In these uncertain times, can art make a difference? That’s the question looming over What’s Next?, a compelling show on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through March 10. Each of its five artists is immersed in investigating one or more of the pressing issues of our times. Whether it’s the environment, race or the economy, the depth and emotional impact of their explorations will touch anyone who bothers to look or care about such things.
Their topics and mediums are invigoratingly diverse, but what these artists have in common is passion and an eyes-wide-open approach to the subject matter. While the show explores a range of concerns, its dominant theme is race and ethnicity. The show’s two African-Americans, Washington artist Larry Cook and Christie Neptune of Brooklyn, NY, both take on the culturally-imposed strictures on black identity. Likewise, Colombian-born Carolina Mayorga, now a naturalized citizen living in Washington, explores the conflicting identities of personal heritage and immigrant status.
A scattering of lottery tickets and scratch-off cards littering a table and the floor in Cook’s “Black Economics,” succinctly conveys the pathos of the hope-against-hope lifestyle of millions of African-Americans deprived of educational and economic opportunities. Neptune’s deeply introspective video entitled “Pulling at My Labels,” follows her ritualized self-examination as she studies her own image with the aid of her camera and literally tears away labels printed with stereotyped designations. It’s a mesmerizing study of the process of deconstructing the self whose spare sets and rigorous investigation strikingly echo the Buddhist practice of stripping away the illusion of self.
There’s also something of a Zen koan in Mayorga’s video and performance, “Maid in the USA.” Those who attended the show’s opening reception were rewarded with her live performance, doubling a similar performance in a video screen on the wall. Both found Mayorga diligently sweeping the floor, her face bland and blank, a black X of tape across her mouth blocking her from speaking. But in bizarre contrast with this stereotyped image of the subservient Latino worker, she wore a brightly-colored traditional Colombian dancing dress, its long, full skirt sweeping lace-trimmed ruffles along in rhythm with her broom and revealing her as a beautiful, regal member of a rich and noble heritage. Like the irresolvable conflict presented in a koan, these two roles can’t rationally coexist. The tension of this dissonance coerces the mind to open, releasing a flood of insights into the cause and effect of cultural biases.
This kind of consciousness-raising is the whole point of issue-oriented art. It illuminates our current problems, acting less as a finger pointing blame than as a vehicle of awareness that challenges us to find intelligent solutions.
Rachel Schmidt, a white artist, also from DC, credits saving her non-biodegradable trash for six months with making her more aware of her consumer habits. Neatly wrapped in photographs of manicured lawn grass or of an untouched primeval forest, large piles of this trash join a video and some conveniently-placed lawn chairs in her installation “Nostalgia Monument: Float Trip Edition.” “Float Trip” refers to the video projected on the wall in which small groups of partying people drift, beverages in hand, down a river in canoes and inflatables. Oblivious to their surroundings, the river that Schmidt has tellingly erased from the video, they seem not to engage with nature or even notice it and are content, even happy, to enjoy the scripted fun of their “recreational experience.” The “nostalgia” in Schmidt’s title refers to her conception of the work as a monument documenting and commemorating the enjoyment of nature for some future time when access to nature has become unavailable, however the effect of the video seemed, at least to this writer, more to spotlight our present-day consumerist view of nature as a kind of ever-sunny theme park.
Interestingly, the show’s one white man, Baltimore photographer Ben Marcin, straddles several issues, including race and environment, with his suite of photographs of distressed homes. You can read much of our country’s history in his four images. There’s a hobo shack in Baltimore built by a man put out on the streets by the 2008 crash, and a skinny, tall row house pocked with bullet holes stands alone on a desolate city lot, a representative of contemporary inner city decay. An empty house standing on a barren prairie tells of the 1930s Dust Bowl, one of our first environmental disasters, and an abandoned Eastern Shore farm house bears the scars of economic troubles going back at least to the depression following the Civil War but now betokening the modern-day challenges of changing agricultural systems and the pressure to develop land.
Less confrontational than the other artists, Marcin nonetheless inspires a nuanced consideration of the complex causes behind his houses’ decay. But whether subtle or passionately direct, each of these artists uses art to trigger thoughts and questions, and you can’t help but leave this exhibit more aware and awake.
Perhaps the most telling part of it all was observing people’s reactions to Mayorga’s live performance. Some briefly watched her sweeping before walking on, others stopped and stared seeming either amused or thoughtful, while still others, whether out of embarrassment or indifference, totally ignored her. By its very nature, performance art is in-your-face. Rather than hanging quietly on the wall or at least politely distancing itself to a theater stage, it occurs up close in real space and time. There’s a powerful metaphor in the reactions of gallery visitors to Mayorga’s performance for how we react to the issues at hand, particularly the political situation we’re now confronted with.
In their vigorous churning up of their concerns, these artists offer an earnest invitation not to ignore or joke about our current situation but to investigate, learn and address it head on. The show’s brave premise that art can make a difference parallels the increasingly urgent recognition that the only way to affect the changes we need to survive and prosper is for individual citizens of this country (and the world in general) to band together and as the T-shirt says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”