It can be hard, if not impossible, for someone born and raised in the U.S. to understand an immigrant’s struggle. In Kledia Spiro’s video performance It’s a Family Practice, she has the insider play outsider for once. The piece was part of her solo show Too (un)Familiar? at Boston’s Kingston Gallery this spring, along with installation art, photography, and augmented reality. The performance explores her family’s experience immigrating from Albania through the lens of weightlifting, a tool Kledia uses often in her art. The performance was filmed this past winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the family was living under the same roof for the first time since they moved to the U.S.
While Kledia was weightlifting one day last summer, she wrote in her journal, “When people judge art on what art is they look at two things: how familiar it is so they can relate, and how too familiar it is so they can disregard. It’s a fine line and the public is a harsh critic.” People who aren’t artists or art consumers sometimes find abstract art too familiar and thus devoid of meaning, saying, “How is that considered art? A child could do that.” On the other end of the spectrum, people can find art alienating: as if it is only meant to be understood by some elite class. Kledia’s mission in It’s a Family Practice was to straddle that line, allowing the viewer who is typically an insider feel like an outsider, and vice versa.
It begins with a flock of geese following each other in a swoop across a split-channel screen. Kledia, her sister Erinda, her mother Linda, and her father Dion follow each other’s footsteps through the snow, carrying a welded barbell with seats on either end. Clips of Kledia weightlifting in different settings and times of year cut in and out to the beat of a heavy barbell’s clink. Her parents sit on each end of the barbell and make conversation while Kledia and Erinda help each other put on their weightlifting belts. The sisters squat, do jumping jacks and do push ups in sync.
As Linda and Dion talk, the sisters make coffee and serve it to their parents on a bumper plate. Her parents’ voices are soft and full of love to my ignorant ear, and I wanted to understand the Albanian words. I thought I heard English and Spanish words I knew like “No more snow,” “Ok, thank you,” “espinaca,” and “temperatura” but I couldn’t be sure. I continued to strain to pick up clues of what they were saying. They laughed at something with each other.
A lively music takes over as the sisters try to lift their parents up. The two channels no longer form a single shot and go out of sync. Sometimes the screen is mirrored so it looks like the same person is on each end of the barbell, trying to lift it. Linda gets up from her seat to help her daughters lift their father. Finally, Dion puts his coffee down and gets up too, and all four are able to lift the barbell.
The music changes again and they grab each other’s hands and dance around the barbell. The snow makes it hard to dance, but they dance anyway. They dance on their own and then hold hands again. Finally they settle down, sitting in a row. Each channel shows a different take of this scene, where the family settles down in slightly different ways: on one side, they sit slightly apart from each other and on the other side they each have a hand on the other, forming a single mass. They look out at the frozen reservoir together as the sun sets. A car’s brake lights travel across the distant hill. Birds, crows, and a passing car are the last sounds we hear as the screen goes dark.
As the performance swung back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, I resigned myself to ambiguity, as all good art encourages you to do. I experienced some familiarity when I thought I recognized words I knew and when I heard the sounds of geese, crows, and passing cars, sounds that I know like the back of my hand. I never realized how ingrained those sounds are in my memory. I also watched the Spiro family celebrate things they were familiar with, things I have never seen or heard and know nothing about. I felt like an outsider being invited in.
A “Space Between” is the perfect metaphor for the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our habitual lives, and we are slowly moving into a post-pandemic world. Our foundation has been shaken by world and national events. We wait to see if heightened efforts to combat racism will yield a more just society and we hold our breath to see if our democracy will survive. Trust in one another is in short supply as society grows increasingly polarized. Yet, I can’t help but hope that this moment, shrouded in fear and confusion, will be transformative.
At one of my art exhibits earlier this year, I had a chance encounter with Reverend Nina Barlow Schmid, Minister of the First Congregational Church of South Windsor CT. This led to an exchange about the concept of a “space between” and to the concern that covenants such as the one between Abraham and God in the Christian faith had lost their relevance. Reverend Schmid concluded one of her essays with this statement “Between you and me,” as God infers in the Bible, Genesis 17; “it’s the only way to go.”
I borrowed that reference for one of my Color Zones in this show. Between You and Me invites you to consider the “space between us” – a centuries-old concept that calls us to surrender and embrace uncertainty. The theme “Space Between” prompted me to work panels that are connected but not touching. I want the viewer to consider the contrast of surface and space, paint and light, opaque and transparent.
My challenge in choosing colors for Between You and Me was to select ones that conveyed the hopes and fears that have dominated my emotions over the past year. But the painting is also an invitation to consider the current uncertainties of the many personal, global, political, and religious “spaces between.” Black and white portray polarization with the balanced neutral gray above them. The silver iridescent stripe across the gray and the rose glow show my optimism for the future.
My Color Zones series also speaks to the show’s theme as they inherently intend to seek out color relationships that will influence emotions and create distinctive optical effects. Colors interact with neighboring colors, edges create optical illusions, and interference pigments cause colors to shift as viewers walk by.
Gregarious Green is a diptych featuring horizontal bands of green – one turquoise rises at the top while the three darker greens weight below. A thin stripe of orange crosses the top while the bottom panel has a slightly wider stripe of pink. These two stripes appear identical in color and reference the glow of orange between the panels and surrounding the painting.
