Even though it's July in North Carolina, this is the winter of our discontent. Last year's enthusiastic Moral Monday protests and the art that came out of them were fueled by a mixture of joy and outrage. But for artists whose concern for social justice persists, those reserves of joy are running out.
Last year's Truth to Power exhibit at Durham's Pleiades Gallery—their first annual show of political art by North Carolina artists—included works that expressed defiance against state government positions on gay rights, women's access to reproductive health care, gun control, fracking and other divisive issues. But it also included work that seemed excited by the simple fact that protest was happening, rather than addressing any specific issue. In such a heated political climate, the latter works felt naïve.
After a year of legislative ambivalence, the tone of Truth to Power 2 is decidedly different. Juried by Kenneth G. Rodgers, an art professor and director of the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, the show contains more than 40 works by more than 30 artists. Many entries have a dark, serious air. Enduring another year in a divided state has tempered and deepened the work of these artists.
Overtly political work often compels the viewer to evaluate its message separately from its artistic merits, but aesthetics and politics are closely mated in Truth to Power 2. Many painted and collaged works contain dense allegorical detail that speaks of a more complex, nuanced awareness of issues. Human photographic subjects stare directly out of their frames to look you in the eyes, confronting and challenging you. Directness and corporeality also characterizes the sculptural work.
The exhibition is woven together by a clothesline installation overhead. Sandra Elliott and Julia Charvin hung 197 socks from the zigzagging line, representing the number of students, teachers and police officers who have died from school gun violence since the Columbine High School mass shooting in Colorado in 1999. "Shouldn't It Have Enough Then?" unifies the exhibit's memorial feel.
A bay of photographic work is the most affecting part of the show. Its central image stops you in your tracks: Christer Berg's almost unbearably crisp portrait "21,730 Days." The title totals the days that Dwayne Dail, Willie Grimes and Greg Taylor spent in prison for separate crimes before lawyer Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence had them exonerated and freed. The men stand behind Mumma, wearing black in front of a black background with vertical bars. Their expressionless faces float, almost disembodied. In a charcoal jacket and a blue blouse, Mumma provides the only color in the image, standing with her arms folded in defiant determination.
A comparable stare, which contains a measure of exhaustion, comes from Jim Lee's "I Pick the Cocoa Beans for Your Fine Chocolates." The composite image places the face of a Ghanaian cocoa plantation worker, whom Lee photographed as a journalist in 2007, over a background of Dutch chocolates he shot in an Amsterdam airport. The perfectly arranged candy, its range of browns comparable to the woman's skin tone, evokes an economic graph of African labor for European profit. Lee's straightforward pairing indicts the economic legacy of colonialism.
The abstract paintings are more powerful than the figurative ones. Kimberly Wheaton's "Disclosure" is a barely legible list of fracking chemicals on a scarred black field. Tom Willis' colorful "Arab Spring II"— a rectangle full of rectangles within a corona of flames—implies trapped territory. Expressing a more personal sense of containment, Blake Elliott's "Power of 1" dwarfs a small black area of horizontal marks within a field of yellow and white tallies.
But collage enables the best and most complex expressions of frustration here. Tema Okun's small "After Katrina," so jammed with detail that you almost need to kneel to see it, depicts a complex system of help and need. Turbulent waves of torn blue paper break upon a broken levee of cut-up Hebrew scripture, their force cracking houses open like eggs.
Two figures occupy the center: a composited woman emerging from a roof to reach for an overhead star and a jazz-Cubist man on a ladder reaching down for a big black hand. The top third of the scene is a red sky with a yellow clock-face moon next to angels swooping across a white arc, which could be the heavens or the profile of the Superdome stadium that became a refuge during the 2005 disaster.
George Mitchell's sepia photographic collage "Ghetto Blues" also deals with economic disparity by overwhelming the eye with visual data. It's an urban street scene at the fictitious corner of MLK Jr. Street and Jeff Davis Avenue, with battered rows of duplexes in the foreground and two-story brownstones looming behind them.
Mitchell, a Durham artist who has been paralyzed from the chest down since a 2003 shooting, scatters people through the scene, subtly warping scale and perspective in a way that recalls Romare Bearden's collage work. Giant arms reach out of the brownstone windows toward the empty sky. It's at once a chaotic and stark image.
And Julia Feldman's textile collage "Admit One Elephant" is perplexing yet pointed, like a rebus in a strange language. Using the American flag as a framework, Feldman replaces the striped area with a worn damask tablecloth stitched with a crude, map-like landscape. Forming a tribal neighborhood, several houses are connected by paths of black thread. Two embroidered black donkeys walk along the paths above a colorful patchwork elephant that looks like a swollen potato with four phallic legs. The elephant approaches a monkey precariously sitting on a stack of teacups and biting an apple. In neat sans-serif lettering, the work's title begins where the stars should be (Feldman uses a pale, striped fabric instead) and terminates in hand-stitched cursive on the tablecloth.
In this political climate, partisan politicians wander our land like strange and hungry predators. We, the constituency, perch high up for safety, gnawing at whatever resources we can forage. But we're wearing thin. How much longer can we do this?
This article appeared in print with the headline "The art of exhaustion."