In addition to the way in which the "American Kaleidoscope" artists illuminate the three major themes of the exhibition, there are other similarities, parallels, and connections that contribute to a deeper understanding of the exhibition. All of the artists represented have benefited from the more tolerant attitude in the art-critical world that now recognizes a spectrum of styles, materials, and media. After a succession of hegemonic movements that characterized the postwar 1950s and 1960s -- Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Op, Minimalism, Color Field, and Conceptualism -- came the 1980s when artists could finally choose a variety of valid approaches, from geometric abstraction to Photorealism, from Neo-Expressionism to the new figuration and performance art. This art-world pluralism has fostered the kind of richness and cross-fertilization of cultural sources and vocabulary characteristic of the artists in "American Kaleidoscope." In fact, many of them have drawn on the same indigenous cultural resources that are so much a part of our American civilization, including blues music, folk art, visual metaphors, and language. These resources serve as vehicles for arriving at the larger statements that reflect the exhibition's broader themes of spirituality, social concerns, and history.
Bates and Tansey were both at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the mid-1970s.
All of the artists represented have benefited from the more tolerant attitude in the art-critical world that now recognizes a spectrum of styles, materials, and media.
Many of the artists share the experience of having pursued their careers with a greater concern for substance and connectedness derived from the real world rather than for the trends and fashions of the art world. Bates, at a moment in his painting career when he could hardly produce enough canvases to satisfy his dealers and collectors, chose to set aside painting for a period of time in order to concentrate on what he saw as the more elemental medium of sculpture.
Many of the artists share the experience of having pursued their careers with a greater concern for substance and connectedness derived from the real world rather than for the trends and fashions of the art world.
In addition to Brown, other artists in "American Kaleidoscope" have been strongly affected by the blues. It represents one of the real-world influences shaping themes and modes of expression.
In addition to Brown, other artists in "American Kaleidoscope" have been strongly affected by the blues.
Hooker's music has long been a favorite of Bates as well, going hand in hand with the solid, rural folk who people much of his art. Bates's work was included in another Washington Project for the Arts exhibition in 1989 entitled "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism."12
Moved by the brilliance of his music and the tragedy of his life. . .
Stout created a moving installation of evocative objects and declarations of love that accords him the aura and adulation his accomplishments deserve.
Even Shimomura, a third-generation Japanese American, has incorporated the blues into a performance work. He described a sequence that "will feature a female blues vocalist. The vocalist will wear a geisha wig over her blonde hair, a sorority tee-shirt, skirt w/heels and a gaudy kimono on top. Periodically . . . she will make her way through the crowd singing 1940s . . . tunes, while passing out samples of sushi and sandwiches, sake and white wine, and origami cranes made out of rice paper and Disney wrapping paper."14
Like the blues, American folk art has been an important source of ideas and inspiration. . . .
The pervasiveness of the blues as a strong influence in the sphere of American culture has led to a lively controversy. In 1995 an article in the New York Times examined the now highly charged question of cultural ownership: is it just black musicians who can claim the tradition as their cultural heritage, or can American musicians of whatever origin share in this home-grown American expression?15 Resolving such a dilemma is part of the ongoing search for elements that contribute to the cultural identity of all Americans.
Like the blues, American folk art has been an important source of ideas and inspiration for a number of the artists in "American Kaleidoscope."
While many of the artists have been attracted to music and folk art for their intuitive, emotional qualities, a number are also intrigued by more intellectual approaches to enlightenment. . . .
Bates also cites folk art as an important stimulus for his earthy images, especially his recent sculpture. For many years, he has had a small equestrian figure in his studio carved by Tobias Anaya, a self-taught artist from Galisteo, New Mexico. The work's visual richness and rustic appeal continue to fascinate him.
In Houston, Kopriva has found the local folk art to be an inspiration as well. Kopriva has spoken enthusiastically of the Houston artists' determination to preserve The Orange Show, "a maze-like monument to the orange" created by a former postal worker.17 She also cites as another inspiration the folk-art shrine known as the "Beer-can House," a home transformed by the application of thousands of beer-can bottoms. The unorthodox character of these creations has reinforced her independent vision.
While many of the artists have been attracted to music and folk art for their intuitive, emotional qualities, a number are also intrigued by more intellectual approaches to enlightenment that include maps, charts, and diagrams.
We must look carefully at the visual clues available to us if we are to unravel the mysteries that reside within ourselves.
Oropallo's instructional paintings have their counterpart in the series of paintings based on acupuncture diagrams executed by Hung Liu in 1995.18 They, too, insist that we must look carefully at the visual clues available to us if we are to unravel the mysteries that reside within ourselves.