Versatile Violet is a triptych of various violets ranging from bluish to reddish which are enlivened by yellow-green between the panels and surrounding the painting. The surface repeats this yellow-green in the left panel, while both the middle and right panels contain different, more subtle greens.
David Salle in How to See describes my goal for these Color Zones: “A color is seldom experienced independently; we always see one color against another, and those two against another, and those two against a third, and so on. There are dozens of other factors that influence our perception of color, such as value and saturation but what counts most is the intervals between colors, precisely chosen.”
My Color Zones are best seen in person as they expect to interact with viewers. They may trigger a memory or may be a new experience, but all allow the viewer a moment to pause and observe the power of color. I trust we have learned from our collective pain over the past year and our isolation has shown us the quiet “space between.” If you have the opportunity to visit Kingston Gallery I encourage you to pause, step very close and experience each “space between”.
One day after Massachusetts rescinded all COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declared the pandemic “pretty much over,” Atlantic columnist Tim Kreider published an ode to the kind of emotional padding that a year in solitude has afforded the fortunate, and a blunt acknowledgment of the deep outrage felt by those who were hit the hardest.
“The forces of money and power would certainly like us to forget all about this year and go back to exactly the way things were,” he writes. “But a lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back.” He argues that confronting “normalcy” will look different for everyone, and it won’t always be pretty. He places us at arguably the grossest state of metamorphosis for a caterpillar.
“Before caterpillars become butterflies, they first digest themselves, dissolving into an undifferentiated mush called ‘the pupal soup.’ People are at different stages of this transformation—some still unformed, some already opulently emergent. Some of us may wither on exposure to the air. Escape from the chrysalis is always a struggle.”
I can’t think of a better artistic expression of the past year than On-Kyeong Seong’s exhibition Graft. Perhaps this is because I am clinging to arbitrary markers of time in my own life—Seong’s exhibition Embedment, which was on view last March, was my first real introduction to Kingston Gallery. Now, as I conclude my residency as the Emerging Arts Writer, her sprawling and chaotic approach to the natural world returns as a kind of checkpoint, a place to stop and evaluate how exactly we are stitching our world back together.
While Seong makes liberal use of all available media, from oil paint to cutouts to fabric, her style is unmistakable. In Graft, Seong explained the addition of a sewing machine to her repertoire. Likening it to the “automatic drawing” that was popular among spiritualist artists like Hilma af Klint in the early 20th century, Seong revels in the ability to be at once mechanical and entirely freeform.
“Machine stitchery is freed from rational control and may represent something of the pure sensation in the subconscious, residing in human nature and in nature itself.”
“Observing nature under magnification is a discovery of something mystical and magical,” says Seong. “I often find the distinctive features of such shapes and forms resemble unusual and monstrous objects. I acknowledge that beauty and ugliness both exist side by side and together. Influenced by those contrasting figures, my works show distorted realities, which are transformed into abstractions to evoke both the beauty and ugliness of the natural world.”
The ugliness of the world is never too far from its surface. Though they pale in comparison to the glaring inequities across purportedly indiscriminate institutional efforts to keep Americans safe, the mental and emotional struggles that others of us have endured may have lasting effects. However, just as Seong pairs beauty with ugliness, this mentality can perhaps be seen as bringing forth a blatant rejection of social conventions that confine us.
“A lot of [people] don’t want to return to wasting their days in purgatorial commutes, to the fluorescent lights and dress codes and middle-school politics of the office,” writes Kreider. He adds wryly: “service personnel are apparently ungrateful for the opportunity to get paid not enough to live on by employers who have demonstrated they don’t care whether their workers live or die.
“More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms—that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself—are horseshit.”
As the prospect of a “normal” summer approaches and the pupal soup is brought from its year-long simmer to a frenzied boil, a show like Seong’s is a welcome continuation of the kind of break from “rational control” we may want to hang onto.
A personal favorite in Seong’s show is Bluegrass. Wild sunflowers burst out from the pixelated chaos of virtual life, almost snarling their way towards freedom. Like Kreider said, clawing our way back to a semblance of normalcy is not always pretty. In Bluegrass, the juxtaposition between what Seong calls “controlled medi[a]”—oil and collage—and the frenetic thread lines is at its most evident. The thread, while adding undeniable dynamism to her work, is also functionless, superfluous. Where does it lead? What is it holding together? What is left to hold? Will we remember the tangles of this last year, where our collective thread snags? In embracing the ambiguity and ambivalence that an answerless reality might possess, Seong’s work is strangely comforting and alien at the same time.
“Ever since I started, everyone around me has been giving me ideas for the last day,” writes Zhong Lin on April 22nd, 2021. This day marks the end of Project 365, her photography series depicting a daily portrait in her signature, warped, surrealist style. Lin, of Malaysian and Chinese heritage, has taken the internet by storm with her captivating depiction of an inner world of life in quarantine. “It wasn’t easy,” she admits, “other projects, 365 and life happening concurrently. […] I wouldn’t have made it without all the encouragements and kind words.” Lin joins a chorus of admissions that has characterized a year of struggles for many. A daily, regimented project is certainly ambitious, and at the level that Lin executes her work, even daunting. However, it is through her process, not only her products, that Lin’s shared strangeness has found its way into the hearts of the masses on instagram.
Above is Lin’s first photograph from the then-unnamed series, #001. “I want to rediscover what it means to start from nothing,” she captioned it. “No Limits, No Boundaries and No Definition.”
