Teaching a new inclusion at school

KINDERHOOK, NY – Feedback is what you get when a system’s output is looped through its input, like when Jimi Hendrix, closing the Woodst...


KINDERHOOK, NY – Feedback is what you get when a system’s output is looped through its input, like when Jimi Hendrix, closing the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, used an electric guitar with an overdrive amplifier to transform a performance of “The Star- Spangled Banner” into a dizzying symphonic poem of anguish and destruction.

Although the gesture is received at the time in protest – the Vietnam War, racial inequality, everything wrong with America – Hendrix, himself a veteran of the US Army, was suspicious of his intentions. It would probably be truer to borrow some jargon from contemporary art and call what he did to the national anthem to “complicate” it. Of course, the protest was part of it. But it was the tension between his protest and the song’s usual bombast, which he also captured, that really summed up his historic moment and made the performance iconic.

If we’re going to make museums truly representative – and, more broadly, progress as a divided and unequal society – we’re going to have to learn to complicate exhibits and the way we talk about them, in the same way.

This is something that Helen Molesworth the old chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, succeeds brilliantly in “Feedback,” a knockout of 21 artists from an exhibition she curated for The School, the outpost of the Jack Shainman Gallery in northern England. ‘State. Most of the work deals with race, gender or color in one way or another, but not all. But Molesworth organizes the pieces less by content than by visual rhythm and contrast, creating deeply evocative nuances that subtly connect the works and underline their nuances while ensuring that nothing is reduced to a mere political message.

It was inspired by, and the title of the program, a play by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, a large Marshall amplifier placed near the entrance to the building. (A 30,000-square-foot former high school, The School has a number of galleries on three levels, all used for this show.) When you step on the wah-wah pedal attached to the amp, it plays the guitarist Frank Jauernick’s recreation of the Hendrix version strong enough to shake your breastbone. But you can’t go back, because there isn’t a lot of rope, and the moment you lift your foot, the music stops.

Next to this piece is “Flight Path,” one of many extraordinary ceramic sculptures by Rose B. Simpson, who lives and works in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. A dark 8-foot-tall figure with an elongated torso and neck, long leather straps for the arms, and feet painted light gray with clay slurry, she gazes up at the ceiling with empty eye sockets. Between the figurine and the amp is an untitled wall piece of Steve Locke, an artist based in New York who teaches Pratt: the neon blue spelling “I remember everything you taught me here”.

Together, the amplifier, the figure and the neon form a triple work in its own right, a biting meditation on history, memory and mistrust. John Buck’s “Talk of the Town (The)”, a nude wooden figure with a complex of American buildings and statues in place of a head, adds a note of grace across the hall.

In her introduction to the show, Molesworth mentions American history which she never learned in school. She talks about the history of violence against African Americans and Native Americans in particular, and the history of Blacks and Native Americans in general. What we do learn, however, are lessons about race and class that we can spend a lifetime shaking off.

Around the corner, Locke opens the conversation by placing the shape of a slave auction block at the Josef Albers-style Concentric Square Color Studies Center, in a series of small acrylics he calls his “Tribute to the auction block”. Thinking of “color” without reference to race is a luxury that not everyone gets in our society. But you don’t have to throw Albers or his “Tribute” instead to say it. We can keep anything – and in fact, modernism will only look sharper if, like Locke, we’re honest about its shadow.

Hilary pecis and Becky Suss, young artists working in Los Angeles and Philadelphia respectively, both paint tidy interiors with lots of books and no people. Their paintings are similar enough to cause a moment of confusion when hung together. But while Pecis’ work is lush and expressive, Suss’s is drier and more primitive, and the differences, when you meet them one after the other, are enough to set up a haunting visual dissonance. You see how the context changes the effect of a painting and how it can even transform what might otherwise have seemed to be definitive statements. The two painters are more beautiful in the company of the other.

When Suss’s “Behind AZ (Set vs. Isis / Nefertiti)” table faces Sanford Biggers “God Whistle”, on the other hand, what happens is different. On its own, Biggers’ sculpture, a Renaissance-style marble figure with a head like an African mask, is a commentary on the European appropriation of African art in the early 20th century, and on the erasure of faces. and black culture. But the ancient figures on Suss’s canvas reminded me of the American Afro-centrists also appropriating the history of ancient Egypt.

One thing that makes our public discussions of race and identity frustrating is how quickly everyone is reduced to one term. Museum diversification efforts often fail in the same way, making superficial additions without really involving their existing collections. But with juxtapositions like these, Molesworth offers a more robust example of inclusion, which brings out the diversity of individuals as well as the group. Biggers is a black artist who comments on European art history, but he is also, like Suss, who is white, an American who taps into world art history for his own contemporary aesthetic purposes. Suss’s painting, which depicts a small classical sculpture with an Egyptian god and queen, was actually inspired by a children’s book. But the images, wherever she got them, inevitably have greater resonances.

Not all of the work in “Feedback” is as strong, although it is driven entirely by the wave of Molesworth’s overall idea. Corn that of Karon Davis White paper sculptures of black girls skipping rope, made of plaster bandages on steel frames, are worth mentioning, as are that of Dana Sherwood strange feminist fantasies, drawings and paintings of posed nude women, with idyllic living room decorations, in the belly of enormous animals. Christina forrer reliably contributes formidable tapestries and designs, their dreamy figurative imagery drawn from an anthology of the Brothers Grimm, and Cauleen Smith, who lives and works in Los Angeles, here are some eye-catching neon murals and two quietly brilliant videos.

In one, “Orange Jumpsuit,” Smith painstakingly arranges a bouquet of orange blossoms while wearing a blue combination. Then she leaves the bouquet on the sidewalk outside the Los Angeles County Men’s Prison. Blue and orange are complementary colors, and I wondered about the relationship of his costume with the orange bouquet and with the orange overalls of the men in prison.

As I walked around the show, I struggled to articulate its animating vision. Something about race, America, and living in contradiction. In the last room, I came across Kerry James Marshall’s “Ecce Homo” (2008-2014), which shows a young black man in a serious pose. He wears a diamond earring, a dollar bill ring and, around his neck, a gigantic gold chain. The title – “here is the man,” the words of Pontius Pilate, in Vulgate Latin, as he showed Jesus to the angry crowd – evokes the oldest and best-known story in Western culture of a man turning persecution into glory. Marshall also pursues a popular theme of medieval and Renaissance art history, bringing both Christ history and art history to life in the current position of black Americans. The key to all of this is the chain, a heavy constraint converted back into an ornament and then made even heavier by melting it in gold.

Feedback

Until October 30, The School (Jack Shainman Gallery), 25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY, (518) 758-1628; jackshainman.com.

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