AMERICAN KALEIDOSCOPE: SOURCES AND VOCABULARY

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.


Bates had been selected for one of the artist internships and Tansey was supporting his graduate studies by working as an art handler. Bates, from Texas, and Tansey, from California, used the experience in very different ways. Bates had the opportunity to glimpse the big-city art world with its complicated mechanisms and glitzy personalities, ultimately seeing them as no match for the more nature-oriented environment he had left behind. Tansey was able to gather, firsthand, the kind of background he would need for the multilayered pictorial analyses of recent art and criticism characteristic of his later work. Later, in 1989, Bates and Tansey appeared together in "10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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.


Stout's rejection of her early Photorealist painting style in favor of working in three dimensions involved a similar revelation. Frederick Brown's decision in the late 1980s to do a series of paintings commemorating some of the great blues musicians, like the choices made by Bates and Stout, came out of "that ineffable artmaking crossroads where history and society interact with the individual psyche."11 An interest in blues music that had begun during his childhood in Chicago coincided with a new passion for celebrating such unsung heroes of American culture. In the end, Brown's interest in the blues not only resulted in monumental portraits of blues greats like Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, he also based one of his most important compositions on a blues song. Entitled Stagger Lee, it depicts the urban outlaw of the same name, along with a cast of popular American icons: a Pilgrim, Squanto, and a steelworker.

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.


Allen has long divided his time between visual art and music, developing both a vocal and an instrumental sound that derives its inspiration from the blues musicians who performed in the West Texas town of Lubbock where he grew up. In 1987, when the Washington Project for the Arts in the District of Columbia featured Allen's work, the presentation consisted of an exhibition of individual pieces, an installation, and a performance of his own music. Often Allen weaves existing blues standards, like the music of John Lee Hooker, with his own original music to create background sound tracks for his multimedia installations.

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.


Stout devoted a 1995 solo exhibition to Robert Johnson, a Mississippi Delta blues musician, whose legend endured long after the end of his short life playing in local night spots across the Deep South.13 Moved by the brilliance of his music and the tragedy of his life -- he died young and relatively unknown -- 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 . . . .


Liu was drawn to the blues when she delved into the history of Baltimore in preparation for an exhibition there and became fascinated by the career of singer Billie Holiday. The resulting portrait joined Liu's pantheon of icons drawn from American as well as Chinese cultures.

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 . . . .


The artists are drawn to it because it offers a similar sort of connection to an authentic, relatively uncorrupted form of creative expression. The assemblage character of many of the constructions in Allen's "Youth in Asia" series and of Stout's ensembles owes a great deal to the artists' knowledge and admiration of self-taught artists. Romero, a Los Angeles artist attracted to Mexican-American popular culture, has found folk art to be a central influence on his style and subject matter as well. Speaking of Romero in the 1980s, a critic pronounced folk art "the abiding inspiration for Romero's past decade of work."16 And for New York artist Osorio, the decorative folk traditions that still thrive in the Puerto Rican community are an essential resource for his ornate installations and furnishings encrusted with plastic flowers and pearls, religious images, and small tokens of familial endearment.

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.


Used extensively by Conceptual artists such as Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim in the 1970s, several "Kaleidoscope" artists have chosen to use these vehicles not to document but to communicate information that might go unnoticed in other forms. Dingle's maps of the United States are useless as guides, but they do offer an unconventional configuration that provides us with new insights into the details that have traditionally been left out of our conception of the American landscape. Oropallo did a series of "How-To", or instructional paintings that suggest, like Dingle's maps, that we have not taken the time to look carefully at information we are expected to take at face value. A close reading is required to decipher Oropallo's subjects, which include instructions on violin assembly, laying brick foundations for buildings, and human anatomy.

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.


The diagrams of land and property included in some of Smith's paintings are intended to make a similar point. Despite the abundance of this coded information handed down by older cultures, whether Chinese or Native American, the larger society has had little exposure to them and thus has largely failed to grasp the meaning of their accumulated wisdom. Understanding requires access and openness to unfamiliar ideas.

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.


Smith has likened her mission to the freedom symbolized by the canoe. "If I could be the artist that I would really like to be," she said, "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."19 Smith also used the idea of the canoe as a positive symbol in another con-text when she compared the successful realization of a painting to "a canoe catching the movement of the stream and gliding with the current."20

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.


Gronk's 1985 exhibition entitled "The Titanic and Other Tragedies at Sea" used the subject to explore a favorite Gronk theme: the ephemeral and unpredictable nature of life. 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.


In his own way, Chief Seattle came to terms with the culture of the newcomers, converting to their Christian religion as he probably converted some of them to the ways of nature in the Northwest paradise that is now Washington State. "To harm the earth," he preached, "is to heap contempt upon its creator."21 Smith's homage to this Native American visionary is metaphorical. In her symbolic landscapes consisting of canvases that have been lavishly painted and collaged, she alludes to the grandeur and sanctity of nature -- beliefs that were central to Chief Seattle's religious perspective. Brown focuses instead on the man, endowing his stylized portrait with the moral authority of a great philosopher and prophet.

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.


Shimomura gave an account of his family's internment during World War II, and Smith provided a glimpse of the hardships she endured, both emotional and economic, growing up in the West as a Native American during the 1940s and 1950s. The poignancy of the stories and the dispassionate rendering of the emotionally charged images demonstrate the way in which early experiences affected the artists' interests and outlook later in life.

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.


The artists in "American Kaleidoscope" have been affected by the more visual tradition of Picasso and Johns, as well as by the Conceptualists, employing language in ways that reinforce structure as well as meaning.

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."


Just one of the little punning phrases in Genesis, "To air is human," becomes an effective mechanism to focus our attention on the environment and humankind's troubled relationship to it.

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.


Puns, wordplays, words with multiple meanings, poetry, and narrative excerpts ensure the multilayered experience characteristic of his constructions, installations, and performance works.25 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.

AMERICAN KALEIDOSCOPE: REFLECTIONS

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.


In the postwar decades of the fifties and sixties, it was unusual to see a major show that did not represent some specific stylistic trend, whether Abstract Expressionist, Pop, Color Field, Minimalist, or Neo-Expressionist. There is at last a thriving alternative to the closed art world epitomized by Arne Glimcher's Pace Gallery superstars featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1993.26 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.


The breadth of backgrounds, regional associations, styles, and media represented by the artists in "American Kaleidoscope" is intended to contribute to an understanding of what an American identity means in the final years of the twentieth century. The work produced by each of the selected artists has been shaped by personal histories. American identity evolved from a peculiar mix that speaks simultaneously of their distinctiveness and of their profound connectedness to America.

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


Notes

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.