Politics and art: A rough mix in two Durham galleries | Arts
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Monday, September 2, 2013

Politics and art: A rough mix in two Durham galleries

Posted by on Mon, Sep 2, 2013 at 6:32 PM

The Triangle is a liberal stronghold within a North Carolina that’s not. That dynamic has long activated citizens and artists here during the Civil Rights era and the Helms years. The ongoing Moral Mondays response to the current rogue, throwback legislature registers on that historical scale.

Two shows in downtown Durham galleries—the group show Speak Truth to Power: Communicating Messages of Social Justice through Visual Art at Pleiades (through Sept. 15) and Amanda Hakanson-Stacy's WRK, Inc. at the Carrack (through Sept. 7)—pick up on the moment to make broad political and social statements with mixed results. These exhibits speak as much to the difficulty of imbuing political artwork with more subtlety or substance than a politician’s speech as they do to the high stakes of the issues in play for North Carolinians.

WRK, Inc. is a solo show at the Carrack Modern Art Gallery by Carrboro-based artist Amanda Hakanson-Stacy about both literal and psychological labor inequities. Although the show lacks a singular message, a few individual works break through their hasty execution to express clear truths about workers and wages in the state with the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

You begin the show by filling out a timecard and clocking in. If this seems a gimmick, then you’ve never had to punch a timecard before. The harsh mechanical report, followed by the slightest vibrating metallic whine, elicited a physical memory of a telemarketing job I had in college—the only job I’ve been fired from, actually. It’s a great choice with which to open the show.

In many of her works, Hakanson-Stacy uses office supplies as her media, which comes off as a bit literal even if the timeclock doesn’t. In two series of color printouts, white-out obliterates the faces and hands of workers on the job and of people in scenes of a horrific building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April. The erasure is poignant in the second series, honoring the 1,129 victims, most of whom were garment workers forced to return to the building to work the day after inspectors issued public warnings after finding huge cracks in the structure.

Detail of Worker Skins, Amanda Hakanson-Stacy.
But the erased workers seem stereotyped and taken advantage of as their identities are elided. Labor can be depersonalizing and demoralizing, but it isn't by default so. These images deny the workers any chance to take pride in their labor or to own it as a personal accomplishment. Like a few other pieces in the show, these worker images need some subsequent thought.

“Worker Skins” is comparable to the white-out works, but it’s the best piece in the show. Hakanson-Stacy cut coveralls into hand-sized human outlines and dragged them through cement. Then she pinned them to the wall in a tight cluster. The more heavily caked ones clump and curl, contorted, expressing the physical toll of manual labor. The others give the feeling of staring back at you with a posture of exhausted witness. The overall shape of their cluster is ambiguous—it could be the continental United States or it could be nothing intentional at all.

For the piece “One Minute,” Hakanson-Stacy cites Bureau of Labor statistics to compare a minute’s earnings, represented in pennies, for the average CEO ($116.66) to those of a minimum-wage worker (12 cents). The CEO’s pennies overflow a large glass bowl to scatter on the floor around its pedestal. The minimum-wage worker’s pennies are barely visible at the bottom of the kind of glass ramekin that servers bring your ranch dressing in.

One Minute, Amanda Hakanson-Stacy.
“One Minute” could have been put to better use in WRK, Inc. Rather than locating the pedestals against a wall in the last corner of the gallery that you visit, they could have been placed in the middle of the gallery so that walking the show would redistribute the fallen pennies throughout the whole space, unifying its message.

Instead, a poorly executed video work entitled "Success" dominates the show, taking the front half of the gallery and suffering almost total illegibility from sunlight during the daylight hours. You can’t escape the audio drone of William Penn Patrick—a John Birch Californian who ran for Governor against Ronald Reagan (and lost for being further to the right of the Gipper)—reading his essay "Happiness and Success through Principle." The monologue is perforated occasionally by the pop of a balloon, which is shown onscreen. Hakanson-Stacy very effectively conveys the boom-and-bust economic reality beneath Patrick’s theocratic rhetoric with “Success” but, at almost 30 minutes, the audio loop is too long and a television would have been a better choice than a large video projection screen. One could easily assume that the video was turned off, it’s so washed out by the sun.