“I have learnt that there is no right or wrong in creativity and with this vision I invite you to take on this journey with me to title what is yet to be named. Throughout this project I will be stretching beyond borders, posting different angles […] Since all possibilities are mine to find out and yours to relate, I will be laying my work in your hands and hoping my perspective would become yours / ours.”
“Much like every visual emerges from nothing, this project may become something limitless for everything that we hope for.”
By mid-April of 2020, the cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases hovered around 430 in Taiwan, where Lin is based. The cases have been steadily climbing, with 1,090 recorded on April 22nd, 2021. As of that date, 42,523 people in Taiwan have been vaccinated. While the hope that Lin evoked on Day 1 of Project 365 has certainly begun to creep into the realm of reality, much of the world, along with Lin’s photographs, remains firmly in the surreal experience of isolation.
Lin’s photographs pull from many personal references, and also echo a historical approach to feelings of loneliness and containment. Her closest companion in this pursuit may be Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), a Cuban-American artist known primarily for her Silueta series, who Lin mirrors in both style and tone. Both women establish an almost playful take on the desperation of entrapment, and blur the lines of social constructions of beauty and femininity by quite literally pressing the female form to its limit.
Mendieta, who is thought to have been murdered in a domestic dispute by her former partner, artist Carl Andre, established a profound connection between her body and the earth in her short career. “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe,” she said. Her friend Mariana Gaston described her work this way: “art was a biologic need … her way to save her soul.”
Lin certainly seems spurred on by this same ethos, even if she isn’t coming from the exact same perspective. While her work typically allows her to travel the world, to meet different people and constantly shift her subjects, her perspectives, and her artistic goals, Lin, like the rest of us, has been all but stuck for the past year. Cut off from the bustling fashion industry, where much of her work occurs, Lin has explored the limits of the self and of the mind. In her bewitching and at times unsettling portraits, she has put words and images to the feelings that have grown, gnarled and unnamed, in many of our hearts as we watch the pandemic unfold from behind closed doors.
“I am not stopping here, I will continue creating beautiful images, there are more to come,” writes Lin in closing. “No matter which stage of my 365 you have joined, be it day 1, day 183 or today, you are part of the journey, and I welcome you. Now, if you excuse me, I am going to take my first 24 hours of sleep in a year.”
Rhonda Smith’s installation at Kingston Gallery was named after a term coined by professor and author Glenn Albrecht: solastalgia. A hybrid of the Latin sōlācium, meaning comfort, and the greek root –algia, denoting pain, solastalgia is “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.” Using earthen materials, Smith plumbs the emotional depths of our environment. Intimacy with our place of residence is what bonds sōlācium and -algia; they are a package deal.
While Albrecht and Smith are most closely focused on the natural environment, a backdrop for the body, there is an undeniably human element. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” wrote Smith in her artist’s statement, “What is missing?” We have all lived through a year of COVID-19 in bodies under immediate assault, whether physical, medical, or emotional in nature. What does it look like when the self is bombarded with, or isolated from, the many factors of our natural environment?
Smith’s work gains further perspective when placed in conversation with the recent talk given by South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi as part of ICA Boston’s virtual programming. In The Artist’s Voice: Zanele Muholi, Muholi detailed the political, anthropological, and historical layers to their work, highlighting the black, queer body as a site of continued tension between comfort and pain.
“I just needed to produce these beautiful black images, to use my own body, not as somebody [else]’s subject,” explained Muholi about their series Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness. “Instead, a new dialogue: what is the politics of self presentation? What is the meaning of self in all of this mess?” The photographic series, available via virtual tour through Harvard’s Cooper Gallery, confronts the natural, social, and political environments that have shaped Muholi’s own understanding of their body and its resonance for other black creatives. Muholi uses the term “visual activism” to describe their work, calling it a process of ‘consciously creating to bring about change in people’s lives and surroundings.”
“Somnyama Ngonyama is translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness,’” explained Muholi. For them, the Zulu term indicates the way that one can “give presence to oneself, and to all those who are important to you.”
As Smith said in her artist’s statement: “Imagine yourself the last of the species. Yet, we see a glimmer of hope.” Both Smith and Muholi hold this tension in their work, pulling it taught and presenting it to their viewers to confront directly.
The two also recall geographies of the past. Where Smith’s is environmental, Muholi’s work is a candid engagement with the body largely focused on the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, giving presence to those who have been forced to hide for too long. Their long term project, Faces and Phases, foregrounds black lesbians who have been continued targets of discrimination despite the legalization of same-sex marraige in South Africa in 2006. The passage of this act, and the start of Muholi’s project, coincided with the ten-year anniversary of South Africa’s constitution.
“Faces and Phases began when I worked for the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), which is an organization that I founded,” said Muholi. “It’s hard to celebrate the lives of those people who were brave enough to come out and say that they were, or that they are [LGBTQ+]. To thank them for even speaking out in a period where violence was rife in South Africa, especially for those [LGBTQ+] bodies that were out there in the open.”
“We have a clause enshrined in our constitution that says: you are protected as a human being in your country of origin,” said Muholi. “So, 2006 then became that period in which I wanted to do something to contribute, to create an archive that could live beyond us.” Life and land are intimately connected, and in a country torn apart by apartheid just years before the constitution was ratified, this relationship is even more fraught.
The series is dedicated to Muholi’s friend, who passed away from HIV.
