Guest post by Noah Hanna
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry; the first major museum retrospective of the artist’s work opened on April 23rd at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized collaboratively between the MCA, The Met, and LAMOCA, the exhibition gathered national allure prior to its opening; and it seems only appropriate that B@S join in the discussion.
The MCA website proclaimed Marshall “one of the greatest living artists, and he responded with perspective, telling the Chicago Tribune “I’d take a James Brown introduction, ‘hardest working man in show business.’ ” At 60, Marshall is regularly seen meeting and greeting avid fans at the museum, always with his infectious smile, warm eyes, and kind demeanor. It is easy to admire Kerry James Marshall simply as a person; and then there’s the work he creates.
One could only assume the considerable pressure felt by Marshall upon opening this exhibition. To start, the title, “Mastry” is a formidable expression that no self-respecting artist would dare assign to their own body of work. The concept of the retrospective itself is foggy in contemporary art. The term connotes a fixed span of time with an inevitable conclusion; an indication that the artist whose work is on display has reached his creative climax. Frankly, retrospective usually denotes the work of an artist who is no longer creating. So what does this mean in contemporary art which defines itself by its association with the living? Does this mean that the artist who is given a retrospective within his lifetime is considered finished? Much to the contrary; Kerry James Marshall and Mastry have important work to do.
Kerry James Marshall is a painter, and a figurative painter at that. It feels appropriate that a mode constantly questioned for its validity in the twenty-first century should be the one Marshall employs to push the medium forward. His use of Renaissance and Baroque compositions, scale, and themes are apparent and necessary. Motifs of spirituality, strength, domesticity and the human condition come to serve as the foundation for his work, much as they did for Titian or Carracci.
Since the late 1980s, Marshall has been identified as a painter focused on the representation of people of color; but ample care is given to the history of painting itself. Marshall’s Beauty Examined (1993) draws close comparison to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) in its depiction of a black woman laid out as an anatomical exhibit. Reference points across her body indicate areas of beauty in the subject; and the words “Beauty is only skin deep” rest in the curvature of her frame.
Though Marshall has a deep admiration for the work of Renaissance masters and his own paintings draw heavily from their conventions, the depiction of the black figure is his passion. In the large-scale School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall paints the interior of a beauty salon that can be seen from the outside in a 2003 painting from his studio window, 7 am Sunday Morning (also on display in the exhibition). While the scene is brimming with references to Black Nationalism and power, including posters of Lauryn Hill and Chris Ofili, I found myself most captivated by the skewed and elongated image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty affixed to the floor. In this imagery, Marshall invokes a 1533 painting entitled The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In the classic painting, as two men proudly pose for their portrait, a skull rests below them in the same elongated form, perhaps as a memento mori. As the young ambassadors face the inevitable but obscured prospect of death and decay, the exuberant clientele of the salon face the unspoken expectations of white female beauty that lies just below them; a very young boy cocks his head to observe the face on the floor in the correct perspective.
Much of Marshall’s work addresses domesticity and celebrates the mundane nature of everyday life. There is a keen awareness that images of black lives simply do not exist in art, and that those of color who do appear within the historical canon are portrayed as servants, concubines, or villains; I am reminded vividly of Manet’s Olympia when I say this. Marshall masterfully captures reality in his paintings; images of gardening and camping are paired with expressions of intimate, unencumbered love. There is a palpable urge to smile when looking upon Marshall’s smitten lovers.
However with reality comes an acute awareness of history. It’s in this dichotomy that Mastry excels above and beyond. There are several cathartic points within this exhibition, images that speak volumes to American history, both past and present. At times I found myself astonished at Marshall’s apparent prophetic imagery. Lost Boys (1993) commemorates two young boys whose childhoods were abruptly cut short. One boy glances at the viewer, a brightly colored pink toy pistol in his hand, referencing a report Marshall had heard of a child killed by police for brandishing the toy. A frame from Marshall’s ongoing comic series Rythm Mastr sees a black man confronting a television reporter following a shooting. “I saw the whole thing and it wasn’t nothing like they said!” he exclaims. While we see these today as painfully indicative of a recent incident that occurred in Cleveland, and others throughout the country, I find myself forcing to remember that Marshall does not possess the sage wisdom of prescience and that rather he depicts life as it is.