More disappointing was "Dreams," an audio piece that you listen to with headphones while staring at red threads pinned to a wall that a fan blows upon. The recording sounds as if it was made in the same bar all on the same night. A succession of young, white-sounding twenty-something voices basically state that, if they could do anything, it would be to travel, drink, and eat, in that order. Unselfish aspirations rarely appear. These narrators fall heavily on the lazy, “I don’t wanna work” end of the labor struggle, and the recording is embarrassing for the unnamed people who lent it their voices.

Frankly, “Dreams” pissed me off. It’s tantamount to middle-class whining, turning an overeducated, underemployed and disenfranchised generation into slackers complaining that their entitlements aren’t being recognized. Meanwhile you can hear the bartenders and dishwashers clinking craft beer glasses in the background, earning their wages. This piece takes a tipsy swing at class struggle.

If this critique is harsh then it’s because Hakanson-Stacy is obviously sincere and passionate about the issues she’s concerned with in this show, namely that a corporate ideology has been so driven into us—governmentally, societally and personally—that we can hardly get outside of it enough to think and talk about it. Her expression embodies that position at the expense of her sincerity and passion at times.

Appropriately enough, I sandwiched a “no U.S. military in Syria” protest at Five Points between visits to the Carrack and to Pleiades Gallery to see Speak Truth to Power: Communicating Messages of Social Justice through Visual Art. Pleiades, more or less a commercial gallery, is stretching itself with this juried group show of 44 works by 39 North Carolina-based artists.

The current state legislature, which is taking advantage of a Republican swing in 2012 to cram every oppressive policy they can think of into the law books, provoked Speak Truth to Power. State Senator and former Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard (D-District 22: Caswell, Durham, and Person Counties) served as guest juror. Like the Moral Mondays protests that soon will register their 1000th civil disobedience arrest, the exhibition expresses outrage, defiance, frustration, gloom and hope all at the same time.

Erring on the side of inclusion, the show is also as crowded as the protests—but not to its benefit. Along one wall, framed pieces are literally an inch apart. The handful of abstract works particularly suffer, disappearing among the more direct, figurative work that competes for your engagement. Take a third of the pieces out of this show and it’s twice better.

Another curatorial improvement could have been to organize the show into several themed areas, but the range of issues dealt with makes that pretty difficult. My rough stab would be: a section for Moral Mondays and other protests; a section about economic inequity; a section about violence; and a section about race. But there would still be straggler issues.

Untitled, Claudia Corletto.
For instance, where would the best work in the show go? Claudia Corletto’s untitled wall sculpture angrily responds to the anti-abortion bill that Governor McCrory signed into law in early August. FemCare, a women's health clinic in Asheville is, at the moment, the only clinic in the state that can legally offer abortions under the law, and they only reopened within the last two weeks after the state Department of Health and Human Services cited them for violations that some deemed specious.

Corletto bent coat hanger wire into the shape of the female reproductive system suggesting, with her choice of materials, the abortion option that legislators have left women now. What looks like an empty, scroll-like trash bag or intravenous drip bag hangs from the hook at the bottom of the uterus. The full text of the law is reproduced on the bag, beneath the mattress-tag text "Under penalty of law this tag not to be removed except by the consumer."

In combining the commercial warning with the legal document, Corletto suggests (as she does with the choice of the coat hanger) that abortions will now be performed on home mattresses instead of in clinics, and bitterly points at the rhetorical profit the Governor and his legislators are making at the expense of women needing the most sensitive care. By presenting that text in the context of a medical service, Corletto implicates the legislators as the ostensible doctors they’re pretending not to be.

Corletto’s is a brutally honest, provocative work. Every part of the sculpture is considered, and works together as a whole. You can’t look at this piece without viscerally feeling it. I can only guess at the overwhelming reaction women must have to it.