“She wrote a piece that was called Please Remember Me When I’m Gone,” Muholi recounted. “It became the opening piece of Faces and Phases because she was speaking with that very same voice of wanting to be remembered, not to be forgotten for the work that we did.”
“There were many others who came before us whose lives and whose voices were never written in any books. [Their] voices were so strong, but because of silence and exclusion, they ended up not being documented or being counted in a visual history of this country.” The aim of Faces and Phases is to rectify this erasure of the black, queer experience from South African history.
“It’s a celebration, it’s a commemoration of somebody and many others—those who were once here, or those who come after us who will have that reference point, looking back at what existed before them.”
Smith’s installation probed this same absence of intimacy, of engagement with others in our community and in our world. It is unnatural to make our nurturing instincts selective; to withhold. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” writes Smith. “What is missing?”
Muholi’s work draws Smith’s question into a sharper critique of our current time. “We’re speaking at a period where racism is rife, where homophobia, transphobia, and all the ‘-isms’ are rife,” they said. “So when we produce work, we are saying no to all that cripples or violates the next person.”
While their work may seem bleak and stylistically stark, both Muholi and Smith advocate a message of connection: “[I want my work] to say to people: let’s come together, let’s do something, let’s heal together,” said Muholi. “Let’s produce something and share with the world. I’m talking to creatives here. I’m not talking to a young person or to an older person, but to human beings who care about others. Let’s keep going on, let’s care for each other.”
For Vaughn Sills, the pull of aesthetic appeal and the eventual tug of personal meaning is a familiar territory. “I begin making photographs because I am drawn to the beauty of something or because I care about a subject,” she explains. “Then, over time, I begin to understand the deeper meaning. And that conscious understanding of my work influences me as I continue to make more images.” Sills’ show Inside Outside, on view through the end of February at Kingston Gallery, inhabits this dynamic space, exemplifying it with touching clarity and depth.
The gentle arcs of stems and petals against the strict borders of Sills’ chosen photographic scenes cleave to reveal a set of processes, each one seeping into the next. As she notes, her work lays bare a deep, personal grief for her own mother, as well as a larger sense of urgency and disjuncture between the cultivated reality in each installation and the peril of the natural world it references.
Sills’ work combines photographs of her ancestral home of Prince Edward Island, Canada with the immediate, aesthetic appeal of seeing a bouquet of flowers. “It was mid-winter, such beauty was much coveted,” explains Sills. “I succumbed to buying more flowers and culled through my photographs looking for possible ‘backgrounds.’ I soon found I had created a set of parameters for these quietly surreal photographs.” Indeed, the emotional layering, with a literal “background” of nostalgia for a time long past and a foregrounded appeal to the senses of the present, brings Sills’ work to a deeply surreal place. All the more surreal, she acknowledges, is the virtual engagement that COVID has forced upon her show this year.
“It crept in unannounced, unwanted: the pandemic and its isolation seemed to show up in what I would say are the more mournful images,” explains Sills, referencing Hydrangea, Carraher’s Pond and Ranunculus, Wright’s Pond, among others. “In fact,” she adds, “most of the photographs done in 2020 seem to me to reflect my sense of the fragility of life, the sorrow of this time.”
She echoes my own sentiments about having my experience of the work relegated to the screen: “Seeing the actual prints is very different from seeing the images online. But compared to what is happening in the world, my disappointment is nothing. And there is something helpful about seeing one’s work on exhibit, seeing relationships between photographs I hadn’t quite noticed before.”
“Having a show sometimes feels like it might be the end of a book; I’m hoping this one is just the end of a chapter. Or, a better analogy: I hope this show may be just one set of poems in a longer book of poems yet to be written.”
Another layer of Inside Outside finds itself in the small installation in the Center Gallery, where several of the photos that set the scene in the Main Gallery exhibition are shown by themselves in a small selection from Sills’ True Poems Flee series. Seeing these nine by themselves not only allows them to come to the fore in their own right, but, as Sills explains, allows the viewer to see how “the mood and ideas of those images also strongly affected (or amplified) the meaning of the flowers.” We have all been forced into solitary, often uncomfortable positions in light of COVID, and allowing the works to shift between contexts allows a sense of release for the viewer, freed from the bounds of signification with “alone” and “together” meaning such different things for each of us.
Sills further explores the nature of isolation by amplifying her grief for her late mother throughout her work. Aside from the more traditional understanding of flowers—“being short-lived, they are often a symbol of the brevity of life, a hint at mortality”— Sills protracts the process of grief, drawing out the natural, acceptable elements, and those that are harder for the self to reconcile. The disconnect that comes with a dramatic shift in what was a constant in one’s life. “The landscapes and seascapes from True Poems Flee were in large part about my mother and my grieving for her,” she explains. “My choice of using my photographs from that series was an unconscious bringing together of the two elements, the flowers and the past series of images.
“Photographs are always about the past. These photographs contain two past moments, both of which connect and change how we see both moments.”
The contemplative, almost moor-like quality of the backgrounds certainly represents a kind of melancholy, but there is an undeniable peace that also blankets Sills’ show. Her description of the feelings her work draws to the surface as “quiet” belies the almost unsettling emotional response that her photographs evoke. Their ethereal quality, the almost preternatural stillness that is magnified in seeing the work virtually connects each of us in our own sensations of solitude. Removed or not, this is not a show to miss.
“Without COVID,” she muses, “I wouldn’t have made the same photographs that I have in the past year, and my show therefore wouldn’t look at all the way it does now.”
