sense of national community, I felt it worthwhile to focus on artists who reflect and were formed by all kinds of cross-currents in American culture -- spiritual, regional, ethnic, political -- but whose work, in the end, would tell us more about an America we recognize and share than about any of the separate groups a particular artist might seem to represent.1
The metaphor of a kaleidoscope, an instrument in which the patterns of colored glass fragments shift and change, altering the perspectives of the viewer with each transformation, seems an apt way to describe this particular group of artists who display an array of vibrant, distinctive modes of expression. Undoubtedly, many other artists might have been included. In the end, the artists in the exhibition were selected from a crowded field of lively candidates not only for the clarity of their vision, but also for their ability to communicate directly and forcefully to a general audience.
The metaphor of a kaleidoscope. . .
seems an apt way to describe this particular group of artists who display an array of vibrant, distinctive modes of expression.
As the century closes, many people have found the need for spiritual outlets beyond conventional religious practices. Rooted in a deeply secular culture, they nevertheless seek value, meaning, and inspiration in the context of their everyday lives. Four of the artists chosen for "American Kaleidoscope" have achieved this goal and, in so doing, provide insight into important aspects of their identity and self-image, as well as ours.
Renée Stout grew up in a modest African-American family in Pittsburgh that was a "very secure and nourishing place physically and spiritually."2 That spiritual grounding provides the basis for all her work. Appalled by the empty materialism so common in our society, she has sought to retrieve, rethink, and reinvest the ordinary with significance and spiritual resonance.
One of Stout's vehicles for demonstrating her preference for otherworldly functions over those of the more material realm is her alter ego, the healer and fortune-teller Madam Ching. This mysterious presence employs an array of texts, charms, roots, oils, and fortune-telling equipment, adapted from found materials or crafted by Stout to look like found materials, that serve as instruments of sacred transformation.
One of Stout's vehicles for demonstrating her preference for otherworldly functions over those of the more material realm is her alter ego, the healer and fortune-teller Madam Ching.
After leaving her parents' home in Pittsburgh, she returned periodically, gradually piecing together elements of her family's folk traditions, including the discovery of funerary artifacts associated with old African practices. She also revisited the galleries at the Carnegie Institute where, as a child, she had been fascinated by the minkisi figures from Africa, as well as objects from ancient Egyptian and South American tribal cultures. Stout has also drawn from the strong tradition of craftsmanship in her family -- her grandfather had worked in a steel mill, her father was a mechanic, and her uncle was a self-taught painter. Following in their footsteps, she approaches work and creative production not as ends in themselves, but as spiritual exercises derived from a wide mix of cultures that endow her productions with an aura of sacred significance recognizable across the boundaries of traditional belief systems. Her giant nkisi figure created for an installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art evoked a variety of associations, from African cult objects to South Pacific totems to giant Buddhas and Madonnas.3
The ambiguity of La Tormenta's identity, emphasized by the fact that she is never shown from the front but only from the back, allows Gronk great latitude in using her for symbolic purposes.
Like Stout, Gronk often combines Christian concepts with less conventional religious ideas. La Tormenta is always depicted with strong vertical and horizontal elements defining the figure. The main part of the body is vertical, and the outstretched arms form a clear horizontal. Despite Gronk's assertion that his subject's physical character derives primarily from his preference for elemental form, the result is unmistakably reminiscent of a Roman cross with its connotations of crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
At the same time, La Tormenta can be interpreted in a less orthodox vein as a theatrical protagonist, an actress or operatic diva, whose ability to change roles and identities constitutes an allegory for humankind's capacity -- through faith either in oneself or in a higher being -- for renewal and transformation.
The loving way in which Kopriva gives a new existence to discarded animal bones, teeth, and worn cloth. . .
demonstrates her faith in transcendence, in the ability of humankind to find meaning and continuity in death as in life.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's monumental paintings and assemblages, such as Trade (gifts for trading land with white people) and Genesis, offer a more pessimistic interpretation of the human condition. Smith is always conscious in her work and in her life of the need to reinforce the authentic culture and beliefs of Native Americans that are so often vulgarized by others.
"My art, my life experience, and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed," says the artist.4 Such a synthesis is apparent in a complex creation like Trade, in which she uses an amalgam of visual and textual elements to chronicle both the historical Native American saga and the superficial mockery of it to be found in American popular culture.
Along with references to the tragedies and injustices, signs of survival are also evident in Smith's passionate and beautifully rendered imagery. The canoe unifying the three panels of the painted composition symbolizes perseverance and the preservation of traditional beliefs that have sustained Native Americans throughout their history.
My art, my life experience, and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed.
Throughout the ages, artists as diverse as William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, Käthe Kollwitz, and the Mexican muralists have drawn from their own experience to create works that deal with issues of importance to the larger community. In the nineteenth century, Spanish artist Francisco de Goya executed some of the most effective visual statements depicting the horrors of war, including his series of etchings titled "The Disasters of War". In the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso achieved a similar result with his painting Guernica, one of the most powerful anti-war statements of any epoch. During this century in America, artists ranging from Ben Shahn to Miriam Schapiro and Glenn Ligon have chosen to focus on problems and injustices of broad interest to American society.
