Tag: 2010s

Exhibitions: Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum

agitprop-postersVarious posters and ephemera on view in Agitprop!. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press. Now more than ever it seems harder for new artists to operate in a world separate from their surroundings, with ever-present media over-saturation and the volatile state of current affairs, and increased awareness of how race, gender, class, and sexuality affect personal experience (and therefore, artistic production).

On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 7, 2016, Agitprop! is a thought-provoking group exhibition that collects together over 100 years of work made “as a call to action to create political and social change.” There are posters and newspaper clippings, films and documentary photography, performance records and public sculpture, with work from long-established artists like Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, as well as newer collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative. Participating artists were invited to recommend others for the show, making even the curatorial process a study in collaboration and egalitarianism. The resulting exhibit is organized loosely by theme, connecting decades and different activist approaches, addressing both domestic and international issues.

intlworkingwomensday-postersPosters by Valentina Kulagina, 1931. Right-hand image via The Charnel House.

eisenstein-miseryStill from Misery and Fortune of Woman, 1929. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse.

The first room I went through greeted me with a series of Soviet propaganda promoting women’s health and labor, with vintage posters for International Working Women’s Day, and an educational film by Sergei Eisenstein advocating for safe abortions across the world (the USSR had legalized abortion in 1920). The posters were created by Valentina Kulagina, a leading Constructivist designer in the 20s and 30s. Her work combines monochrome photo-collage with brightly colored illustration in the bold social realist style, pairing real women of the USSR with the ideal, sturdy working woman seen in official advertising. The sharp diagonals, stark text, and heavy use of red are perfect examples of the Constructivist aesthetic popular in the early years of the USSR, which endeavored to establish its own unique art style that visually symbolized utilitarianism, unity, and strength. Meant to be inspirational, Kulagina’s imagery also highlights the struggle women still faced entering the workforce after the revolution, while still expected to retain domestic duties. The artist’s creative output was later restricted under increased Stalinist scrutiny and her progressive revolutionary ideology was rejected.

Communist messages were further represented by a section on Tina Modotti’s photography, taken in Mexico during the 1930s. Born in Italy, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and, after a brief career as a film and stage actress, she moved to Mexico City with photographer Edward Weston. There she became part of the revolutionary avant-garde alongside artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She was known for her documentary photographs of murals, peasant farmers, and laborers, and her work was often used in Communist literature and propaganda. Agitprop! features a selection of her photographs paired with magazines and newspapers that featured them, including The New Masses. Her style is characterized by its empathy, stark contrast, and attention to details.

tinamodottiWoman With Flag and Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle by Tina Modotti, seen in issues of A-I-Z and The New Masses, respectively.

suffragette-banner Standing Together… by the National Women’s Party, 1913-1920.

dykeactionmachineLesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998, and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993, by Dyke Action Machine.

granfury-guerrillagirlsWomen Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it by Gran Fury, 1991; When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, and Dear Art Collector, 2015, by the Guerrilla Girls.

Soundararajan-DalitWomenFight-2014#DalitWomenFight by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 2014.

Feminist messages are represented in various ways throughout the show, with historic and contemporary activism side by side. Vintage suffragette banners hang high above a mural by Dyke Action Machine that wryly inserts lesbian themes into 90s advertising imagery. A poster by Gran Fury (displayed in various NYC bus shelters in 1991) calls for more inclusive treatment and discussion of AIDS by the Center for Disease Control. Several pieces by the Guerrilla Girls highlight trenchant sexism in the art world, employing sarcasm, statistics, and advertising to target collectors, art scholars, and museum leaders. Formed in the 1980s, their message continues to be relevant today as museums and galleries remain heavily white and male in their collections and major exhibits. Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s LED text-based sculpture references her project, #DalitWomenFight, which fights caste-based sexual violence in India and promotes the stories of Dalit women across the world.