“There’s a quote from Mary Oliver,” says Sills in closing: “‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness, it took me years to realize this too was a gift.’”
“The work has always been about struggle, about healing trauma,” explains Judith Brassard-Brown. “The new work speaks to our ability to persevere and even find joy through these more extreme [times].” Brown’s show, On the Rise and the Fall v.2, is a reimagination of her earlier, traveling project On the Rise and the Fall, most recently shown in the Art Center Gallery at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA. The opening reception for that first incarnation of the exhibition occurred in late February of 2020, as mentions of COVID-19 in the U.S. were still murmurings. Brown’s descriptions of her work are almost haunting in their prescience: “These landscape paintings […] do not create a specific location or event,” she said of her work. “Rather, they provide connections across boundaries of time or captured moments; contrast what we see with what we sense in the air or below the surface.”
If the year 2020 can be characterized by any particular force, it could arguably be the power of the unseen—that which hides “in the air or below the surface”—to separate us from each other. “The intensity of life in COVID was very much a factor in this exhibition,” explains Brown of the show at Kingston Gallery. While the current environment spurred some newer works, each of her pieces adds a cathartic warp to the reflections of the natural world carrying on around us. I first encountered Brown’s work back in August, as I was planning an online show through Artsy, intent on capturing the otherworldly feeling of landscapes before and after our time here on earth. Her earlier works recall Anselm Kiefer’s smoldering, inhospitable scenes, which similarly act as “a microcosm of collective memory.”
Now, as her show has evolved in both breadth and depth under the current circumstances, the impulse to view her work as alien fades away. Instead, we are presented with the world as we understand it now, even if it is not how it appears to the naked eye. Brown intends for her work to “activate our capacity to connect to our own stories and others.” While the ground is grim, it is also a common one. Standing together amidst the roiling landscapes of Brown’s work is the closest approximation to the emotional experience many have been feeling during this time, especially as traditions and memories have cleaved in COVID’s wake.
Following the February opening at Anna Maria College, Lauren Szumita of the Worcester Art Museum wrote an update to her catalog essay that had originally accompanied On the Rise and the Fall.
“Since the original publication of the essay in February, 2020, Brown has produced a new group of figurative paintings worth considering with respect to her larger body of work,” writes Szumita. “The warmth, vibrancy and intimacy of her landscapes is evident in her expanding repertoire of portraiture.”
Seeing Brown’s technique used to dig deep into the crags of the human form adds a new dimension to her landscape work. Her work SelfPortraitSomewhereBetween, seems to denote the kind of ambivalence with which we have all been developing towards our own company during these isolating times. The work draws the viewer’s eye to its intentional raw edges, with Brown’s own gaze leading us to what is unsaid and unshown off of the canvas.
One of Brown’s most striking new works is her collaboration with Natasha Ginyard. Brown renders Ginyard’s piercing gaze in oil, collage, and wax. Next to the portrait is a poem by Ginyard. “Pairing my painting of her with Natasha’s words was an opportunity to connect to the personal impact of racism as we are held by her gaze,” explains Brown.
Szumita agrees: “This unique juxtaposition of Brown’s portrait with the words of her sitter, Natasha Ginyard, demonstrates that while Brown’s interpersonal relationships are uniquely hers, they exist among a complex network of friendship, love, and nods to passing strangers, which we understand collectively as the human experience.”
Brown characterizes her work by its “harshness, beauty, and abstraction,” all three of which serve vital roles in her show. “The portrait, in art, embodies the psychological search for meaning among the silent cues of communication – expressions, the gaze, and appearance,” writes Szumita. “Brown’s portraits of those who inhabit her world – as well as herself – represent a search for identity, whether formed through interactions with others or through self-reflection.”
Her landscapes convulse with human impulses, and her portraits alternatively deflect and defy expectation. Each of us has experienced a total shattering of normalcy during these times. Brown’s show, which expands and contracts in scope as well as in form, reflects more than just upheaval. As she herself emphasizes, the continued motion, movement, and connection that her work invites, even prescribes, to its viewers, is vital for our perspective as we wade through the end of this year.
Yng-Ru Chen, founder and CEO of Boston’s new Praise Shadows Art Gallery, acknowledges that a global pandemic is an intimidating environment for new ventures. Chen describes Praise Shadows as a “labor of love,” a project emerging onto a Boston arts scene that, though flourishing on many levels, is experiencing frailties it had yet to contend with or acknowledge previously. The gallery’s namesake, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, is an exploration of the aesthetic and symbolic power of light and darkness. Chen emphasized one quote in particular: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
“We founded this gallery from within the shadows of the pandemic and social turmoil,” she writes. “There is, and will always, be beauty.”
Praise Shadows is a commercial exhibition space grounded deeply in community, with an emphasis on access and mentorship. “We are here to serve the art lovers of Boston, the artistic community worldwide, and the artists who give us so much,” explains Chen in promotional materials for the gallery. In keeping with Praise Shadows’ ethos, the gallery is marking its debut in conversation with the Guerrilla Girls, whose mordant wit has blown open the art world since their founding in 1985.
