by John Zarobell
This group show, curated by artist/activist/educator Kim Anno wades right into the middle of the very messy world we inhabit as COVID begins to recede. While seeing a gathering of artists, collectors, and enthusiasts at the exhibition’s opening felt like a pulse of quasi-normalcy, the topics addressed by the artists in this show remind us of the mess this pandemic has exposed: our shredded social safety net, glaring racial inequalities, huge gaps in health outcomes, as well as a sense of foreboding about the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad, and the apparent weaknesses in our global economic systems. Before you swipe left, remember that art’s role is to remind us to look at the world we inhabit.
One of the most visible social issues in our cities is the explosion of homelessness – something the artist Kyung Lee confronts when he takes us inside the VW bug that is the domicile of DJ Nyce. She has filmed Nyce’s everyday life as part of a project in which she’s engaged the denizens of her East Oakland streetscape during the pandemic. We Are Here(2021), the film on view, is Lee’s edit of footage shot by
Nyce in his car while parked and sometimes while driving. We watch him contend with police and city maintenance staff, as well as discussing wheelies and football with passing cyclists. His mom brings him food, he showers at his Auntie’s, and he discusses his plans to get off drugs. From this brief sketch of Nyce’s self-constructed narrative, one is left both with a sense of the resilience of the human spirit and a sense of the crushing weight of poverty. The ceiling of his car, decorated with a fading poster of pop stars, provides a visual symbol of his ambitions, as well as a compositional device, suggesting that his reduced ability to navigate the world is a result of the genuine limitations imposed by homelessness.
Since Nyce is Black, it’s impossible to tour this exhibition without being reminded that the global protests against police violence are yet another aspect of how the pandemic has brought society’s latent cruelty to the surface. Many of the artists in this exhibition reflect on histories of subordination, colonialism and incarceration. Yet, they do so with an apparent lightness that sometimes belies the significance of their critiques. Katie Dorame’s paintings interrogate Hollywood movie fantasies in which Native Americans appear. The largest of the works on view are pastiches of Hollywood kitsch with historical and contemporary indigenous actors, such as Tantoo Cardinal and Wes Studi, dressed for their roles, including that of pirate, swordsman and priest. The juxtaposition of the contradictory and unlikely roles (Catholic priest?) they play is confounding and even downright funny. While the masks some figures wear were present before the pandemic, they possess a different connotation in its aftermath. At once goofy and all-too-real, their presencehaunts these sendup pantomimes.
Joseph Jacque’s photographs of correctional facilities and an ICE processing center illuminated by cold phosphorescence against the night sky are quite the opposite. The absence of people in them underscores the inhumane acts perpetrated. An exception is Manzanar (2017), a digital photomontage wherein the artist has “collaborated with Ansel Adams” by re-using government-sponsored images of Asian men and women at the internment camp when it held American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. These figures re-animate a deserted, albeit beautiful, landscape to a haunting effect.
Paintings by Wendy Liang and Yee Jan Bao introduce a different mood. In Liang’s figure paintings, deft compositions of multiple figures articulate stories such as The Death of Dr. Li Wenliang (2020), the physician who identified COVID-19 in China. Bao’s paintings are more amorphous; in them, figures, rendered in varying opacities, populate abstract color fields. Untitled (Two Boys) and Untitled (Figure on a Boat), both from 2005, for example, employ poses and figural gestures suggestive of migration from sub-Saharan Africa, even though the artist deliberately suppresses information that would allow us to establish a sense of location.
Two other pieces in the show are relational in that they force viewers to confront their ideas and expectations about nationhood and community. Joyce Burstein’s the flag of the night sky (1994-ongoing) is an installation of the blue/white segments of the American flag that have been salvaged from fabric recyclers and combined with red and white stripes sewn into separate monochrome strips rolled into balls. You can view the piece in the atrium of the Minnesota Street Project — and take in its history. Photos in the gallery show the flag making the rounds of various sites, including that of the Francis Scott Key monument, which was toppled during the protests that rocked the nation in the summer of 2020. Leila Weefur’s video, Blackberry Pastoral: Symphony No. 1 (2021), is a potent visual celebration of diversity and blackberries’ sugary sensuality, which operate as a code for blackness in this piece. I’d not previously considered a human/fruit collaboration, but having seen this, I can’t conceive of a more moving tribute to the ways people imbue the material world with personal meaning. It is not that a political interpretation is lacking—I can imagine many—but the materialization of blackness performed in this work left me feeling that there is much about identity and its visual manifestations left to explore and question.
Kim Anno, the curator, contributes one piece called Yeyama #1 (2017), a still photo from her film 90 Miles from Paradise. This luscious photo of a queer brown person may well be the linchpin of the show. It challenges viewers with a wide variety of representational techniques, and in so doing, it transmits complexities about identity and the role it plays in our attempt to make sense of the world and lay claim to contested territories within it.
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“Contested Territories” @ Anglim Trimble through August 28, 2021. Cover image: Katie Dorame, Mutiny Bound: Tantoo, Wes, Lou & Irene, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 44 x 60 inches.
About the author:
John Zarobell is associate professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco. He was previously assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He has been publishing art criticism since 2010.