In the center of it all is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a sculptural installation that is permanently on view as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection within the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This room-size work represents the artist’s idea of a dinner table set for important women throughout history, including some mythological figures. Each place setting features an embroidered banner with the woman’s name and symbols connected to her culture or experience, and a porcelain plate with painted or sculpted yonic imagery. The floor is painted with names of many more women, some connected to the major figures with plates. Within the realm of feminist art history, this is a landmark, a quintessential work of second wave feminism with its focus on the body, on vaginal motifs, on goddess culture, and on women’s history. Today many recognize this brand of feminism as being too exclusive, generally prioritizing cis white women, equating vaginas with womanhood and Western-centric historical figures. I definitely agree with this criticism, but I do still view the movement as significant and influential, and I feel art being made by women like Chicago was radical for its time, and I was moved by her sweeping vision when I stood within The Dinner Party. So there that is. The lack of women of color (I think there are, like, three?) is a big distraction while viewing it, though.

chicago-dinnerparty1The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty2The Dinner Party (detail – Virginia Woolf) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79

chicago-dinnerparty3 The Dinner Party (detail – Sojourner Truth) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty4 The Dinner Party (detail – Hildegarde von Bingen) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty5 The Dinner Party (detail – Amazon) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty6The Dinner Party (detail – Sacajawea) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

Moving back into Agitprop!, there are works linking decades of police oppression and government inaction regarding black deaths in this country. One display compiles film (Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates), photography, illustration, and painting to starkly remind viewers of our history of ignorance, prejudice, and, especially, lynching. Wall text relates how the NAACP “made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds” a central part of their strategy to “end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders,” resulting in plays, films, songs, and artwork that sought to combat stereotyping and misinformation about African Americans in the early twentieth century. On a nearby wall hang photographs from Dread Scott’s 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, which links recent incidents of police brutality (indicated by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture) with 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, when anti-segregation demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses. In an earlier gallery, a piece by Otabenga Jones & Associates reminds viewers of the Free Breakfast Program launched by the Black Panthers, sabotaged by J Edgar Hoover. (Recently, this inspired their own “People’s Plate” educational nutrition program in Houston, TX.)

A variety of other social and political issues are addressed in further works, again both historical and contemporary. Posters from the WPA advertise theatrical productions about housing and labor concerns during the Great Depression, while a “Mili-Tent” from the Not an Alternative collective is displayed as a sculpture, having been used as a symbol in protests against foreclosure, eviction, and displacement in New York City. Cartoon illustrations by Coco Fusco relate to her infamous performance piece from the early 90s, in which she and collaborator Guillermo Gomez-Peña presented themselves as fake “Undiscovered Amerindians,” with stereotypically “primitive” clothing and language, kept in a cage and put on display in the tradition of World’s Fair displays. Viewers were told that they were indigenous to an island untouched by Western culture, and for a fee they would perform dances and take photos with the crowd. Adejoke Tugbiyele’s sprawling gay pride flag addresses homophobic persecution in Nigeria, made of women’s headscarves (gele) traditionally worn at funerals. In another gallery, a huge mural collects together drawings by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer, responding to violence in his own country as well as in the US. Across the room a powerful piece by The Yes Men and various collaborators imagines a peaceful, utopian future after Obama’s first election through a fake newspaper with headlines like “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.”

lynched-peoplesplateFlag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City, 1936. Via Brooklyn Museum; and The People’s Plate on the Move by Otabenga Jones & Associates, 2015.

WPA-postersFederal Theatre Project posters, late 1930s. Right-hand poster via Wikimedia Commons.

notanalternative-mili-tent-2011Mili-Tent by Not an Alternative, 2011.

cocofusco-theamerindians-2012The Undiscovered Amerindians: “Oh Please!” Begged the Gentleman at the Whitney Biennial by Coco Fusco, 2012.

AdejokeTugbiyele-GelePrideFlag-2014Gele Pride Flag by Adejoke Tugbiyele, 2014.

ganzeer-urgentvisions-2015Urgent Visions by Ganzeer, 2015.

yesmen-nytimesThe New York Times Special Edition by The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, et al, 2008.