I cannot deny that myself and many of my peers have been blessed with the privilege to be detached bystanders to these realities: holding onto trivial facts concerning isolated incidents of unrest in Los Angeles in the early 1990s; a basic curriculum knowledge of the racial movements of the late 1960s; and a junior high school reading of Christopher Paul Curtis’ 1963 book The Watsons Go to Birmingham. This is why the Kerry James Marshall retrospective matters now and why his works are such an accomplishment. Marshall’s ability to create figures who possess intricate personalities gives them their poignancy, the stoic civil disobedience and ardent steadfastness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unrepentant power of Malcolm X, a combination that seems both at odds and as imperative as the two leaders were. The violence of Marshall’s images of Nat Turner and The Stono Rebellion are subtle, and Marshall adamantly makes sure it is not the focus of the work; the figure and its identity are foremost.
Nothing within art exists within a vacuum or free from what has come before it. Even an action in condemnation of the past is a response to it nonetheless. Art is a beautiful and equally bitter amalgamation of human history. Very few artists capture this better than Marshall. We cannot change the art historical canon any more than we can change the past, but we can build on it. Painting an ever more crystalline and inclusive image of our shared history. I can only hope that Kerry James Marshall, the faces he so magnificently paints and the stories he tells, enter into the scope of art history so that they may be looked on in the future with the admiration and eminence that they so rightfully deserve.
Guest post by Brent Fogt.
Glass geodesic domes play a leading role in Christine Tarkowski’s “Chthonic Void” at Devening Projects. The domes symbolize utopian ideals and their failure to take root. The exhibition, by contrast, is an unqualified success.
The main gallery features four of Tarkowski’s glass sculptures, two of which rest on pedestals in the center of the room. Unlike the monumental scale of some of Tarkowski’s past work, the scale of these sculptures is closer to architectural models. Made of stacked, softball-sized glass domes, the sculptures are covered with shiny black liquid that brings to mind chocolate syrup. The stacks seem simultaneously precarious and grounded, unstable and solid, animated and static.
This tension between movement and stasis is repeated in two enormous paintings that surround the sculptures on opposite walls. Composed of overlapping diagonal stripes that form moiré patterns, these paintings vibrate, ripple and bulge the longer you look at them. When the eyes feel fatigue, rest is available at the edges, where raw canvas is left unpainted.
On the wall next to the paintings are two small, embossed works on paper. These pieces, which also contain overlapping patterns, create a subtler moiré effect. This quieter approach is an ideal counterpoint to the larger, more intensely hued works on canvas.
Down the hall from the main gallery is a room completely devoted to Tarkowski’s glass works. The space is stunning. Eleven black sculptures, all a combination of glass on glass or glass and steel, lie on all-white pedestals that span the center of the white room, creating vivid contrasts not only between light and dark but also between glossy and matte.
The sculptures resemble unearthed architectural ruins that have been exposed to extreme heat and are melting, dripping and decaying before our eyes. Some of the drips form pools over sunken areas of the geodesic domes. Others are as thin as string or spaghetti and drape themselves over tenuous, broken grids of steel.
“Chthonic,” in fact, means subterranean—in, under, or beneath the earth. In classical mythology, “chthonic” refers to spirits that dwell under the earth. The show title “Chthonic Void” is especially fitting, because Tarkowski’s glass sculptures seem both worldly and otherworldly—both part of, and separate from, the earth itself.
Exhibition on view at Dan Devening Projects, 3039 W Carroll Ave.