Like Goya, Picasso, and many others, Terry Allen has focused on the tragedy and social costs of war in his series "Youth in Asia."
Like Goya, Picasso, and many others, Terry Allen has focused on the tragedy and social costs of war in his series "Youth in Asia." These works explore the theme of exploitation and betrayal suffered by many of the young American soldiers who went to Vietnam, a large percentage of whom came from minority backgrounds. Allen's disorienting parallels between Southeast Asia and the American Southwest, along with his evocative assemblages and dramatic narratives, provide new insights into the human tragedy of the Vietnam War and the socially debilitating effects of war in general. Jarring juxtapositions of Disney characters, taxidermic specimens, collage elements, poetry, and music direct our attention anew to the suffering and divisiveness that transformed the Vietnam War into a national trauma that continues even today to shape our outlook and identity as Americans.
Frank Romero's trilogy dramatizing key events in the Chicano civil rights struggle is closely related to Allen's subject.
Romero situates this movement squarely within an American tradition that urges its citizens to insist on equal justice for all.
Pepón Osorio has chosen a different kind of social crisis for the focus of his installation. It is one that particularly affects disadvantaged urban communities all over America: the absent father. The piece, called Badge of Honor, was conceived and executed for a storefront site in a Latino neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, before being moved to the Newark Museum.
Although the piece is situationally specific, the difficulty of communication between generations and between parent and child, as well as the poignancy of parental anguish in the face of a child's disappointed expectations, constitutes familiar territory for most of us, regardless of our home neighborhood.
Pepón Osorio has chosen a different kind of social crisis. . .
the absent father.
Both Kim Dingle and Roger Shimomura deal with another social issue: race relations and cultural interface. In contrast to other artists in this section, they employ humor to render a serious subject less threatening. They also make sure that the jokes highlight foibles on both sides of the fence, creating a safe space for all of us to take a fresh look at an old problem.
All the "Priss" babies behave outrageously, suggesting that a civilized demeanor comes naturally to none of us. . . .
Shimomura's "Great American Neighbors" series presents hilarious vignettes mixing Hollywood icons and traditional Japanese stock characters, including geishas and samurai, to illustrate the cultural overlays and disjunctions that define everyday American life. Kentucky Fried Chicken and sushi, cocktails and rice cookers, Superman capes and kimonos dramatize the double consciousness many "hyphenated" Americans feel when society so often dwells on their otherness rather than their identity as Americans even after several generations in the United States. While ancestral links of Euro-Americans pose few identity dilemmas, Americans with Asian backgrounds are sometimes made to feel that they do not entirely satisfy the requirements essential to attain full "American" status.
Kentucky Fried Chicken and sushi, cocktails and rice cookers, Superman capes and kimonos dramatize the double consciousness many "hyphenated" Americans feel. . . .
Judging by the popular colloquial expression "It's history," the past has become for many a dusty irrelevancy. For the artists in the exhibition's section on "Historical Perspectives," however, the past is a source of myths, beliefs, and memories that help to illuminate our present outlook and circumstances. David Bates is the only artist in this group who consistently chooses subjects of humble origin. In his paintings of the nineties, generic individuals belonging to the rural or coastal environs of the southern United States embody our nostalgia for the life of an earlier, less complicated America.
[Bates's] images remind us that the old values of loyalty, dependability, pride in one's work, and respect for nature retain an enduring appeal.
Bates's current concentration on sculpture has produced works directly related to earlier paintings, such as Male Bust # 5, as well as others, such as Female Head #1 and Male Head #4, that have "moved farthest into that realm of universality . . . simultaneously abstract and representational, personal in subject matter but increasingly generalized."5 Rather than giving us specific reference points, as he does in his paintings, these sculptures seem to fuse elements of twentieth-century Cubism and African art with American and Hispanic folk-art traditions. His retrieval and reincorporation of discarded scraps of wood and metal, some of which have identifiable origins -- the junkyard farm machinery fragments -- and others that function like archaeological specimens, remind us that another story precedes ours. The old, discarded character of these materials links the objects to earlier times and previous incarnations.
Hung Liu, an artist born and educated in China, uses archival photographs or her own photographs of historic subjects as sources for her depictions. "Bad photographs," she says, "can make great paintings."6
Liu's paintings whether about America or China concern "personal and cultural loss.". . .
She wants "to turn the negative into something positive. . .
to put it out there, to share with other people."
Although many of the individuals who appear in Liu's paintings have been ignored by history, such people often allow us to make a more personal connection to the past.8 A painting from Liu's "Baltimore Series," Children of a Lesser God, shows immigrant child laborers in an early twentieth-century canning factory. Liu's attitude, which is in keeping with what historian Lawrence W. Weiner has described as the more "inclusive notion of where the historian's quarry lies," rescues these footnotes of history and elevates them to a new level of respect and significance.9 Like the youthful Chinese prostitutes who appear in another series of Liu's paintings, these young victims of greed and prejudice become visible players in the pageant of the past. Sensitized to the issue of exploitation of the powerless from her knowledge of Chinese history, Liu is able to offer a new perspective on comparable episodes in American history.