Agitprop! is jam-packed with work, and at times can be overwhelming as a viewer, but only because the emotional content is so high. Almost everywhere I turned I was met with evidence of people who cared, deeply, about the world around them, and who earnestly try to effect change through their art and activist practices. In many ways the exhibit moved me, and there were moments when I had to turn away because the subjects were too upsetting. But that’s good, that’s the point, we should be upset by what we see here, especially the realization that so many of the historical issues are still relevant today. Often when confronted with such knowledge and imagery of suffering, I shut down and try to take my mind off it, because it’s too much, and I feel helpless. But seeing a show like this makes me realize I can be hopeful that things can get better, and that people from all around the world are using what skills they have (in this case, their artistic and collaborative abilities) to gradually make things better, bit by bit.

Exhibitions: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.

Sources:

“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.

Exhibitions: “Surround Audience” at the New Museum

A few weeks ago I had a few hours to myself in New York and, after much consternation over both the Studio Museum and the Brooklyn Museum being closed on Tuesdays, I decided to check out the New Museum’s Triennial exhibition. Titled Surround Audience, the show is the third in the museum’s “triennial” program: group exhibitions which endeavor to spotlight important artists early in their careers, predicting the future of contemporary art. The result is a museum-wide showcase packed with awesome, diverse, young artists (so young, ugh) and I liked pretty much all of it! The size and scope of the show as a whole is daunting, and I could never write about everything I saw, so instead I’ve picked out the top five artists who stuck out to me.

 

huxtable-untitled-group-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’) (left), 2015 and Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) (right), 2015. All photos by the author.

benson-Juliana-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Destroying Flesh), 2015.

Juliana Huxtable

Artist-poet-DJ Juliana Huxtable has been making waves with her strong online presence, gathering a large following on instagram and tumblr. I had heard of her but wasn’t too familiar with her work, but her photography and poetry on view in Surround Audience immediately pulled me in. In her performance-photography, she creates personae inspired by pop culture, history, and mythology, with a narrative feel. Her photographs are interspersed with free-form poetry ruminating on identity, communication, capitalism, and generational history. In the center of the gallery with her pieces is a life-size sculpture of the artist created by Frank Benson (with Huxtable’s collaboration). With its tantalizing sheen and eerie green-gray color palette, the 3D-printed work captures the trans artist during her transition period, proudly showcasing her non-gender-conforming body while also placing it on a kind of sci-fi plane that matches the otherworldly feel of her self-portraits. Taken together, the works present Huxtable as both a changeable, larger-than-life fictional character as well as a bold, uninhibited, and real person.

 

Laric-untitled1-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Laric-untitled2-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Oliver Laric

Berlin-based video artist Oliver Laric’s untitled piece offers a study of transformation, appropriation, and narrative tropes within Western and Japanese animation. A string of short, hand-drawn animated clips are shown in fast succession, capturing characters and some objects at the moment of transformation, with humans turning into animals, alien creatures, mechanical contraptions, etc, but the full change never shown as it blinks to the next shot. There are also moments where the act of drawing is shown, as strokes of line and paint daubs coalesce into figures. The video as a whole seems tailor-made for internet-savvy folks, with references to furries, Disney, anime, and Saturday-morning cartoons, but it’s also easy to interpret its constantly shifting forms as a commentary on contemporary society, on a fast-paced culture that must endlessly re-appropriate the old into something new, preying on our sense of nostalgia. Honestly, I just loved watching it, the animation is beautiful and fluid, the premise is inventive, and the ambient score is hypnotic.

