East City Art Reviews: You, if no one else & The More Things Change at Arlington Arts Center

By Wade Carey on March 14, 2018
Photograph by Dawn Whitmore
Arlington Arts Center galleries displaying work by Roxana Alger Geffen (foreground) and Ashley Minner (through doorway), part of the exhibition, You, if no one else. Installation photo for Arlington Arts Center by Dawn Whitmore used.

The current exhibition at Arlington Arts Center titled You, if no one else. As an exhortation, the phrase comes from a poem by Tino Villanueva included in his collection, Chronicle of My Worst Years[1]. The poem urges victims and witnesses of destitution and oppression to “put your voice where your memory is,” and to tell how the spirit of rebellion enables ways to “unlearn the lessons of that teacher, your land’s omnipotent defiler.” The show presents a spectrum of examples of political expression intertwined with works of art. The exhibition was curated by Karyn Miller, who served as Director of Exhibitions at AAC until November of last year. She has since moved to a position as Public Space Activation Curator for the District of Columbia’s Golden Triangle Business Improvement District. In her catalog notes, Ms. Miller tells us that, “planning for this exhibition began with a curiosity about the imprint a Trump presidency will have on artistic expression.”[2]

Photography and video dominate the exhibit.  However, in an arresting departure, artist Roxana Alger Geffen has created a series of Dissent Collar sculptures woven together from materials at hand. She seeks to emulate Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Justice Ginsburg is noted for having worn her lace robe collar, normally reserved for occasions when she is reading dissenting opinions, on the day after the 2016 presidential election.  Dissent Collar #10 evokes delicacy and could be lightly worn, while others like Dissent Collar #16 and Dissent Collar #9 are larger, heavier and feel as if they might constrict the wearer’s actions. They represent a multiplicity of impulses to create tangible evidence, a residue of her anxiety and sorrow.

Photograph by Wade Carey
Roxana Alger Geffen, Dissent Collar #10, mixed media. Photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.
Photograph by Wade Carey
Roxana Alger Geffen, Dissent Collar #16, mixed media. Photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

The photography of Lizania Cruz and Kim Beck was particularly compelling for me.  Lizania Cruz’s evocative Flowers for Immigration evokes the personal migration and diaspora experiences of  undocumented workers in the flower bodegas in New York.  Ms. Cruz asked each worker to create a flower arrangement as a personal but safely anonymous expression responding to the immigration experience under the Trump Administration. The results were gathered into wall-sized triptychs. One panel displayed text listing the flowers and corresponding countries represented by them. A second panel displays the flower selections as a disparate but artfully presented “inventory.” The final panel presents the finished arrangement. Text notes accompanying the art work provide a bit of detail about the experiences.  In the case of Maria, Flowers for Immigration, the artist writes, “As she is putting the final touches on the arrangement she tells me, ‘You know, we are all the same. We all go to the bathroom like everybody else. The only difference is that he is white and rich.  If he dies, he will become dust just like me and these flowers.’”

Photograph by Dawn Whitmore
Lizania Cruz, Viviana, Flowers for Immigration, 2017. Installation photo for Arlington Arts Center by Dawn Whitmore used with permission.
Lizania Cruz, Viviana, Flowers for Immigration, 2017, Panel 1. Arlington Arts Center press image.
Lizania Cruz, Viviana, Flowers for Immigration, 2017, Panel 2. Arlington Arts Center press image.
Lizania Cruz, Viviana, Flowers for Immigration, 2017, Panel 3. Arlington Arts Center press image used with permission.

In her #MINESIGN project, Kim Beck fabricated mirror-plated gold lettering declaring, “#MINE,” using the logo typeface from the Trump Tower. With the sign in hand she embarked on a coast-to-coast road trip taking pictures of it in a multitude of scenes as if to depict the president proclaiming and staking-out ownership on all that he surveys.  At the same time the artist responds in these scenes herself on behalf of all those represented in a stanza from Woodie Guthrie: “As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.’ / But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, / That side was made for you and me.”

Photograph by Wade Carey
Kim Beck, #MINE, 2017. Photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.
Photograph by Wade Carey
Installation detail, Kim Beck, #MINESIGN photography project, 2017. Photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

A video art work in the show, Wall of Song, is to me more interesting in concept than in execution. Interdisciplinary artists Michael Namkung and Mel Day have layered innumerable video recordings of heads and shoulders singing the Leonard Cohen chestnut, “Hallelujah.” The collaborative video traces its first recordings to Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. The project began with crowds in Washington DC and at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, and has continued to incorporate collaborations from all comers without regard to singing skill or place of origin. The results of this democratic endeavor are compelling as a contemplation but have a muddled result in execution and are not particularly engaging aesthetically.