April 3 –May 14, 2016
guest post by Dan Gunn
Alberto Aguilar announced his Instagram takeover of the @artinstitutechi feed in a bathroom mirror selfie. He positioned the cellphone to obscure his face and captioned the post with the deadpan statement “This is a takeover. I am Alberto Aguilar. This will last one week.” With that single post already several people vowed to unfollow until “the art returned”, while others were convinced that the feed had been “hacked”, while still others lamented that selfies “degraded” the museum.
The Chicago-based artist Aguilar is the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2015-2016 Artist in Residence for Museum Education. He was chosen because education features prominently in his artistic practice through his professorship at Harold Washington College. The residency includes an on-site studio housed embedded in the Ryan Education Center, various opportunities to lecture and conduct public events and the Instagram takeover at hand. From January 11th to the 18th Aguilar regularly posted his activities within the museum and selectively interacted with the Institute’s followers. That his actions could provoke such an extraordinary response, both positive and negative points to the power of social media and the effectiveness of Aguilar’s approach.
The takeover phenomenon itself comes from a marketing strategy wherein corporate brands partner with “influencers” in order to heighten their credibility and deepen their “brand engagement” with consumers. Influencers are considered influential because they are authentic and credible examples of the brand image to the brand’s target audience. In this case Aguilar is a living example of an artist in a museum that celebrates art. The Art Institute of Chicago, which declined to comment for this article saying instead in an email that they wanted to “keep the focus on Alberto’s practice and his ownership of the creative process on the Instagram project” presumably wanted the artist to perform contemporary art for the audience.
The two previous AIC social media takeovers from LA-based artists Frances Stark and Charles Ray delivered tepid posts. Charles Ray seemed largely disinterested and Frances Stark’s output was subsumed by her already voluminous social media presence. Aguilar approximated a living specimen of an artist inside the hallowed repository of mostly dead-artist’s art, like a genetically engineered T-Rex on view next to Sue at the Field Museum. Why then would people prefer to view the plaster casts when the real thing was available? The takeover and its response charts a competing trio of interests between the venerable museum, an irascible artist and the expectant Instagram audience.
rosiefomalley @artinstitutechi what kind of horseshit
For Aguilar’s part he was given the account for Instagram for a week without restrictions. The canon for Instagram artworks is still being written but his approach was unique in several ways. The most comprehensive work to date is probably by the artist Amalia Ulman who over the course of months believably transformed her feed into a record of her life as a vapid LA impresario. Photos of brunch and breast enlargement scars were all faked for a scripted 175 post drama presented as if it were her real life. The piece called, “Excellences & Perfections” functions as both feminist and social media critique unveiling the double desire to share and to craft one’s image at the same time; a.k.a. to not really share.
Alberto Aguilar instead reinforced the believability of the Instagram image by performing simple actions in the recognizable space of the museum and by responding selectively to the instructions of certain followers. He roamed the galleries opening telephone panels, propping open doors, overturning chairs, placing a half styrofoam cup in front of a Magritte, arranging a floor full of doilies in the room with the paperweights and other forms of aesthetic littering. Aguilar’s approach to objects is inflected by Minimalism, frequently using simple geometries like grids, lines and zig zags that make the actions seem deceptively matter-of-fact more akin to crossing items off a to-do list than making a drawing. This functional relationship between his activity and the resultant situation bolstered the trustworthiness of the feed at the expense of artifice.
Aguilar describes this approach as “using a regulated form in a very regulated building in order to have a moment of intimacy myself in this space.” Aguilar’s language in the posts also plays to this calculated blankness. “I don’t like being overly poetic. I like when I state facts and those things act as poetry also.”
rs_gould Sweet litter. Good thing you got that MFA
Not that Aguilar’s practice doesn’t also rely on metaphor. In one of the earliest posts he and fellow artist Alex Bradley Cohen held up homemade cardboard signs that read “Trouble Maker” or “Problem Solver” as an introduction to the takeover. Other works refer to issues of accessibility by opening “doors” or creating “bridges” within the museum experience. Here the artist functioned as a surrogate museum goer, a tester of the institution by filling voids, mimicking gallery architecture and associating objects of the present with the past, culture outside the museum with culture inside and personal history with art history.