 

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem5-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem1-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem2-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem4-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Eva Kotátková

I’m pretty sure I let out an audible gasp of delight when I came upon Eva Kotátková’s installation. Her collection of performative sculpture immediately reminded me of one of my favorite artists, Rebecca Horn, but pushed to even further extremes than Horn’s early body extensions. Kotátková’s work employs cage structures and prickly objects to create interactive tools and faux-appendages, accompanied by collage-drawings diagramming more elaborate creations. I love the possibility of her work, with images of hypothetical performers coming to mind as I viewed each piece (there were scheduled performances, but I missed them). Statically, they visually interact with each other within the installation, set against a cheery yellow backdrop that contrasts with the slightly menacing effect of the metal bars and rods that make up the sculptural shapes. Like Horn, Kotátková explores bondage as a concept, and her contraptions encourage users to consider the balance of bodily freedom and containment as they both hamper and enhance movement, along with the psychological effects of institutions that enforce these controls, like prisons and hospitals.

 

AkunyiliCrosby-anndwebegintoletgo-2013Njideka Akunyili Crosby: And We Begin to Let Go, 2013.

AkunyiliCrosby-thread-2012Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Thread, 2012.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

It’s no secret I love collage, and these large-scale mixed media pieces by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby stopped me in my tracks. Her recent marriage to an American and move to Los Angeles serve as the context for these multi-layered portraits. For her, combining different styles and visual sources is a direct connection to her cultural history, referencing how colonized countries have often been forced to assimilate the art of Western cultures into their own traditions. With an eclectic array of source materials and brilliant color schemes, her works capture simple, intimate moments between lovers, focusing on expressive body language in her figures while the collage elements taken from Nigerian magazines capture the country she left behind. They drew me in almost immediately with their large size and tactile mixed-media layers, encouraging a close, lingering look.

 

Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin2-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Aleksandra Domanović

Born in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Berlin-based artist Aleksandra Domanović is concerned with the history of technology within her home country, and especially women’s roles in it. Her installation for the Triennial is the third in a trilogy of works connecting science-fiction, technological history, and the representation of women. Here, she has created three 3D-printed sculptures modeled after the Belgrade Hand, an early robotic prosthetic invented in the 60s by Serbian scientist Rajko Tomović, displayed within a hanging curtain of plastic sheeting decorated with blood cells and sea creatures to suggest a contrast between organic and man-made materials. Though based on the same model, the three sculptures perform different actions and seem to have portray diverse abilities, suggesting the technological advances that have since been made and more that may still be possible in future developments. Their realistic fabrication but fantastical look gives them an uncanny presence, and as I observed them it was easy to make mental links to robots-gone-bad sci-fi tropes like the disembodied Terminator hand or the hodgepodge mechanical killer in Hardware.

Exhibitions: Adriana Varejão at ICA Boston

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014-detAdriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series) (detail), 2014. All photos by the author.

With large-scale paintings that seemingly ooze innards and self-portraits brushed with racial signifiers, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão does not hold anything back. Her works offer a pointed commentary on contemporary race relations by referencing colorism, colonialism, co-mingled cultures, and cannibalism. The latter is the unifying theme of the artist’s first US solo exhibition, curated by Anna Stothart, though she and Varejão prefer the term “anthropophagy”- coined by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade to describe the assimilation (“devouring”) of European culture by native Brazilians as a means of surviving during the colonial period. In this way, “the cannibal, which had long represented the paradigm of the indigenous savage” is reclaimed, and “the taboo of eating human flesh [is transformed] into a symbol of cultural absorption” (Stothart, 39).

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997Adriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I, 1997.

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997-detAdriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I (detail), 1997.

varejao-Carpet-StyleTileworkOnCanvases-1999Adriana Varejão: Carpet-Style Tilework on Canvases, 1999.

Varejão represents this concept both literally and figuratively in a range of media, including large-scale paintings, mixed-media installations, and sculptural tiles. Entrance Figure I, situated in the first room of the exhibition, probably reveals her themes most literally. A classical nude woman stands in the center, gesturing in welcome (referencing popular courtly decorations in Portugal and Brazil). Covered in floral tattoos and holding a spear, she represents an idealized indigenous warrior. Her right hand reveals a shocking scene behind her, a grisly depiction of cannibalism as nude men and women tear into human body parts, cooking them on a large fire. These images themselves are pulled from the illustrations of Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry, who illustrated the people of the Americas with incredibly broad strokes, never having traveled there himself. As Stothart notes, in the minds of colonizing Europeans, such images “became validation for forced catechism and cultural oppression” (Stothart, 41). In works like this, Varejão relies on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, long maintained by Western minds (often unconsciously), as well as viewers’ familiarity with omnipresent Greco-Roman motifs. We see a classically beautiful nude, but are thrown off by her allover body tattoos. We see a classically beautiful balustrade setting, but are then repulsed by the intense scene of cannibalism and “savages”. The blue-and-white painted style of this piece and many others is a further reference to colonial ceramic tiles, subverting a domestic tradition into something far more sinister.

