a young man, Shearer studied political science and wrote for the school paper at UCLA. He taught English and social studies in Compton until the principal tried to tell him how to run his classroom. And even now, he'll bite the hand that feeds: He's sharply criticized the latter-day Simpsons, just like everybody else.
While watching The Silent Echo Chamber, you find yourself flip-flopping between observing the dissolution of power figures into real people, behind the scenes, and also realizing that your observations are already directed by your own hard, preconceived notions. Examples: No look of introspection on the face of John McCain will ever make me sympathize with the man who gave us Sarah Palin. When Hillary Clinton takes a deep breath, I assume not just that she needs oxygen but that she brings a different sense of her body to the camera than the typical male politician or pundit. Henry Kissinger's face is a mask.
There's just enough noisiness in these silences to take you beyond the first layer of your internal chatter to a place of noticing everything you don't know. While Joe Biden gives a speech onstage—and a giant computer graphic spews forth stars from the illuminated names of candidates—the TV anchors up above the scene in the auditorium, shifting in their director's chairs, text unknown messages on their phones, read and take notes on sheets of paper, shake their heads at or pass notes to someone off camera, laugh at what we can't hear in their earpieces. We only see the husks of text.
Shearer criticizes right and left equally as a comedy rule. And The Silent Echo Chamber is nonpartisan—unless you're in the party that wants to block a basic premise of democracy: that what we don't know can hurt us. It seems to be Shearer's point that both parties, and the networks that carry their messages, have an interest in certain silences. Listen to what you're not hearing, he urges. Watch the TV you watch. It's not a novel idea, but it always bears repeating.