The inclusion of his personal life was another source of audience annoyance and yet another way Aguilar aimed to disarm them. When Alberto wasn’t in the museum, he was frequently at home.
“People were annoyed about the home photos and would try to tell me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see. So I thought that it would be funny to put a picture of my kids all playing [the board game] Trouble while my wife was sleeping just because I wanted my family to be recorded forever on the Art Institute’s Instagram feed. Because anybody would want to make their presence known! Right? Isn’t that what Instagram is all about? That’s also why I kept saying “This is a takeover”. Someone who was angry called it something else, they said this is a hijack!” So the next post I used that. “This is a hijack.”
The pedestrian nature of Alberto’s life, indeed that of most working artists when viewed up close, was off-putting to people who tuned into the museum’s feed for Culture with a capital “C”. The personal moments presented within his factual, monotone voice were disarming to the point of becoming intimate. The high point of this being a touching snippet of song performed on ukulele by Aguilar’s two kids on the final day. What becomes clear through reading comments is that the dissenters find Aguilar’s lowering of the Art Institute’s high cultural voice disrespectful. But why is this act disrespectful when the institution has invited him to do it?
andiamojoe @mimi_marg @eggwithoutyolk @artinstitutechi all that wonderful art around should be inspiring to this feed, the content is lackluster and not representative of the great works and artists within one of the greatest art museums in the world… Step it up or face a mass unfollow!
The answer, at least partially, seems to be that the Art Institute was operating outside of its understood brand identity, or were purposefully trying to expand it to encompass more contemporary art. There was a general tone in the comments of dissatisfaction, not with the idea of a takeover per se, but with the particular type of plain dealing, found-object arranging, conceptual social practice that Aguilar uses. The only charge directed at Aguilar as a person was that of self-indulgence. Presumably this was for the posts that actually contained his image, not for posting his artwork because that was at least part of the point.
robby47 Blame Andy Warhol. But compared to this, Warhol looks like freakin Rembrandt.
Aguliar’s “lazy Dadaism” as one follower put it, in turn led to charges of “pretentiousness”, where pretension is understood as thinking oneself important when in fact you aren’t. These commenters saw no value in his use of simple arrangements of recognizable material through easy to replicate gestures. As a counterfactual, it’s hard to imagine any controversy over a representational artist painting museumgoers as they tour the galleries, a kind of museum-cum-landscape.
Other moments pitted the artist’s interests more directly against that of the institution. The museum has always catered to the civic pride of Chicago through various means, including the decoration of the famed entry lions with whichever sports team is prospering at the time. Recently that has been the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. An ill-advised attempt to find common cause with fans in anticipation of a Stanley Cup playoff game resulted in an image of a Medieval knight’s helmet adorned with the Blackhawk’s logo being posted to the account. Considered alone, the Blackhawk’s logo is controversial enough, but to layer onto a stereotype of indigenous peoples an item symbolizing the systematic religious violence of the Crusades defies common sense.
Aguilar at this point had been “building bridges” between separate time periods of the museum collection by holding up gift-shop postcard images in front of related artworks. Now he responded by holding up a phone with the Instagram of the knight’s helmet in front of a display of a Native American ceremonial headdress and pressed the send button. The image pits the legacy of American oppression of indigenous peoples through caricature and confiscation of property against the museum’s desire for greater mass media relevance beyond expected elite cultural circles. The reaction from the audience was swift and intense and for the first time Aguilar himself felt conflicted about his usage of the takeover.
“People were confused as to what I was trying to say. I didn’t want to offend Native American people, but that’s what started happening right away. There was this young Native American commenter who took it out of context and didn’t realize it was a takeover. He was angry at the museum for putting up this image and began swearing in his comments. So the museum’s social media manger deleted them which I was told is regular practice whenever people swear in comments. And he would come back and wonder why he was being censored on top of being offended by the image. I went to sleep and had a terrible dream that night. I woke up and decided that I was going to delete the image all together. I just didn’t feel right about it anymore, mainly because I was offending Native Americans but also because I didn’t think that it was fair to the institution that had given me this freedom.”