My favorite element of Varejão’s work is her penchant for Cronenbergian body horror. Several of her pieces are literally spilling over with fabricated blood and guts, others pucker like human skin. The artist breaks through the facade of harmonious cultivation, of benevolent colonizers, of imposed “civilization.” These nicely painted tiles are falling apart to reveal the human detritus inside, a not-so-subtle reminder of Brazil’s (and all of Latin America’s, really) violent past due to European takeover. In her work, Varejão asserts that there is no hiding that past, even today, for it remains an integral part of Brazil’s cultural identity. Wall with incisions à la Fontana is a canvas that has been slashed as if with a sword or knife, cutting into the painting to expose blood and tissue, an update of the cut canvases of Argentinian modernist Lucio Fontana. Map of Lopo Homem II turns a 16th-century Portuguese map into sutured flesh, with gaping wound torn through the center: a visceral representation of map-making’s benefactor, world conquest, and a nod to the adage, “history is written by the victors” (and of course in most instances in Western history, that means white people). As Federico Rosa points out, in human affairs, “beauty and destruction often have to coexist” (Rosa, “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh”).

 

varejao-MapOfLopoHomemII-1992 Adriana Varejão: Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

varejao-Folds2-2003 Adriana Varejão: Folds 2, 2003.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II, 1996.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii2 Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II (detail), 1996.

varejao-WallWithIncisionsALaFontanaHorizontal-2009-11Adriana Varejão: Wall With Incisions a la Fontana-horizontal, 2009.

One gallery is devoted to a third and integral aspect of Varejão’s practice: her exploration of race and colorism. For her recent “Polvo” series, she experiments with skin tone and racial perceptions in both paintings and mixed-media installations. Polvo Oil Colors from 2013 features a collection of paint tubes with labels like “coffee with milk,” “half breed,” and “mostly white,” all descriptors taken from a 1976 census in which Brazilians were able to identify their own race. Having created the paint colors, Varejão then uses these unique racial signifiers in a number of subversive portraits. For Polvo Portraits (Seascape Series), she commissioned a traditional Brazilian artist to paint multiple copies of her portrait, which she then altered using different skin tones so that her face suddenly moved within numerous racial categories. Such works point out the limiting and narrow-minded views of race within contemporary society, views that have carried over from the complex racial hierarchies established by Europeans when conquering South America. The artist challenges her viewers to consider how skin color affects their view of a person, specifically of a woman, silently pushing all of our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about race and ethnicity to the forefront of our looking experience.

In the final room of the show, there are a few paintings taken from a series dedicated to empty tiled rooms, in which Vareão chooses to forgo the sculptural guts for a more subdued composition, merely hinting at unseen acts of violence through stark settings and anonymous blood. The large-scale canvas The Guest perhaps makes the biggest impact of the whole show. Its bright white tiles seem to pop out of the wall, a believable three-dimensionality that invites the viewer into the painted space, only to meet them with a mysterious pool of blood. There is no visible body, no attacker, no weapon, no police tape or clean-up crew, no indication of the titular “guest.” Upon viewing this work, I was immediately reminded of Varejão’s peer Teresa Margolles, whose work Limpieza features a man mopping a palatial floor with the blood and grime of Mexican crime scenes. Margolles is literal and aggressive with her use of human remains to comment on the violence that has become commonplace in her home country; Varejão is similarly confrontational and visceral, but filters her commentary through history and metaphor so that the overall effect is more open-ended. Her presentation is varied in material and style but consistent in its iconography. She captures our attention with her unsettling compositions and forces us to consider why we are unsettled, why we feel discomfort when met with the atrocities of the past and the remnants of colonialism found in the present. Her work is strange and academic and often esoteric, but its full-frontal approach makes an impact regardless of context, and this exhibit is sure to stick with me for a long time.