In collaboration with Brookline Booksmith, a community staple that Chen has been frequenting since childhood, Praise Shadows hosted a panel discussion on November 23rd with two members of the Guerrilla Girls to mark the publication of their first comprehensive retrospective:Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. The anonymous, art activist collective set its sights on the art world in 1985, and has been needling its ribs ever since. Each member of the Guerrilla Girls wears a gorilla mask in public so as to obscure their identity, and each has chosen a pseudonym to retain that anonymity—the name of a famous female artist. Present at the discussion on November 23rd were members “Frida Kahlo” and “Käthe Kollwitz.”
“There’s no lack of fantastic, incredible artists out there,” says Kollwitz. “The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks.”
Frida Kahlo added to Kollwitz’s wry assessment: “The art world in 1985 […] was always interesting, but it was really one-sided. You started to think: where are the women’s voices? Where are the voices of people of color? They weren’t there. There were big holes in the art world and the gatekeepers were a compendium of critics […] with collectors as the driving force. They weren’t thinking about how the entire story of our culture was being told.”
In a project that swept the nation, the Guerrilla Girls decided to count the number of nude female bodies versus nude male bodies displayed in portraiture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accentuate what Kahlo describes as the overwhelming “hetero-maleness” of the art world in the late 80s and early 90s. What emerged from this endeavor is the now-famous piece Naked.
Kahlo and Kollwitz explain that Naked was originally intended to be a billboard for the Public Art Fund. After it was rejected due to its “graphic” nature, the Guerrilla Girls ran it on buses all across New York. It is this kind of provocative performance that put the Guerrilla Girls on the map. Now, a screenprint of the original poster is part of the Tate collection.
Projects like Naked represent the norm-shattering strategies of the group, and the power of engaging the upper crust of the artworld in repartee. As they note in their 2016 video “The Guerrilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly“: “BE CRAZY. Political art or activism that points to something and says ‘this is bad’ is just preaching to the converted. Instead, try to change people’s minds and do it in some unforgettable way.”
“We could have done a poster that just said: ‘there aren’t enough women in the Met.’, but then we wouldn’t be here talking about it today,” says Kollwitz. “Once you see this poster, I dare you to go into any museum in the world and not think: what is on the walls and why?”
Later in the discussion, when Chen emphasizes the humor that has become a cornerstone of the Guerrilla Girls’ acerbic dressing-down of the art world, Kahlo is quick to point out: “humor is different from being funny.”
“Humor has always been a weapon of the disadvantaged against those who oppress them,” she adds. “I think that is a great power, and it tells the truth. Humor can reveal all kinds of truths in a very direct way.”
The group’s tenets of anonymity and bodily occupation as minorities in majority white, male spaces hold a new kind of significance in 2020. Kollwitz adds: “When we began, the system wouldn’t accept radical art or political art; there were gender issues, race issues, and so much prejudice. So, young artists were just going into the streets and doing their own thing. We loved that. We decided we were going to make that the basis of our work—don’t wait for the gatekeepers to grant access. Get out there.”
Despite their condemnation of “gatekeeping” within the art world, Kollwitz and Kahlo, both white women, have received criticism for fostering a group hierarchy that excluded women of color and compelled them to split from the original group. As Art History Professor Anna C. Chave points out in her 2011 essay “The Guerrilla Girls’ Reckoning“, the group’s racial breakdown has been a point of contention since their founding by white artists. “While the Guerrilla Girls started keeping periodic tabs on statistics pertaining to racial, as well as gender discrimination in the art world,” writes Chave, “they staunchly, and problematically, resisted being surveyed as to the make-up of their own membership.” It is important to note, as Chave does, that this particular account is disputed by one African-American member, who uses the alias Alma Thomas, as she cites her participation from the group’s inception.
Chave continues: “Because of the group’s costumes—whose racial valences proved predictably offensive, to Thomas for one (‘I would have preferred pink ski masks’)— it can be difficult to discern the ethnicity of members in photographs. Though some members of color recount having been asked often to pose for publicity photos […] the photographed Girls generally appear to be white, in keeping with the group’s predominant ethnic make-up.” This assessment by Chave, and its inclusion in this article, is not to malign the Guerrilla Girls, but rather to point out that it would be in keeping with their methods to turn their own critical gaze onto themselves.
As some are quick to point out, the Guerrilla Girls have grown their audience exponentially since 1985, and their works critiquing institutions like the Whitney, Tate, and MoMA now hang in those same hallowed halls. Chave writes: “Critic Suzi Gablik kept pressing a pair of ‘Guerrilla Girls’ during a 1994 interview as to whether they might not wish to change the art world rather than simply to demand fuller participation within it.” Chave recounts that one of the pair, going by “Guerrilla Girl 1,” clarified that the group’s focus was more on “‘access […] that’s our attitude about change, as opposed to breaking down the system.'”
This kind of specification, which might chafe against the discussions later generations of feminists and activists are having today, is unsurprising given the temperature of the art world and the public scene onto which the Guerrilla Girls emerged.
Today, Kahlo and Kollwitz continue to push back against criticism of their access-focused efforts, arguing that this kind of visibility allows them to do their work more effectively. They argue that amicable discourse is the surest way to wield influence: “If you can get people who disagree with you to laugh at an issue,” they say in their 2016 video, “you have a hook right into their brain. Once there, you have a much better chance to convert them.”
Chen seems to agree—having built up Praise Shadows with the support of friends and colleagues, she believes in a sense of true, supportive community: “partnerships in the community are how we thrive and how we survive.” Her choice to underscore communal discourse demonstrates how much we are all hoping for continued and lasting dialogue around the issues writ large in the midst of the pandemic, and those that will undoubtedly follow.