Aguilar did in fact delete this post, though at the time of publication the original Blackhawk knight’s helmet post still remains.
The ingenuity of this takeover is the way that it placed the artist at the ethical intersection of several public discourses.
Who is the artist responsible to represent? For Aguilar, what began as an attempt to confront an ethnic stereotype instead ended up propagating it. The museum, for it’s part, has the difficult task of picking artists as influencers because of the legacy of avant-gardism still ingrained in contemporary art. They will be critical of their museological handlers, which both present dangers for their brand identity and simultaneously reinforces the credibility and authenticity of the influencer. Meanwhile the audience has to decode the layered experience of these images and deal with their frustrated expectations. Social media seems to give viewers a sense of propriety over the institution that is illusory. What ability does the Instagram public have to shape museum policy or image? Not much. The tradition and cultural prestige of their brand expectations had been substituted with contemporaneity and uncertainty.
“People were telling me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see, they were angry. I said something like “This is a takeover. I will decide what is shown.” Then I said “I will use whatever is around me as a tool. I was referring to the physical objects around me I used as a tool for revealing and concealing but also to the camera which can serve the same function. I’m wasn’t trying to be arrogant, but the truth is that it was a takeover, I did have control but I also personally have control of what I show and don’t show of myself.”
The ironic thing is that the space of institutional (or branded) social media requires an audience, no matter how inflexible. The commenters certainly weren’t worried about the authority or appropriateness of their comments in their ill-conceived defense of the museum. The social media space requires a back and forth in which Aguilar fully engaged. He would take suggestions from the comments about what to do next actually giving the audience some ability to interact with the museum that they love. Instead of getting into a comment tit-for-tat he would perform actions just to show them that he was open to their input. And for all of the dissenters there were also people who appreciated the unique perspective on the museum that Aguilar came to offer. The masterful nature of the takeover was the way that it revealed the contours and fissures of the public’s relationship to 21st century institutions. It showed the historical problems and contemporary possibilities while insistently, even stubbornly, keeping the approach intimate and personal.
Dan Gunn is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Chicago. Dan writes about Chicago art, including a history of alternative and apartment spaces in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center’s “Artists Run Chicago” exhibition and the Artist Run Digest published by Threewalls and Green Lantern Press. Dan has written for for Bad at Sports, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Depaul Art Museum, Loyola University Museum of Art, Newcity Magazine, Proximity Magazine and ArtSlant.com. He was a contributor to Fielding Practice podcast, a collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art21.
Right now, poetry is everywhere in the art world. Its resonates locally in murmurs and shouts, ranging from Diana Fridd’s whispered eulogies –for which she mines obituaries for nuggets such as “We Have No Words For This In English”—to Cheryl Pope’s hollering “Just Yell!” Globally, it culminated this winter, with Ugo Rondinone’s summa cum laude tribute to his friend, lover, and mentor, in “I <3 John Giorno” at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I<3 John Giorno!” at Palais de Tokyo, October 2015 Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen.
The show opens with the gratefully nihilist mantra “Thanx 4 Nothing,” a meditation on “letting go” so profound it is like yoga in a bottle –but without the spandex and the body shaming:
may all the suicides be songs of aspiration/thanks that the bad news is always true/may all the chocolate I ever eaten/ come back rushing rushing through your blood stream/and make you feel happy/thanks for allowing me to be a poet/a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.
The piece builds up like a crescendo until that moment, you fully realise what you have known all along: “Damn! Donna Summer was right! We are all ‘Full of Emptyness.’ Brimming in fact. Overflowing.” So much so, that when you enter the next room your minds eye is already dilated sufficiently to receive the message “I Want To Cum In Your Heart.” Gulp!