 

varejao-PolvoOilColors-2013Adriana Varejão: Polvo Oil Colors, 2013.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series), 2014.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-SeascapeSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (Seascape Series), 2009.

varejao-TheGuest-2005Adriana Varejão: The Guest, 2005.

varejao-ThePerverse-2006Adriana Varejão: The Perverse, 2006.

Sources:

Federico Rosa. “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh.” The Culture Trip. http://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/adriana-varej-o-a-history-of-flesh-/

Anna Stothart. Adriana Varejão. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: “Shinique Smith: Bright Matter” at MFA Boston

I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston fairly regularly–I’ve seen almost all of their major exhibitions (plus many smaller ones) since I moved here in 2006–and while I respect their vast collections, up-to-date facilities, and significant works in the Impressionist, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian categories, I have found little to praise in the diversity department. Their pre-Columbian holdings are hidden in the basement, their African and Oceanic galleries are weirdly situated, and their main exhibits especially (which I do hold as the most important marker of a museum’s tastes and priorities, since they are the main thing museums will advertise, merchandise, celebrate, etc) leave much to be desired in terms of representation. In the past several years in their large exhibition galleries, they’ve primarily shown white men (Edgar Degas, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Mario Testino, Jamie Wyeth, Richard Avedon, Ellsworth Kelly, etc), authorless objects like samurai armor, or fashion primarily designed by white men. The only major show I can think of with named artists of color is Fresh Ink, displaying the work of ten contemporary Chinese artists (only one a woman). The Quilts and Color show from this summer was notable for its focus on works made by women, even if they were anonymous housewives, but the text associated with the show rarely mentioned the actual makers of the works, instead choosing to discuss everything in the context of color theory and the collectors’ process. There is an admission that these quilts anticipate later experiments in color and optical effects by influential artists like Josef Albers and Bridget Riley, but the fact that the people actually pioneering these ideas are “non-artist” housewives is never mentioned.

Shinique SmithEntrance to Shinique Smith: Bright Matter. All photos by the author.

All this frustration with the MFA’s lack of diversity is just a lead-up to say how pleased I’ve been with the museum’s contemporary wing as of late. Not only have the ever-changing contemporary galleries become much more inclusive of women and people of color, but the special exhibitions have been far from safe in their choices of artist and theme- usually foregoing big names in favor of exposure for international artists who are less known in the US. They’ve had Israeli photographer Ori Gersht, experimental ceramists, Iranian women photographers, political artists from Latin America, and now, Shinique Smith, an inventive and multi-talented black artist whose works makes an impact in both scale and material. Side note: we went to the same college, which kind of blows my mind because I can’t think of any artists I really love who went there.

Pulling from a range of graphic references–including graffiti, Cy Twombly, calligraphy, fashion design, rock music, breakdancing, 80s nostalgia, and Jean-Michel Basquiat–Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works. She is probably most known for her sculptural clothing bundles, representing “bales” of clothes sent from the US and other Western countries to communities in Africa for re-use. Though they make compelling statements about the intersection of race, culture, and consumerism in the clothing industry, I found them kind of underwhelming in the context of this exhibit. I think they’re probably most effective in large groups filling up a gallery space, as opposed to strewn individually throughout the rooms. I felt similarly about her hanging clothing bundle sculptures, collectively titled Parade, which are so interesting but just not placed well here. I wanted more of them peppering the space about my head, so they might truly invoke the parade floats hinted at in the title. I do really like all of these sculptural pieces, I’m just not sure they were shown off to their best effect in this specific display.

shiniquesmith-installationviewShinique Smith: Bright Matter. Installation view.

shiniquesmith-Parade-2014Shinique Smith: Parade (detail), 2014.