Chantal Zakari’s show A Work in Progress opened at Kingston Gallery on November 4th, 2020. In some sense, because of the show’s timing, this title remains true even after its opening—the show greets an audience emerging, nerves frayed, from an inconclusive election night. “On one hand,” she muses over FaceTime, “what is the place of making artwork that immediately responds to what’s happening? Then what is the place of doing a long term project? I mean, ideally, I wish my show did not open on that day, but,” she smiles ruefully, “it’s out of my control.”
Zakari’s show is a symbolically rich minefield of American memory, perhaps uniquely suited to meet the current, American mindset. As Zakari explains: “I’m not an artist that defines herself, by the medium. In previous shows, I collaborated with my husband, who’s a photographer, but we’ve done resin sculptures and oil paintings, too.”
Zakari privileges concept over form, with fascinating results. Her approach may be unorthodox, but it is highly intentional. When I ask more about the oil paintings, she smiles: “I didn’t paint any of it. I actually sent it to a place in China where they painted it.” She takes in my startled expression. “Conceptually,” she adds, “there was a reason why we did that. What came back, you know, had the residues of the production from China. And I mean, it’s always embedded in the conceptual ideas, right?”
Her concept for A Work in Progress, an exploration of the accumulated meanings and memories in the Watertown Arsenal, expands her audience’s understanding of both the physical and emotional architecture of the historic manufacturing hub. “I was trying to think of how to approach this to express that layering, because I was especially interested in the layering of the real estate. The arsenal, that space, that real estate, is a work in progress, right? It can change. So the metaphor that I thought of is to have photographs from the archives that are all overlaid.”
Zakari has chosen an excellent site for an exploration of architectural pentimento, one with layers of personal as well as material significance. During World War II, the Watertown Arsenal employed 10,000 people in the manufacture of cannons, bullets, and by the 1960s, in the operation of a nuclear reactor. The workforce was primarily composed of immigrants, for whom the Arsenal’s steady salary served as a way to launch into the middle class American experience.
“It was a living place,” says Zakari. “They would tear down the old buildings, build new ones, and tear down those. It kept renovating itself. It’s just this gorgeous building. So I started thinking, how is it that these buildings are so beautiful, and they were made for a factory? I look at the place sometimes and think, how did we lose this sense of aesthetic?”
Interested to see the documentation of the Arsenal’s transformation, Zakari dove into the online photo archives. “You wouldn’t believe the size of these cannons that were produced. It’s a technological marvel. You see humans that are like this small,” she draws her fingers together, “next to these giant cannons.” The old photographs, now digitized in high resolution, were originally made using large format cameras. For A Work in Progress, Zakari reproduces and reorganizes these photographs to bring the story out of the conventions of time and space, and into a plane where her audience can connect emotionally.
“I came across some portraits that were really beautiful. So that led me to think about the workers and who the workers were,” she explains. “I really zoomed into the workers so these are extreme details, about half the size of the original photograph.” She flips her camera and clicks through a few of the portraits that are part of the show. She adds soft commentary—“I mean look at this guy. Isn’t he so pensive and philosophical?”—thawing the edges of these frozen images. “These are some really psychological portraits,” she concludes. “But if you ask me what these machines are, I have no clue what they do.” She laughs, “I’m not really focused on that.”
Despite her empathetic approach to the subjects of her show, one of Zakari’s major goals is to push back against a romanticization of the past. “The past was not great,” she acknowledges, “and the present is very complicated. I want the installation to reflect the complexity. This is not nostalgic at all.”
There is a particularly jarring element in one of the islands of layered photographs that Zakari hopes will drive this point home. “I have an image of a mule with his head blown up,” she says, pulling the image up on her screen. “He was used as part of one of the experiments. The photographer took the photo at the moment the head was blown off. It’s horrendous.”
“But, you know, life is very complex,” she adds. “That’s why I often stay away from political artwork. Sometimes I feel like it has a moral superiority to it. And I hate the idea that the artist comes to a project, knowing what’s right and wrong. There are times when things are right and wrong, it’s just that to me, those are not the interesting art pieces. In art, we’ve had a lot of this discussion about social practice. And to me, the most interesting social practice pieces are the ones that question issues, not the ones that come with a moral.”
“I am idealistic,” she explains, “but I just don’t have these illusions that we can get rid of all this.” She splays an excerpt from her Arsenal News 2020 publication, which accompanies the show, across the screen. “In this article here, it says that Home Depot actually took a cut to be able to give more money to their workers for their health insurance. I think life is a lot more complicated than black and white.”
Zakari’s choice to traffic in sepia tones in order to debunk these same reductive or romanticized shades in our own understanding of society pays off. “I’m interested in connecting to communities and doing things that are very specific. But I’m not interested in, you know, having a message that can be spelled out. Once you’re in this complexity, it’s very difficult to think of war as bad or good. There are so many nuances.”
Ghosts peer from around the gallery’s corners; they press their noses up against the plexiglass that holds them. In some cases, viewers can even hear their voices.
“I’ve always wanted to use the center gallery,” explains Zakari. “I thought that that would be an opportunity to project something. The idea was that I wanted to film at a place, you know, with this architecture, but I was thinking of ghosts of people appearing in this film. It’s based on movement that comes from, you know, human movement and labor and daily activity.”
