Visual art serves many functions in the modern world. For some contemporary artists, shining a light on our socio-political landscape and forcing us to confront our values of self, community and nation are key concerns. Annie Bissett is one such artist, using a centuries-old printmaking technique to explore distinctly modern social quandaries. The Northampton, MA-based artist recently debuted PAST.PRESENT.NOW!, her first solo exhibition in the DC area at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art just off Logan Circle in northwest DC.
Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art focuses specifically upon “the art of social and political change” and derives from Krause’s experiences as a foreign correspondent for media outlets such as the Washington Post and CBS News. Exhibitions are hung salon-style throughout his personal space, subtly interacting with the viewer in a more personal way than normally experienced in a museum or commercial environment. Bissett’s prints benefit from this setting, allowing the viewer to engage with the multiple layers of history slowly coalescing across the surface of each work.
Bissett’s interest in history lies not just in historical facts, but the ways in which the subjective understanding of those truisms are shaped, coded and influenced by the passage of time, politics and societal mores. Though the works on display here bounce between a plethora of cultural touchpoints–money, power, sex, religion– they are visually united in composition and tone. Krause notes that Bissett utilizes a Japanese technique called mokuhanga, or woodblock printing, in which separate blocks are chiseled for each color and then applied by hand to moistened paper. The technique is laborious, and somewhat anachronistic in our modern age, but allows the artist to focus on her personal relationship to her chosen topics as she simultaneously mines their shifting historical context(s).
This direct intertwining of personal experience and societal attitudes is most apparent in prints from the We Are Pilgrims series. Tapping into the history of her family lineage (Bissett’s ancestral line flows directly to the Mayflower), We Are Pilgrims seeks to provide Bissett a more nuanced appreciation of her own origin story as it simultaneously upends some of the wider, cultural assumptions of our Nation’s forebearers. For instance Dorothy Bradford Comes to America (2009) captures the historically-accurate suicide of a Mayflower passenger on the eve of arriving at the new continent. The composition is destabilizing, skewing the horizon line between ship and ocean and rendering the woman almost upon the surface of the water rather than embraced by its murky deaths. The work calls into question the assumed stoicism we impose upon our earliest settlers, noting that they were much more mentally complicated than currently understood. God Blesses John Alexander and Thomas Roberts (2010) adds to that mosaic in its pictorial rendering of a gay “couple” who were prosecuted for sodomy in 1637 when their relationship was discovered. The men are superimposed over text from protest letters penned when Gene Robinson was elected as an Episcopal Bishop in New Hampshire in 2004. The invective is difficult to read, but it also demonstrates that the politicization of culturally-complex, same-sex relationships is a cyclical phenomenon dating back centuries rather than mere decades.
Other works speak to more contemporary observations in Bissett’s life that contain personal as well as societal implications. The artist’s Loaded series seeks to elucidate her (and by extension our) relationship to money and the financial systems we’ve created. While conceived in 2007, this body of work took on new meaning in the wake of the 2008 recession and can be viewed both as intimately personal or a macroscopic critique. Some works—such as her Mixed Feelings prints—confront the viewer head-on with their metaphors while others take time to consider. Great Wave (2011) features a serene, ubiquitous landscape with a solitary individual paddling a canoe through a body of water. The image is purposefully vague, underscoring the “everyman” nature of the individual. A circling, billowing cloud, reminiscent of Hokusai’s seminal work The Great Wave off Kanagawa, emanates from the lower left corner of the image and quickly encroaches upon the solitary figure. Will the wave propel the figure forward or engulf him in a swirling tempest? The answer is left unclear, signifying that either outcome is possible. That there is an economic message is obliquely understood, but the imagery is eerily familiar: we’ve seen this pattern before. Then it strikes you: the flourishes are the same as those that adorn the back of the one dollar bill. Suddenly not only are you standing on the canoe but you realize entire societies delicately balance alongside you. The metaphor is used with similar effect in Smoke (2011) which features a rising cloud of the same decorative motif emanating from the hulk of a car. Bissett notes that the image of the broken-down vehicle comes directly from a news media photo depicting a bombed-out car in Iraq. Not only, she seems to say, are our tax dollars going “up in smoke”, but the artist also confronts us with the fact that our economic system undergirds our seeming lust for nation-building.
That concept of nationalism and its concomitant reshaping of national borders is a topic of the Border Series, represented by three works on display. While these works do not exhibit the same personal reflections of the self we see in other pieces, they certainly touch upon our shared understanding of the cultural forces that bind us together or push us apart. United States – Mexico (2008) has a sense of prescience given today’s political climate that the artist could have only surmised. A distinct horizontal line is (super)imposed upon a backdrop of indigenous communities and through clever spatial manipulation functions as a two-dimensional map border and three-dimensional wall rising from the earth. But to focus solely on those contemporaneous impulses overlooks the historical lens that underscores clashes between cultures. That dynamism is on greater display in Israel-Palestine (2011), which not only grounds the territory’s disputes within the context of its ancient religious turbulence, but also (correctly) emphasizes the historical machinations of political entities outside the immediate geographic area. A sly political reference using Dr. Seuss characters and blue stars as a stand-in for the European Union seems to cast doubt as to whether today’s political elites are any better equipped to diffuse cultural turmoil than the aristocracy before them.
Bissett’s various bodies of work present numerous points of departure from which to reflect upon our culture. While a testament to the artist’s discerning thought process, so many bodies of work displayed together threatens to overwhelm the viewer within the confines of the salon (works from two other series titled The Almanack and I Was a 20th Century Lesbian are also on display). As an introduction to DC audiences, the multitude of ideas in Past. Present. Now! admirably displays the range of Bissett’s cultural critique. Future exhibitions would do well to pick those ideas apart one by one, giving them each the attention they deserve.
Past. Present. Now! is on view through August 1st, 2016 at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art in Logan Circle. For hours and directions, please visit the gallery’s website here.