Emory University’s Visual Arts Gallery is hosting one of the more bracing exhibitions in town. “Race*Sex*Politics*Religion … What not to talk about” does a lot of talking, in language resonant, pained, seductive, respectful, deadpan, confrontational and occasionally silly and hermetic. The show runs through April 16.
Curator Larry Jens Anderson, who unites the conversations through an unusually bold installation design, has assembled a multigenerational crew, encompassing older pros — among them Thornton Dial and Jon Eric Riis — and a generous number of recent graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he teaches.
The maturity of the younger artists’ work is exciting in itself. Stephen Hayes’ “Cash Crop,” which debuted at Mason Murer Gallery, combines sculpture and printmaking to conjure up a poetic and memorable indictment of slavery’s Middle Passage. Also outstanding are Omar Richardson’s large-scale images, both titled “My Two Worlds.” Richardson embodies a fractured identity by the subtle layering of a linocut of an African warrior over a photographic blow-up of a sensuous woman (at left).
Those artists were in “Movers & Shakers” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, as was Monica Ellis, whose work here is the polar opposite of her abstract sculpture there. Ellis, who is Hispanic and a lapsed Catholic, muses on her upbringing and what she calls the “religious consumerism” of her community by making religious icons, quite convincing traditional images that she has painted on food wrappers from Taco Bell. These paintings allow room for many interpretations: religious kitsch and Shroud of Turin phenomena, but also the presence of the spirit in daily life.
More likely, if the fracas over the David Wojnarowicz “Fire in My Belly” in the now notorious “Hide/Seek” in Washington is any indication, they would be interpreted as disrespect. For something intentionally offensive, however, try Michael Brown’s painting “Jeebus Fink.” The SCAD professor channels the cheery irreverence of The Hairy Who and “South Park” in this caricature of Christ brandishing a devil’s mask. I’m not sure of Maria Kirby-Smith’s game in the tabletop sculptures “White Woman With Black Pussy (Cat)” and “Black Woman With White Pussy (Cat),” which seem to depend on lame wordplay for whatever content they might have.
Christopher Hutchinson’s “Comparative Anthropology” is a bit of an enigma, but not for lack of thoughtfulness. The piece is a series of miniature billboards bearing dictionary definitions of such words as “white,” “European” and “imperialism.” Some of the definitions are fiction, others not. That Hutchinson was building some fake-authoritative case against the white race is obvious, but I didn’t understand that he was specifically turning the tables on the pseudoscientists behind eugenics and the like until I checked his website. It’s an interesting effort; more context, or maybe even a tweak of the title, might have clarified it, at least for me.
The exhibition offers a broad view of sexual practice. Sonja Rieger displays dignified photos of drag queens, whose identity and metamorphosis are earnest and complete, in contrast to, say, Kalup Linsey’s satiric personae. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that either.) Forest McMullin’s portraits of couples who practice S&M but look just like you and me, recently reviewed here, go to show that you never know what goes on behind closed doors. Hmmm.
The view that what you do behind those doors is your own business is conveyed in the most elegant and disarming manner by Riis in “Blue Shunga Coat” (below). The hand-woven coat, with its Asian shape, is a favored form in Riis’ oeuvre. This one is a multi-layered affair, each layer woven in a different, gorgeous shade of blue. Is the color symbolic? Shunga, after all, refers to a tradition of Japanese erotica, which equably described all manner of couplings and practices.
Riis has woven a pair of female breasts on the outer coat, a witty reversal of the exhibitionist’s maneuver. He wove images of various embraces on successive layers. By requiring the viewer to lift back the flaps to see those images, whose round shape suggests a keyhole view, the artist impishly implicates us as voyeurs. Exquisitely made and creatively conceived, it is one of the show’s high points.
The show is a paragon of diversity — from the race, gender, sexuality and age of the participating artists to the aesthetics of the artwork — to a point. That is to say, the positions expressed here are predictably leftist, liberal, open-minded or whatever you want to call it. I would suspect that the majority of the show’s audience hails from that side of the national divide as well. A more radical exhibit would express the opposite point of view, or bring the two together to duke it out. That said, I don’t know whether there is even such a thing as contemporary art that inveighs against homosexuality, labor, blasphemy, liberalism and so on. I’m just saying that, as strong as the show is, it’s still a closed loop.