Virginia Tyler's "Ten Hours of Work for Abena Duffee" is comparably direct. Beneath a photograph of Duffee, a 14-year-old Ghanaian girl who breaks granite into gravel for her living, a pile of the gravel sits on the floor with a hand sledgehammer and a rusted basin. Tyler informs us that Duffee was required to produce four basins of gravel daily, totaling 480 pounds of material. She's 21 now so, older and stronger, her quota has risen to 800 pounds per 10-hour day.

Ten Hours of Work for Abena Duffee, Virginia Tyler.
Tyler’s raw documentary presentation literally speaks truth to power. So does Jim Lee's photograph "One More Settlement in the Promised Land," which indicts suburban sprawl by making an icon of the mundane image of an awkwardly leaning crape myrtle tree encroached upon by an orange construction zone fence. The fence ironically displays a “tree protection area" sign. The back of a stripmall comprises the background.

Libby Lynn's 9-panel oil painting "Recession Porn (Death of the Mom and Pop Shop)" would have been good to pair with Lee’s image. Lynn presents a desolate grid of numbered surveillance camera frames of an empty parking lot and a hallway of closed sex-shop viewing booth doors. Lynn’s been working so much with encaustic these past few years that it’s easy to forget her straightforward talent as a painter.

Several works in the show use images of flags. Saba Barnard's painting "WTF NC" ghosts the Confederate flag behind the North Carolina state flag, with the textured letters “WTF” overtop. It’s more successful than her "Filthy," a take on George Washington's image on the one-dollar bill with collaged magazine cutout words and Trayvon Martin’s face peeking thru. (Originally I thought this face was a reference to Washington's slave ownership, but Barnard corrected me.) Both paintings lack the subtlety and flatness of Corletto and Tyler. However it’s interesting to see work of Barnard’s other than her wonderful and expectation-defying portraits of Muslim women.

Calvin Brett's "My America" is a crudely painted flag cobbled together from wood scraps into a wall panel. Its construction is a terrific mess, at odds with itself, falling apart. The drywall screws that hold it together read as gunshots. It’s a ramshackle image, using what's at hand in a time of depleted resources.

There are always lots of flags at protests, which two photographic images capture. Tim McGloin's journalistic shot at an antiwar march on Washington shows a huge flag blanket laid out, with the crowd densely packed around its perimeter, not wanting to step upon it. A peace sign is painted on the flag and a single man stands on its star-spangled field, pointing and wearing a full skull helmet over his head. McGloin catches some of the incoherence of a large-scale protest—and of this exhibition—in one image.

Eric Raddatz’s simultaneous exposure photograph “Moral Monday (July 8, 2013)” is an impressionistic take on a vista of the crowd beneath a U.S. flag. But the image is too blurred to have a dynamic quality, giving the crowd as much a feeling of lockstep as of community. It’s equal parts unnerving and inspiring. Raddatz is neither critiquing nor describing; he’s insubstantially marveling at the turnout.

I like the clarity and simplicity of Ernest Oliphant’s "Young Skateboarders of Durham," which looks like a framed photocopy with a ballpoint signature. An outlined boarder hangs in the air in front of a fingerprint-gnarled field of text, ranging from complaint to inspiration. The skateboarder would have gone nicely next to a work that it faces across an aisle: Jean LeCluyse’s "Mugshot Icon: Hoodie Halo." A young black man—impossible not to read as Trayvon Martin—stares from beneath his hood, expressionless. But the intensely textured surface of the painting implies the sheer social noise that mediates his image. A single puzzle piece hovers over his shoulder, a cipher.

Many individual works here are powerful but, lacking in curation, Speak Truth to Power resolves to a restless liberal din. Several participating artists step forward from that din to give a voice to their works at a talk on Thursday, Sept. 5 from 6-8 p.m.

Speaking truth to power brings nobility to righteousness, but power doesn’t listen except to register a vague threat. And power is artless—witness the North Carolina House members dancing on the legislative floor right before passing their abortion ban and rolling back voter rights to the Pleistocene Era.

Art and self-expression, however, can be means toward positive ends on election days (the ultimate speech one can deliver to power), inspiring the likeminded and jaded to fundraise, get out votes or even run for office. Both of these exhibits have their faults but, especially seen together, they will likely make you feel like doing something for the greater good when you walk out of them.

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