Luckily, I had plenty of beautiful things to engage me with Smith’s truly lovely wall pieces, many of which are brand new and haven’t been shown before. These large-scale canvases combine all manner of material, including paint, fabrics, bleach, beads, dolls, and magazine cut-outs, resulting in visually stunning abstract works that benefit as much from a distanced viewing as from a close inspection of detail. Smith is adept at blending aspects of memory and nostalgia in a way that feels universal, filtering her own associations through ambiguous, abstract compositions. In a work like Inner Clock, she pieces together elements of her own youth, deeply intimate symbols as well as actual personal objects. And yet, because of her deft blending of familiar materials, I can still easily find my own experiences in this: the pink-haired doll, the deflated balloons, the pink boa and mannequin arm; all remind me of specific events or moments in my own life, from birthday party afterglow to art class sculpture projects. Similarly, her impressive Of a Particular Perfume easily calls to mind the soft quietude of my grandparents’ house simply in its use of a pink crocheted shawl.

Through such work, Smith ably forges a connection with her viewers, a recognition of object and material that links to memory, tied up in the obscure associations each individual may have to a fabric pattern, a piece of jewelry, an abstract shape. She also references street and youth subcultures in her use of graffiti-style writing and recognizable collage elements, while pulling from a host of other sources. This kind of allusive art-making can have mixed results: Some artists seem overly bent on referencing everything they can, on citing more known works of art so they can elicit a knowing “a-ha!” moment in their viewers. Smith incorporates a lot of re-used and re-hashed material, but always in a way that pleases the eye visually as much as it arouses our nostalgia. She seamlessly works it into her bold, energetic painting style, with sweeping strokes curving and falling across her large canvases, echoing the folds of a piece of cloth or beads strung on a necklace. In a winking response to Abstract Expressionism, she maintains the importance of action and gesture but rejects the sanctification and self-importance associated with that movement.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014Shinique Smith: Inner clock, 2014.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014-2Shinique Smith: Inner Clock (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-OfaParticularPerfume-2011Shinique Smith: Of a Particular Perfume, 2011.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014-2Shinique Smith: Splendid, 2014.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014Shinique Smith: Splendid (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-Majesty-2012Shinique Smith: Majesty, 2012.

shiniquesmith-Breath&Line-2014Shinique Smith: Breath & Line (detail), 2014.

Smith’s stimulation of the senses is kicked up a notch in the final work of the show (at least, in the way I walked around it): Breath & Line. This installation is set in a small room covered in mirrors, lights, and black graffiti-like calligraphic scrawl, and whispering audio plays throughout, sampling poetry, song lyrics, and Smith’s own breath. In her continued use of nostalgia, she also incorporates scent- one of the most powerful links to memory. It is an understated but powerful piece, beautiful in a way that is slightly haunting. Breath & Line marks something of a turn for the artist when compared to the other works on view in Bright Matter– its black and white color scheme, flat graphics, and hushed voices seem removed from the plethora of loud, cluttered, colorful, playful pieces in the rest of the gallery. But its more serious atmosphere also led me to re-consider the tone of some of those other works as I re-traced my steps back through the exhibition, finding new elements and themes in works I had at first appreciated more at face value. Smith’s technique relies on layering, on piling on, and in doing so she encourages multiple takes and readings, collecting together positive and negative, specificity and ambiguity, and “high” and “low” all at once so that individual works often feel like well-packed suitcases full of her own lifetime of experiences. And perhaps yours, too.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window, 2014.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014-2Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-NoKeyNoQuestion-2013Shinique Smith: No Key, No Question, 2013.

shiniquesmith-TheSpark-2013Shinique Smith: The Spark, 2013.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009-2Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1), 2009.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1) (detail), 2009.

shiniquesmith-WithWingsNewlyMadeofWater-2014Shinique Smith: With wings, newly made of water, 2014.