The dignified, ceremonial passage from one realm to another has a timeless and reassuring quality that speaks to the continuity of the human cycle.
Like the maps, charts, and diagrams, the artists also have used visual metaphor to present information in a more intriguing form. The various symbolic uses of boat imagery demonstrate the versatility of this approach. Kopriva's Rite of Passage, consisting of a vessel with an oarsman and three trusting passengers, is perhaps her most enduring expression of the intimate relationship between life and the hereafter. The dignified, ceremonial passage from one realm to another has a timeless and reassuring quality that speaks to the continuity of the human cycle.
For Smith, in Trade (gifts for trading land with white people), the boat (a canoe) becomes both a symbol of cultural vulnerability and survival. The Native American presence remains strong despite the stereotyping and commercialization of the culture by those outside it.
If I could be the artist that I would really like to be. . .
my greatest wish would be. . .
to somehow build canoes so that people would be able to travel with that canoe, fish with that canoe, and would be able to bring back culture to their place.
Tansey's version of one of Columbus's ships in Columbus Discovers Spain (frontispiece) simultaneously signifies illusion and disillusion. Although in his historical time Columbus was perhaps convinced that he was approaching the climax of his adventure as he neared the water's end, here he is still figuratively adrift and unaware of the ramifications of the event. The disorienting effect of this monochromatic, highly detailed but superficially inexplicable image may also reflect recent, more equivocal interpretations of the Columbus episode.
Oropallo shares with Gronk an interest in a particular boat -- the Titanic. Both have used it as the focus of major works. Part of a series of paintings inspired by past and current disasters, Oropallo's Partial List of the Saved makes a belated but effective epitaph for the victims of a tragedy that, decades later, still exerts an extraordinary fascination.
Even the Titanic, a symbol of invulnerability, yielded to the dictates of fate.
Oropallo's major painting, Three Man Patrol, demonstrates another of her preoccupations, one that she shares with Romero: the effect of police misconduct on the normal functioning of an urban community. Oropallo's image, inspired by newspaper reports of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, features three rigid, uniformed, and heavily armed riot police who constitute a frightening tableau of law enforcement as a threat to democratic society rather than its defender. Romero's triptych commemorating events during the Chicano struggles of the early 1970s presents a similar, but more explicit, statement about the excessive use of authority and its corrosive power.
Brown and Smith have both devoted important paintings to Chief Seattle, the famous leader of the Duwamish people near Puget Sound. Both revere him for his commitment to the inviolability of the land by resisting the careless encroachments of settlers and other actions upsetting the balance of the natural environment.
To harm the earth. . .
is to heap contempt upon its creator.
Several of the artists produced series of works on paper about their early lives for an exhibition called "Memories of Childhood."22 Liu shared the significance of her first name -- it means rainbow in Chinese -- and the sadness of growing up without her father, who was a political prisoner for more than forty years.
Liu shared the significance of her first name -- it means rainbow in Chinese -- and the sadness of growing up without her father, who was a political prisoner for more than forty years.
As is true for so many contemporary artists, several of those in "American Kaleidoscope" use language in clever and provocative ways. Since Picasso's and Braque's early Cubist collages, words in pictures have functioned in both a formal and a symbolic way. From Jasper Johns's paintings and prints of the 1960s to artists of the 1980s such as Joseph Kosuth and Jenny Holzer, language has played a central role.
Bates often has incorporated words, phrases, or simulated newspaper fragments for purposes of punning and double entendre.
Bates often has incorporated words, phrases, or simulated newspaper fragments for purposes of punning and double entendre. Words also play both a structural and a decorative role in highly organized compositions such as Baits. Stout's use of language is decorative as well. But it is also the repository of mystery and magic. The markings she uses in The Old Fortune Teller's Board appear to be a kind of calligraphic automatic writing that is not readily decipherable, while the text and diagrams used in the diary on Madam's Desk can be read with relative ease. Fragments and excerpts as well as long passages of text embellish the instruments belonging to Madam Ching, Stout's conjuring alter ego. Stout subscribes to the idea that written text is not just a means of communication; it can have "protective power."23
The words that enliven the surfaces of Smith's paintings also exert an effect beyond their superficial meanings. Mundane signs, labels, or expressions are given a new prominence and a new context that often endow the words with a novel significance.
Stout subscribes to the idea that written text is not just a means of communication; it can have "protective power."