Customs, a painting belonging to the same series, provides another example of Liu drawing on her bicultural background to arrive at a fresh interpretation of an old American subject. An immigrant herself, Liu recaptures for a contemporary audience the physical and psychological indignities suffered by nameless earlier newcomers to America. She transforms anonymous documentary snapshots into sensuously rendered, personalized images imbued with a poignancy not to be found in the original pictures. By choosing both a Chinese boy and a European woman undergoing inspection by immigration authorities, she reminds us that the immigrant experience was shared by future Americans of many different origins.
Liu's Chinese subjects, such as those associated with the last Chinese dynasty, often have a dual significance that reflects her American orientation as well as her Chinese roots. Five Eunuchs is a meditation on the excesses of power. Both highly influential and corrupt, the court eunuchs sought status and position in a quest that became an end in itself. The appearance, if not the reality, of late twentieth-century America as a society of many subject to the selfish manipulations of the few gives the history of the imperial eunuchs, a powerful bureaucratic minority, a contemporary relevance. In addition to providing us with entree into the complexities of another civilization, Liu's valuable juxtapositions of cultural ideas and historical subjects suggest further reflections on our own past.
Like Liu, Frederick Brown celebrates both the ordinary individual and famous figures from history. In several paintings belonging to his "Magic Man" series, Brown pays homage to Native Americans.
[Brown's] mixture of the public and the private demonstrates an important link between history and heritage.
In contrast to Liu and Brown, Mark Tansey and Deborah Oropallo are more concerned with the human condition as it relates to our past than to the role of specific groups or individuals.
In the guise of make-believe, [Oropallo's work] offers lessons in transformation, renewal, and redemption.
Oropallo embarked on her "Little Red Riding Hood" series after she became intrigued with a Victorian greeting card. Her fairy-tale paintings stem in part from her fascination with old children's books and the images of childhood and Americana they contain. The subjects of the paintings included in "American Kaleidoscope" relate to familiar children's stories. In the guise of make-believe, they offer lessons in transformation, renewal, and redemption. In these classic tales, evil lurks everywhere, and any triumph over circumstances is likely to require a good deal of fortitude. The message, however, is essentially optimistic. We are reassured that Pinocchio can repent and be redeemed, Snow White can survive the poisonous apples, and that Little Red Riding Hood may be safer than the wolf. Our world is similarly perilous and unpredictable. The hope-filled paradigmatic plots provide positive constructs to interpret and analyze the real moral dilemmas of history and of our own time.
Tansey's parables are more enigmatic and more grandiose in scope, linking them to the tradition of Western history painting. Nevertheless, the paintings' superficial resemblance to book illustration and their deliberate ambiguity -- one explanation can be as valid as another -- account for their broad appeal.
All the Tansey paintings seem to share the notion that truth is a matter of interpretation, and that the individual has the responsibility to determine his or her own version.
Committed to the "coexistence of contradictions,"10 Tansey presents a view of the world that is complex, with conflicting realities operating simultaneously. Continental Divide offers a compelling example of Tansey's brand of ambiguity, juxtaposing two equally convincing but irreconcilable points of view in one picture. In Columbus Discovers Spain, confusion is fostered by the inconsistency between the title and what seems to be depicted. Landscape disturbs our assumptions in another way: it overturns conventional reverence for the male icons of history by relegating their vandalized effigies to a monumental trash heap.
The reversals, contradictions, and inconsistencies in his paintings suggest that the conventions of history are to be periodically reevaluated rather than routinely accepted on faith. Stimulated by Tansey's challenges and enigmas, we are obliged to reexamine the process of memory and the records of the past in a way that helps us to rethink and perhaps reconcile the incongruities of the present. With that effort under way, we can look to an interpretation of the past that establishes a more useful foundation for the future.
2. Marla C. Berns, "Dear Robert, I'll See you at the Crossroads," A Project by Renée Stout (Santa Barbara: University Art Museum, 1995), 16.
3. Installation, "Luxor v1.0," Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994.
4. Gloria Russell, "Smith College Museum features compelling exhibits," Sunday Republican, 2 May 1993, F-6.
5. Steven Nash, David Bates: Sculpture (New York: Charles Cowles Gallery, 1995), 9.
6. Conversation with the author, 11 December 1995.
7. Teresa Annas, "Translating Loss," Virginian-Pilot, 8 November 1995, E3.
8. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has used this idea very effectively. All visitors are given the passport and vital statistics of a Holocaust victim close to the visitor's age, whose history can be followed as the visitor views the sequence of permanent exhibits documenting the course of events.
9. Lawrence W. Weiner, "Clio, Canons, and Culture," Journal of American History (December 1993): 850.
10. Jörg-Uwe Albig, "Ein Denker malt Kritik," Art: Das Kunstmagazin 4 (April 1988): 36-54; translation by unnamed author provided by Curt Marcus Gallery, New York.