On one wall, the blown glass head of a faun blossoms from the center of a mesmerizing lenticular print with ring upon ring of robots and baby dolls. At the far end of the gallery, a long, abstract rectangle of red and black Chinese ink subtly evokes the deaths of Chinese workers during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the nineteenth century, while at the opposite end hangs an imposing image of a black drone laden with flowers, cameras, and a T-shirt bearing the words, “I can’t breathe.” A stunning tableau of birds in radioactive hues is displayed between a photograph of a death certificate and hand-drawn pages of the Qur’an, transcribed and framed by backdrops of everyday American life.
Needless to say, “IDENTITY – A Visual Artifact” at PROGRAPHICA / KDR offers a highly eclectic mix of artwork, assembled under a rubric so broad that the connections between pieces can feel a little tenuous.
Still, this show marks the debut of a “new” gallery, and of a number of exciting artists new to the Seattle art scene. Prographica Gallery will now co-exist with its longtime affiliate Koplin Del Rio Gallery (formerly of Culver City, California) at PROGRAPHICA / KDR in Prographica’s existing space in the Madrona neighborhood. Directors Norman Lundin and Eleana Del Rio will curate exhibitions, both independently and jointly, from the artists in both programs. In a sense, this exhibition is serving double-duty, not only presenting a fresh roster of artists, but also defining the character of the gallery itself.
“I approach a piece of artwork as a visual artifact that reflects a specific point in history,” emphasizes curator Eleana Del Rio. “The conversation the artwork generates is important. For me, the voice that resonates and lingers makes for the most memorable artwork.”
Thus, what truly unifies the artists in this exhibition transcends considerations of style, philosophy, medium, or subject matter; as gifted creators of visual artifacts, they share an ability to stoke dialogue, unsettle, and provoke. In short, Del Rio explains, “These artists produce work that taps into the pulse of our current point in history in order to examine identity on multiple levels—self, community, and nation.”
Definition and Duality in Cultural and Ethnic Identities
In this exhibition, the desire to explore and shape identity appears most explicitly in the work of Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall and Houston artist Robert Pruitt, in relation to black identity.
Marshall was born in Alabama in 1955 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, strongly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Through his long career, he has sought to redress the dearth of black figures in museums and valorize blackness in a society that idealizes white beauty. In the current show, he exhibits three “black on black” photographs; capturing his subjects under black lighting, Marshall produces very dark, enigmatic images, with only the subtlest contrast revealing the contours of faces in portraits such as “Black Beauty (Alana).” Marshall’s work revels in exaggerated blackness and invites viewers to linger, studying the model’s features, feeling the power of the woman’s gaze—the brightest element in the composition. However, it is loss and earthly fragility that Marshall underscores in another piece, “A Black Death,” in which he captures not a beautiful presence, but an absence, photographing a death certificate under that same black light.
Similarly, Robert Pruitt views himself as “one of a number of artists re-imagining the trajectory and definition of the images of people of color in art and media,” challenging the artistic canon. Drawing inspiration from comic books, science fiction, hip-hop, and the mythology of the mothership, Pruitt offers up futuristic visions of black identity, portraying black figures and symbols of the black experience in conjunction with technology. In “Archangel,” for example, the artist constructs a hovering angel with a black drone and cameras for a head. Its “body” consists of a T-shirt bearing the “I can’t breathe” slogan adopted by demonstrators protesting the death of Eric Garner. Looming above the viewer, the drone appears to gaze down through its many mechanical lenses. It is unclear whether this archangel comes to judge or protect, but the image certainly reminds viewers of the role that video has recently played in exposing injustice.
On the other hand, it is not so much the defining of a community that inspires mixed-media artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre, but the blending of disparate cultures. Brothers who have collaborated artistically for roughly 25 years, they split their time between studios in Ensenada, Mexico, and San Diego, California, and their signature style reflects their cultural duality. Their exuberant “Faun in the big City” melds the design of ancient Aztec calendar stones with pop imagery and modern materials, the magnificent blown glass head of a faun emerging from the center of a dizzying lenticular print. A mainstay of children’s stickers and advertising, this printing technique accentuates the dynamic, bewildering character of this cityscape, which shifts and changes as viewers look at it from different angles. Ringing the faun with brightly colored robots and doll heads, the de la Torre brothers heighten the sense of cultural disorientation as the profane and material displace the sacred and symbolic.
Identity and Environment
In the works of a number of artists in the show, the theme of identity is addressed through the depiction of particular places, or in the implicit relationship between an environment and its denizens.
Nanjing-born artist Zhi Lin portrays the suffering of nineteenth-century Chinese railroad workers through their very absence. Lin was shaped by experiences with political strife in China before immigrating to the United States and eventually becoming an art professor at the University of Washington. Now, he exposes the fraught history of Chinese immigrants in America through his art. Lin depicts seemingly abstract railroad tracks rendered in black and blood red, as well as forlorn landscapes of places of significance, notably the site of an infamous mining massacre and a Chinese crematory.
In the introspective artwork of Minneapolis-based artist Melissa Cooke, the examination of self and psyche are inextricably bound with one’s personal experience of city and environment. In one of her works in this exhibition, a powdered graphite piece entitled “Eyes,” Cooke illustrates a face peering out from beneath layers of graffiti, dripping paint, and movie-poster imagery. The image both captures the keen gaze and condenses memories of the urban landscape that these eyes have implicitly observed.
Chicago artist Laurie Hogin, on the other hand, uses allegory to explore the human experience. Subverting the stylized poses of classic still life painting, Hogin offers eye-catching tableaux of fantastic beasts and birds that have never seen an Audubon guide. The artist introduces the fluorescent palette of modern media to creatures ostensibly in their natural habitats—a barren, almost post-apocalyptic space beneath a snaking network of highway overpasses in “Echo Turnpike (Habitat Diorama with Rubble-Dwelling Species),” for example. These animals, which function as stand-ins for the human race, absorb and reflect their environment, and are poisoned and mutated by it.
Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk offers less of a critique and more of a challenge to American identity in his American Qur’an, to which he dedicated almost a decade. He meticulously transcribed all 114 suras of the Qur’an, based on various English translations and formatted according to traditional conventions, down to the placement of medallions within the text. The illustrations that frame the text use techniques borrowed from Arabic and Persian painting, yet the scenes themselves depict everyday American life, from shoreline scenes with fisherman and ferries to operating rooms and loading docks. At a moment in history when many Americans view Islam as a hostile outside force, Birk urges viewers to see the universal message of the religion in harmony with American life.
In this exhibition, the artists approach questions of modern identity on so many different levels, so very divergently, that identity barely registers as a unifying theme. Moreover, most art by definition produces a “visual artifact.” Yet, does it matter if this show lacks the thematic tightness of most gallery shows? The caliber of the artists more than justifies a visit and should leave Seattle art lovers with plenty to talk about.
“IDENTITY – A Visual Artifact” will run through April 30, 2016, at PROGRAPHICA / KDR. It is the first of a series of three exhibitions on this theme that will take place in 2016 to highlight the talents of the Koplin Del Rio artists. The next show is scheduled for early July.
— Elisa Mader