In a series of paintings from 1990, Tansey used words for a dual purpose. He screened them onto the canvas to add an additional layer of texture as well as a deeper level of meaning. In Derrida Queries de Man, the two post-structuralist philosophers Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man struggle at the edge of a precipice fashioned from passages of text written by de Man. The conceit allows Tansey to communicate a two-part hypothesis simultaneously: the source of de Man's vulnerability derives both from what he has written and from where he stands.24
Oropallo uses words in a similarly ironic way. They add texture and optical interest to the surface of a work such as Pinocchio, while providing a narrative counterpoint to the imagery. In ovals that graduate in size as they descend across the canvas, excerpts of text lifted from this classic children's tale bring us to a climactic stage in the story: the moment when Pinocchio's wooden nose is returned to normal. The contrast between the happy outcome communicated by the words and the menacing depiction of logs piled high, as if for a bonfire or funeral pyre, establishes a compelling psychological tension.
For Allen, language -- both as sound and text -- is inextricably combined in his mixed-media productions.
The storytelling tradition of the South where Allen grew up has affected every aspect of his creative life.
Osorio has edited hours of recorded words for his "American Kaleidoscope" installation, Badge of Honor, to arrive at a coherent dialogue between a father and son for whom a face-to-face exchange is impossible. It represents the oral complement to the visual contrasts established by juxtaposing the two parts of the installation space: the father's austere jail cell and the son's lavishly appointed bedroom.
The process of organizing "American Kaleidoscope: Themes and Perspectives in Recent Art" has occasioned some important realizations. This particular coming together of artists and ideas would have been an anomaly in an earlier decade. Until the 1970s and 1980s, women artists and artists identified with so-called minority groups were rarely represented in major museums. Their presence in exhibitions as equal participants with "mainstream" artists was even rarer.
The art community now sustains both a variety of expressions and a more inclusive group of artists whose backgrounds reflect the cultural richness of the United States.
The nature of an American identity, or even its existence, has inspired endless discussions and analyses. The emphasis since the 1970s on separate group identities has further complicated this issue.
At last, the various group identities that have emerged over the last two decades can be situated within the broader spectrum of contributors to American culture.
After almost two centuries of ignoring or denying the importance of cultural expression outside the Euro-American mainstream, the various social movements of the last thirty years, demanding an expanded role for minorities and women, have cleared the way for recognition and appreciation of the art and culture of a wider spectrum of American society. At last, the various group identities that have emerged over the last two decades can be situated within the broader spectrum of contributors to American culture. In this larger context, these group identities become part of a shared American experience. The ongoing process that brings us together as a nation requires an expanding definition of American identity based on the accumulation of cultural elements from many different origins. "American Kaleidoscope" explores that expanded definition through the work of the fourteen artists featured in the exhibition.
Jacquelyn Days Serwer
11. John Howell, "Brown's Blues," The Blues by Frederick Brown (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1989), 2.
12. See The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (Washington, D.C.: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989).
13. See Berns, "Dear Robert, I'll See you at the Crossroads."
14. Letter to the author, 28 August 1995.
15. See Phil Patton, "Who Owns the Blues?" New York Times, 26 November 1995, 2:1, 35.
16. Heather Sealy Lineberry, "Frank Romero," Art in California, (September 1990): 24; see also article on his contribution to an urban folk-art exhibition: Meg Sullivan, "Latino Folk Art Thriving in L.A.," Daily News, 9 September 1991, 13.
17. Rebecca Knapp, "On the Road," Art and Auction (November 1995): 63.
18. At Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, 14 October to 18 November 1995.
19. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, unpublished interview with Trinkett Clark, 9 October 1992.
20. Artist's statement in exhibition brochure: "Parameters #9: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith" (Norfolk, Va.: Chrysler Museum, 1993).
21. Chief Seattle, quoted in Robert Hould, "Sovereignty over Subjectivity," C 30 (Summer 1991): 33. Some scholars have challenged the authenticity of the statements attributed to Chief Seattle. See Eli Gifford and R. Michael Cook, eds., How Can One Sell the Air: Chief Seattle's Vision (Summertown, Tenn.: Book Publishing Company, 1992), 25.
22. Bernice Steinbaum, Judith Rovenger, and Roslyn Bernstein, Memories of Childhood (New York: Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, 1994).
23. Berns, "Dear Robert, I'll See you at the Crossroads," 14.
24. See Judi Freeman, Mark Tansey (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993), 42, for a discussion of painting and the controversy over de Man's life and philosophy after his death in 1983.
25. In an early performance piece called "The Ring," "ring" referred to a wedding ring and also to a boxing ring.
26. New York Times Magazine, 3 October 1993, cover.