Taken as a whole “I <3 John Giorno!” is a sumptous, luscious, and yes, orgiastic, tribute to a life well (albeit sometimes reluctantly) spent, out- but mostly inside the flamboyantly gay New York art scene of the late 20th century. Its monumental scope, archival depth, and intimate tone, gives the viewer a feeling of being a peeking-Tom into art history in the making. But above all, it is a lesson in—if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this could be!
Where John Giorno’s poetry mainly flows inward, and takes you on a journey to the bottom of your heart, the borders of your mind, poetry equally willingly travels in the opposite direction—out into the chartered territories where art meets community in a battle to win our hearts and minds—while fixing a neighbourhood, a public school education budget, or a prison reform in the process. These are tricky positions to navigate.
Poetry’s appeal to the art world is easy to spot: it’s fresh, it is angry, it is credible, it is appealing, it is endearing, it is gritty, it is rousing, it is sincere and it is portable and pocketable; all the things “art world art”—with its cluncky logistics, inflated production budgets, and art fair schmucks—is forgetting how to be. The art world’s appeal to to poetry? Not so much. Caution must be advised if you are considering adding a little youth poetry to your art event, lest the effect will be that of a gospel choir at a Madonna concert—the sincerity of their little prayer drowned out by the artist’s blonde ambition.
To avoid such embarresment, I greatly encourage you to visit “Louder Than A Bomb 2016.” This, the Largest Youth Poetry Festival, not in the city, the country, but in the world (and probably the universe), is entering its sweet sixteenth season featuring 120 teams with participation of more than 1200 youth from 60 different zip-codes. Its umbrella organisation YCA (Young Chicago Authors) was recently awarded a McAuthor fellowship in acknowledgement of the leagcy of this program and others like it.
The festival is the brain child of Kevin Coval, who declares: “this is the best theater in Chicago, and I think it’s the best political platform in Chicago.”
Titles of poems such as “Islamophobia,” “How to get into College,”“Crafting Your Gender,” “How to Friend a Suburban Black Girl,” and “The Rage of the American Dream” speak to the breath of topics being not only explored, but deeply felt and internalized, and to the urge to, as one poet put it: “pick up your pen and change society!”
To really drive home the impact of the written word, showmanship, choreograpy and performance is added, hightened by the additional excitement of scores awarded. The public participation is what makes this theatre truly one of the greatest in Chicago; judges are cheerd, boohed or given the unsolicited advise to “Listen To The Poem!” and the atmosphere at times is so rowdy it is hard to remember that “The Point is not the Points, the Point is the Poetry!”
The preliminary bouts are in full swing as I write this, and by the time you read it the scores are in. But fret not: tickets are already on sale for Quarter Finals (Malcolm X College 3/5/16), Semi Finals (Metro Chicago 3/13/2016), Indy Finals (Du Sable Museum 3/17/2016) and Group Finals (The Auditorium Theatre 3/19/2016) via the YCA website.
My favorite so far (and I am biased, yes, but not alone in this opinion) is team REBIRTH’s “If Hogwarts was an HBCU.” Speculating on the all-star faculty of a Historically Black Magic Academy, this fun, timely, and above all, incredibly DOPE piece is infused with such much swag, that before you know it you will want to enroll in the LTAB lifelong learning program. I guarantee you will walk out of the theatre, not believing, but fully knowing, that if we all knew more about psychology, sociology, and (Black) history—but above all, if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this would be!
