The continued fascination with the sociopolitical concerns that have come to prominence around and since the 2016 election is explored in “America Is…” Artists Explore, Ask and Answer: What is America today? , now on view at DC’s Touchstone gallery. The exhibition is extensive and national in scope: jurors Rachel Adams, Taylor Bythewood-Porter, Jen Mergel and Jennifer M. Williams have selected forty-nine artists from across the country whose works attempt to provide an emotional context to 24-hour news cycle headlines. Pieces by Judith Levy, Jenny Wu, Lloyd Foster and the duo Ti-Rock More and Nic Brierre Aziz were selected by the four jurors for cash prizes awarded by the gallery. The exhibition represents Touchstone Gallery’s third iteration on the theme of social activism and displays a more broadly-based examination of contemporary identity than 2016’s Art as Politics and 2017’s Art of Engagement. Does this show answer the question ‘What is America today?’ Not necessarily. And to the extent it does, it paints a bleak picture of the American psyche.
The exhibition is less concerned with presidential politics than the prior two shows; only two artists directly invoke President Trump. Here the curatorial lens is focused on the way our recent political choices reverberate through the tenuous fabric of a multi-cultural society and is more concerned with broader issues such as racism, homophobia, gun violence and income inequality. The intersectionality of these social issues is emphasized, connoting that America “is” the amalgamation of the thoughts, experiences and beliefs of its multi-cultural populace. That this populace seems evermore fractious is underscored by the emotional tenor created by the disparate works on display and summed up by the delicately rendered shredded flag featured in Laura Sussman-Randalls Torn V.
How we as a society work collectively towards a more holistic, cohesive sense of camaraderie is not addressed with the same visual vigor. That said, several works allow for a sense of emotional catharsis while simultaneously laying the groundwork for possible reconciliation. The key similarity between these works is a nuanced message whose meaning is open to a variety of contextual interpretations, creating a moment of dialogue between artist and viewer. While the artist’s point of view may be apparent, meaning is left for the viewer to ponder. In this manner the artist asks us to engage with our own emotional response(s) vis-à-vis the scene before us.
As an example, the video work Freedom has Never Tasted so Good by Mia Adams shows a cake being pulverized, remade in the shape of the continental US and subsequently decorated to wipe out any trace of its demolition. We are to understand that the slathering on of white frosting is intended to connote the “white-washing” of the history of people of color. Yet Adams connotes this history with a humorous irony, leaving just enough unstated to allow for multiple interpretations of the work, thus engaging viewers on a more personal level. Eating the Cake by Beverly Ryan encourages us to consider ecological concerns with a similar mindset. Here Ryan has created a relatively abstract landscape whose terrain is studded with constructions reminiscent of power lines or oil rigs. These constructions dominate the front of the picture plane and rest atop a white cake, echoing the farce seen in Adams’ video. Though Ryan provides clues, viewers must interpret the meaning based upon their own experiences.
Brandon Smith, Matthew Rentz and Corrina Sephora skillfully speak to the emotional tensions underscoring notions of political and social partisanship, highlighting common threads of anxiety that cross party lines. Smith’s Deplorables presents an a abstractly rendered crowd scene, stripping the individuals of visual clues that might indicate political persuasion and leaving visible only lips, tongue and teeth caught mid chant. While the title positions the crowd within a political narrative, we have no idea who the crowd represents. Are “we” the crowd, chanting in the streets for our preferred cause? Is it “they” who seek to abrogate those rights? Visual notions of “us” and “them” begin to hazily overlap and meld together as we consider the artist’s possible intentions. A similar sentiment exists in Rentz’s 50 Fists which from afar takes on Abstract-expressionist characteristics with its complex interplay of color and line. Up close, those patterns coalesce into raised hands, suggesting a diverse crowd with its hands raised in unified salute. Like Smith, Rentz gives us no guidance as to who these individuals are, allowing the viewer to discover solidarity with the crowd. Uncomfortable solidarity also takes place in Corrina Sephora’s In the Spirit Realm which overlays a fictional crowd with shooting range targets.
America Is… paints a bleak portrait of the country. If there is a silver lining, it is perhaps the notion that artists recognize it is ineffectual to consider social concerns as individual issues divorced from one another. Rather, as here evidenced, their work reflects the growing understanding that a diverse set of simultaneous responses is required to address these concerns; the most effective of these actions will be those that help us to see the humanity in “the other”. America Is… forces us to confront the uncomfortable truths that exist today, and perhaps encourages us to envision some creative solutions for tomorrow.
America Is.. is on view through August 29, 2019 at Touchstone Gallery. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: Torn 4 (detail) by Laura Sussman-Randall; Charcoal; 48″ x 60″. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.