Video from Dana Ollestad, titled Family Stories, permits its subjects (several family groups) to let the art find its voice without direct manipulation. Its aesthetic affect was not readily apparent to me but I think it will resonate for some and awaken familiar emotions and compassionate impulses.

More purely amusing and subversive by nature is When the World’s on Fire from Jon Rubin and Lee Walton. The title is another tip of the hat to Woodie Guthrie (and the Carter Family whose gospel song of that name provided him the melody for “This Land is Your Land”).  We see selected clips from a month-long performance project in which a fifer and drummer dressed in Revolutionary War era uniforms play contemporary protest songs (ranging from Marvin Gaye and Gloria Gaynor up to “Green Day” and “Rage Against the Machine”) as they march around the Cambridge Common in Massachusetts for a couple of hours at lunch time ever day.

Arlington Arts Center press image
John Rubin & Lee Walton, When the World’s on Fire, performance project, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 12 – June 12, 2017. Arlington Arts Center press image used with permission.

The exhibition includes sets of photographs by Danielle A. Scruggs portraying black and Hispanic  neighbors in under-served and underrepresented neighborhoods as they are enlisted to come out to the polls. The photographs were taken during her tenure as photo director of the Chicago Reader.  As Election Day 2016 approached, she documented voter mobilization efforts in Chicago’s West Side. Covered subjects include Chicago native Chance the Rapper’s Parade to the Polls event in Grant Park, November 7, 2016. The pictures convey captured moments where people are seen in states of enthusiasm as well detachment born of distrust of politicking.

Photograph by Wade Carey
Danielle A. Scruggs, Parade to the Polls, 2016. Installation detail photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

The Lumbee are one of eight state-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina, recognized as such since 1885.  In her series, The Exquisite Lumbees, Ashley Minner, in collaboration with Baltimore portrait photographer Sean Scheidt, created poster-sized portraits of her fellow North Carolina Lumbees in their shared tribal diaspora in East Baltimore. The faces are warm and direct; the brilliant white backgrounds are augmented with notes hand-written by the portrait subjects detailing their personal comments on identity.

Photograph by Wade Carey
Ashley Minner, The Excellent Lumbees, 2010. Installation detail photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

This exhibition at the Arlington Arts Center even provides an opportunity for visitors to project their own “political” messages in the form of hand written yard signs. Yard Sign Activation from FOR FREEDOMS, LLC, invites us to declare our belief in “Freedom of” or “Freedom from” (participants fill in the blanks with marker pens).  The project makes reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech about the “Four Freedoms,” (freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear). FOR FREEDOMS bills itself as is the first artist-run super-PAC. Founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, it was registered as a political action committee in January, 2016, and has been raising money and awareness about questions arising from the intersection of art and politics ever since. The front lawn at the Arlington Arts Center is already blanketed with yard signs.

Photo by Wade Carey
FOR FREEDOMS, LLC, Yard Sign Activation, 2017. Installation detail photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

The contributions selected for You, if no one else show varying degrees of acuity by artists engaged in political expression.  Some are straightforward, working as documentarians of real events. Others work to provide relevant art while staging visual constructions or performative content. The result of this exercise may be for some, as it was for me, a renewal of hope in the role that artistic expression can play in motivating people to seek greater awareness of political realities and to aspire after a society dedicated to higher social purposes.

Photograph by Wade Carey
Mixed media artifact from a recent endurance performance. Michele Colburn, The More Things Change, 2018. Installation detail photo for East City Art by Wade Carey.

A companion show in the AAC’s Wyatt Resident Artists Gallery, The More Things Change, features the work of Michèle Colburn.  Mixed media work is accompanied by video documentation of a recent endurance performance during which the artist carried an armature on her back through the streets that was  constructed to display artifacts of war (barbed wire, toy armored tank, dollars, toy military helicopter).

Colburn inflects her work with allusions to pop culture, escapism and consumerism that remain constant spanning the decades from her childhood during the Vietnam War to the so-called Permanent War state in progress in today’s post-9/11 world.

[1] Chronicle of My Worst Years/Crónica de mis años peores, Chicago: Triquarterly, 1994

[2] You, if no one else Exhibition Catalog, “About the Exhibition,” p.4

The exhibitions run January 20-March 31, 2018 at the Arlington Arts Center located at 3550 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia. Visit the galleries online at www.arlingtonartscenter.org/exhibitions/current/