An ongoing, unique “experiment” in the acquisition of artworks is quietly entering its tenth year at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Stamp Gallery. The Contemporary Art Purchasing Program’s premise is simple—what happens when selecting works for the University’s collection is taken out of the hands of professional curators, giving students carte blanche to search for works that speak directly to their experience? New Arrivals 2015: Collecting Contemporary Art at the University of Maryland, on view through December 18, 2015, answers that question with surprisingly nuanced insight.
The biennial event—2015 is the fifth iteration—invites students across disciplines to apply for a year-long program that submerses them into the dual roles of curator and gallerist. Credited classroom time is supplemented by both self-study and group tours of galleries and artist studios. The committee is given a budget by the university and must choose works that not only fit within those budget constraints but also add to the cohesiveness of the entire collection. While an emphasis is placed on emerging and mid-career artists within the region, students are free to let their selections wander outside the region to include national and international artists.
The collegiate experience undeniably invites self-reflection, so it is not surprising that works by this year’s selected artists—Derrick Adams, Wafaa Bilal, Titus Kaphar, John Paradiso, Elle Pérez and Ellington Robinson—touch on areas of self-identity and topical events. What is surprising (and really invigorating) is that the committee’s headlong dive into contemporary political and social issues is done in a subtle manner that spans both global and personal perspectives. Works seem to be chosen not necessarily for their beauty (although a strong aesthetic is certainly present) or overt pomposity, but for luminous moments that glimpse how we explore notions of difference both individually and as a society.
Though not seemingly intentional, Ellington Robinson’s Oath of the Imperialists (2013) stands out in the exhibition as a pseudo-historical reference point framing the present day contexts in which the other five artists situate their work. Robinson, himself a 2008 graduate of the institution, is back to present an ersatz map of far-flung city-states whose satellite constituents are intimately connected at knifepoint. While the artist clearly draws parallels to historical moments when European nations expanded into and divided vast swaths of Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, the piece also reads as something akin to a cunning series of chess moves. With its mix of materials (felt, found wood) and fantastical geography, Oath of the Imperialists highlights the ways in which imperialistic empires have treated their vassal states as pawns in a never-ending tug of war. “It’s very Game of Thrones,” the gallery attendant wryly noted to me. In this regard, Robinson’s work highlights the fact that the immediacy in which the other artists position their viewpoints is underscored by decades, centuries even, of global strife.
This long-view of history accentuates the pathos which the Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal brings to bear in his sculptural and photographic work examining conflict within the Middle East. Exhibited here are two works from his Lovely Pink series entitled Pink David (2015) and Perseus Beheading Medusa (2015). For his Lovely Pink series, Bilal re-envisions iconic Western artistic treasures as diminutive statues cast in resin and coated with shrink wrap and enamel—two materials created with oil products linked to Iraq’s petroleum industry. While the works confront the ways in which artifacts of great cultural value have recently been defaced by jihadist groups, they also raise the uncomfortable question: why have Western ideals of artistic beauty become divisive rather than spiritually uplifting? His photographic work The Ashes Series: Dark Palace (2003-2013) raises similar questions, but from a more focused, personal viewpoint. For The Ashes Series, Bilal has recreated miniature maquettes of Iraqi domestic spaces destroyed by war. As a refugee whose father and brother have died in during the Iraqi conflict, Bilal seeks a closer connection to his homeland in order to make sense of this madness. The hazy fog in the photos, as if time stops for a split second amid the chaos of war, is achieved with a fine powder of human remains dusted upon the set. It’s a gut-punch on our emotions, giving way to haunting tenderness when we realize how raw Bilal’s emotions must run.
While Bilal and Robinson address political conflict on a global scale, works by Titus Kaphar and Derrick Adams shift these questions closer to a distinctly American stage. Similar to the work of Robinson, Adams’s Game Changing (Ace, King, Queen, Jack) (2015) takes a long view of history. His vibrantly-hued silkscreens —accented in 23.5 carat gold leaf—upend notions of Western iconography (in this case the royal heraldry often depicted on playing cards) by inserting African tribal patterns and faces into the mix. Wonderfully regal, the images are bold assertions of ebony beauty and authority, coming precisely at a moment in American political discourse when those considerations are being called into question. Kaphar directly and forcefully addresses this discourse with his work The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk) (2015). Perhaps the most subtle approach an artist could take to the issue of police brutality, Kaphar’s deceptively uses simple chalk sketches to outline the profiles of Sean Bell, Michael Brown and Eric Gardner onto asphalt paper. While individual profiles can be discerned, the work itself creates a multilayered, fictional “everyman”, reminding us that young, African-American men cannot be pigeon-holed into one identity while simultaneously challenging us to find our own face within this community.
Grappling with these same questions in ways that feel intensely, personally intimate are John Paradiso and Elle Pérez. Paradiso’s Fairy Collage Quilt (2014) melds beefcake imagery with quilted pansies in a wryly humorous examination of masculinity within the context of the gay male community. That sense of humor blunts, but doesn’t eliminate, the tumultuous journey gays and lesbians undertake to reconcile their gender identity with societal messages on how the genders ought to behave. Pérez builds upon Paradiso’s line of questioning, examining how in recent years our understanding of gender has grown beyond the gay/straight divide to encompass a broad spectrum of non-normative gendered voices. On display are three works from her The Outliers series, all dating from 2011, when Pérez traveled the country, visually documenting the lives of individuals who identify as “genderqueer”. The images avoid overt sentimentality, instead allowing the individuals and situations captured to project the multiplicity of emotions felt during journeys of self-discovery. A discarded placard displayed in Pronoun Workshop: Dowelltown, Tennessee describes this process succinctly: “It’s Complicated; Just Ask.”
The selection committee has managed to cover a huge swath of social terrain in one exhibition space, filling the room with multiple narratives each worthy of their own exhibition. While conversations concerning racial identity are slightly more fleshed out with works that simultaneously convey emotional, historical and political tones, perhaps that is because we are more fully acquainted with these discussions, even if we have yet to reach a harmonious resolution around them. One thing is certain: the conversations taking place between these artworks are certainly mirrored by interactions taking place outside the gallery within the diverse student community. In that respect, these works will continue to inspire student debate long after the exhibition ends.
‘New Arrivals 2015: Collecting Contemporary Art at the University of Maryland’ runs through December 18, 2015. The exhibition is free and open to the public. For gallery hours and other information, please visit their website here.