Another component of the installation features a layering of actual people, not just movement. “There was this woman I heard on NPR a couple of years ago. She’s an opera singer. And her name is Ruth Harcovitz. And she has this amazing voice,” says Zakari. “I had a very specific song in mind that I had found out about the song called, ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.’ It was written by a priest during the Pearl Harbor bombing.”
“As artists, we have a really important responsibility to open up these visual ideas to others,” she concludes. “In some sense, this connects to social practice, because I want to open it up out of the gallery. I really hate the fact that art has closed itself into a bubble. I love the white gallery cube, you know, that’s also a really nice place to experiment with ideas. But the reason I publish so many books is because those go to anybody who’s interested in that subject. That, to me, is exciting. I want to open up my art.”
What is feral will never conform, but it does confess. When discussing her survey of the European Green Belt, Bonnie Donohue notes: “If you look at it from the drone, you might see a line of trees that are all the same size, which would indicate where a structure came down—all the trees started growing at the same time.”
For the past five years, Donohue has focused on the Green Belt, a demilitarized strip of nature spanning the 12,000 km where the Iron Curtain used to be. This porous strip of green, the joint effort of 24 countries who formerly lay at the edge of the Iron Curtain, is at the center of Donohue’s exhibition A THIN GREEN LINE: Borderlands at Kingston Gallery this October.
“There are clues on the ground,” she adds, “of what was there before.”
Donohue’s work primarily features drone footage, Augmented Reality (AR), and archival documents from Cold War-era Berlin. While her manipulations of the line between past and present are more readily apparent, Donohue’s engagement with the boundary between the virtual and the tangible goes beyond AR to fundamentally question borders themselves. As figments of national (and often global) consciousness, they are as influential and constructive as they are entirely imagined.
Her take on A THIN GREEN LINEweaves in and out of temporal, physical, and emotional bounds, mapping the underbellies and charged spaces around the borders we have constructed throughout human history.
“The precariousness of confidence, when relegating [anything] to a distant history, is fragile, as contemporary signs and signifiers constantly threaten the re-emergence of authoritarianism,” she explains. “My work is a form of vigilance and resistance.”
Bonnie Donohue, video still from Thin Green Line, (05:01 minutes) (2019), drone footage.
Over the past several decades, Donohue has embedded herself in such environments as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Vieques Island in its efforts to rid itself of the vise grip of the U.S. Navy. This show is no different in its ambitious scope. Donohue makes sure to highlight our own national backdrop for this exploration: Donald Trump’s efforts to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“There’s one piece in the show that is from the Mexican border, and that’s an AR piece that’s an homage to the butterfly sanctuary that’s threatened by the wall. They want to just go right through it.”
The European Green Belt is compelling as a living, growing monument to the bleak and inhospitable ground once demarcating the Iron Curtain. “What once divided, now joins,” explains the chair of the European Green Belt Association. “[The German state] Thuringia is affording complete protection to its section of the Green Belt,” he adds, “a positive move that will be noted far beyond Germany’s borders.”
In some sense, borders can be understood to be deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be. Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford.
In addition to using drone footage to document the size and scope of the belt—“it’s about as wide as a football field is long”—Donohue also interrogates the different valences and implications of the border by digging into Germany’s past.
One of the most intriguing components of the show is the amplification and manipulation of various images from a German border guard training manual used in the 1960s. The manual features passport photos from individuals that either closely resemble one another, or the same person in photos taken ten years apart. Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of this imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford.
Bonnie Donohue, Die blauen Augen (Blue Eyes) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.
The manual purports to break down the human form into digestible pieces. Inevitably, generalizations are made, stereotypes invoked, and the racial implications are impossible to ignore. What’s more, the goal of this training was to successfully identify permissible individuals—Germany’s past efforts to examine and quantify human attributes come to mind almost immediately.
Donohue manipulated these sets of photos in Photoshop, and incorporated various drawings and labels from the manual. “I built up layers of amounts of blur to make them more ephemeral,” she explains. “Then some details were added back in, superimposed drawings from the manuals in some cases.”
Bonnie Donohue, Die Lippen (Lips) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.
The layered, spectral photos Donohue uses recall the many instances of dehumanization a governing body can inflict once it has identified “the other.” In 1987, President Ronald Regan visited West Germany to advocate for an end to the border wall and promote an ethos of freedom. Many know his famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
When Regan made this speech, it had only been two years since he had broken his own barrier of silence, publicly acknowledging the AIDS crisis for the first time. In the three years following the official identification of AIDS by the CDC, individuals who were suffering from the disease and watching it ravage their communities were largely kept out of the national spotlight. Regan deliberately avoided codifying AIDS in the national consciousness, building a barrier of politics and morals around AIDS victims and activists.
Donohue’s blurred layers crowd with shadows of the past, and are meant to make us turn towards the borders we create, both literal and metaphorical, in the present. Donohue’s show warns of allowing geopolitical maneuvers of the last several years—from the U.S.-Mexico border wall initiative to the decision to move the U.S. embassy, arbiter of legitimacy, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—to fade into the safe uncertainty of near-distant history. The lines we draw, both geographic or personal, over mountains and amongst ourselves, strain at the prospect of keeping the past separate from the present. Borders can be understood as deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be.
On her choice of the Green Belt as the heart of her show, Donohue explains: “I look at it as a place of hope. The word ‘utopia’ is unfair, because utopias can never last. But, I look at it as a fragile, free space. Anybody who wants to can be part of it.”