Lise Haller Baggesen is an artist, writer, and proud poetry-mom, living in Chicago. Her book “Mothernism” was co-published by Poor Farm Press (Milwaukee) and Green Lantern Press (Chicago) in 2014, and her Mothernism show is currently touring the United States. More info on the work and writing by Lise Haller Baggesen can be found here: lisehallerbaggesen.wordpress.com
On Sunday February 7, 2016, the date that will now forever be known as the day a politically aware and majestic Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, an article written by Daniel Grant ran in the Education/Life section of the New York Times titled “For These Pieces Hold the Paint: Social Practice Degrees Take Art to a Communal Level.” The Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University (PSU), where from 2008-2014 I taught and was for the majority of my time there the Co-director and Chair, was heavily featured in the article. Before joining the faculty at PSU, I also founded the largest annual international conference on socially engaged art, Open Engagement. My background as the director of this conference, my intimate knowledge of the program at PSU, and my position in the world as a woman of color led me to read the article (one of the first circulating these ideas to a broad and mainstream readership) and wonder who gets to speak for socially engaged art? Whose voices are privileged? And what types of projects get circulated?Social practice feels as though it could hold the potential to change the world. As Harrell Fletcher stated in the article, many artists working in this way could be described as politically progressive, some “fairly extreme in their anticapitalism.” I would say that much of the ethos behind this way of working as an artist is about re-evaluating and challenging systems of power. It is about the value of art in daily life and the belief that art is for everyone, not just the elite. Its commercial value can be slim as much of the time this kind of work might not look like art at all. This work promotes agency in artists, it is made alongside and with it’s intended audience and necessitates being in the context of the world.
Because social practice can be so seemingly outside of what we have traditionally framed as art it often has a problem with tone and form. Artists wishing to tackle the most pressing and serious issues of our time sometimes land on a dinner party, or a walk as a way of addressing these problems. While I believe that real change can emerge from seemingly small gestures, it is undeniable that there are clear tropes that have emerged in socially engaged art. One of the most troubling things for me in the New York Times piece was that while Grant talked about social practice’s historic connections to figures like community organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky—whose work was able to help lend power to the voices of so many who have been disenfranchised, that one of the main projects of graduates of the PSU MFA program that was featured was “Grocery Stories”, a project installed at a locally owned Portland boutique chain grocery store, giving voice to artisanal cheese makers. I know from first hand experience that the PSU MFA program has produced projects and artists that deal with immigrant rights, housing justice, shifting institutional power, LGBTQIA communities, and media access. As I read I wondered where was the radical work? Why were only white students highlighted? In addition to this omission of these student projects, there was a lack of diversity in the interviewed leaders in the field ranging from program directors, to chief curators—many of these voices representing the usual suspects for social practice.
Grant’s article ends with a sentence that is undoubtedly supposed to elicit a response and understanding in the reader about the new level of awareness that the students and artists working in this way have achieved, “They shuffle, reach, grasp the air, and ultimately open their eyes.” If this is a practice that is truly woke I would hope that it would not continue to perpetuate the models of the dominant art world that continue to exclude women and people of color. In 2013 The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimated that 5% of artwork currently on display in the United States was made by women, and the famous Guerrilla Girls poster outlining the breakdown of artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 Whitney Biennials show that the numbers of women of color included in the art world are significantly less. Jillian Steinhauer’s article for Hyperallergic titled, “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial” shows that sadly little has changed in almost two decades.
In April the 8th Open Engagement will feature Keynote speakers Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy. This edition of the conference is the first in a trilogy that will explore the themes of POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY, 2016 in Oakland at Oakland Museum of California, 2017 at University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2018 back at the Queens Museum in NY. Open Engagement has worked alongside practitioners and institutions to make sure that the conference symbolically and literally is as capacious as the art by spanning geography, recognizing spaces both inside and outside the academy, and embracing all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. These struggles are continual and each year we acknowledge that this work is never done—that is the nature of social change. As the Associate Director of the UIC School of Art & Art History currently developing socially engaged curriculum at a large public urban research university, I hope that within this freshly institutionalized area of art making that has its roots in activism, social justice, and community organizing, the promise and values that I see in social practice will hold space in the art world for all of us. Before my own time at Portland State University ended I was told by an older white male tenured colleague that I had, “become too visible, and was taking too much credit for the work I was doing.” If we can’t shift these paradigms of oppression and fight these inequities within our own field, what hope do we fare when we take on the world?