Refusals and Offerings: Revolutionary Identity at the Kennedy Heights Art Center

February 15th, 2020  |  Published in *

Revolutionary: Being American Today advances a poignant, collaborative statement about the contradictions of contemporary U.S. citizenship. At once historically dense and urgently contemporary, it draws together works by John Brooks, Kiah Celeste, Amanda Curreri, Stephanie Cuyubamba Kong, Brianna Harlan, Anissa Lewis, Melissa Vandenberg, and Renzo Velez. Curator Jessica Oberdick assembles those works in ways that are by turns terrifying and consoling, filling the Kennedy Heights Art Center with elegiac photographs, militant forms of installation art, and caustic appropriations of popular culture. On one wall a series of posters catalogs the political divisions that exist in the States today; on another, American flags appear as icons of violence, physically merged with old-fashioned guns or rendered as match burns on otherwise empty canvases. An entire room gathers proclamations by the U.S. president celebrating his wealth and military savvy while he casts climate scientists, women, and immigrants as enemies or objects of conquest. His white supremacist inclinations find echoes in depictions of segregation, streams of mass-market texts that sideline women of color, and evocations of black women who underwent brutal experimentation to serve the medical and financial projects of white men. But the show also expresses what poet and visual artist John Brooks calls the “immense desire/ to shirk this/ constant state/ of new sorrows,” refusing to normalize the xenophobic vernacular that has dominated national policy since 2017. True to its title, Revolutionary pushes past the documentation of injustice toward images that evoke collective resistance and transformative aspiration as well as dignity under increasingly desperate circumstances.

Figure 1: Fall/ Trinity,
Melissa Vandenberg

The resistance sometimes takes spare, emblematic form, as with Amanda Curreri’s Protective Negativity. Working in the tradition of quilts and banners, Curreri applies Japanese katazome technique, which involves hand-cut stenciling and “resist dyeing,” to a swath of repurposed curtain. She associates the resulting X-shapes with “the power of refusal.” The shapes pass through each other in ways that connote the intersectional character of today’s social movements; lines of multicolored sequins overlap with the Xs, further accentuating crossover and interdependence. Although the piece operates in broadly conceptual terms rather than representing specific forms of refusal, it hints at social movements concerned with race, sexuality, migration, gender, disability, antifascism, and ecology, just to name a few troubled topics in contemporary public discourse. Curreri calls the combined force of these resistances “protective negativity” but she also attends to their positive, life-giving dimensions, framing noncompliance as a commitment to love. She thereby catches a motif that runs through the whole show, especially in depictions of people returning the look of the viewer. Stephanie Cuyubamba Kong’s self-portraits, Brooks’s “I Am Expansive, Glowing with the Light of the Other” paintings, and Brianna Harlan’s Divided States of Americans posters exemplify the reversal of the gaze, extending Curreri’s lines of association throughout the gallery.

Figure 2: Productive Negativity,
Amanda Curreri

Harlan’s critique of social division doubles as joyful outreach, celebrating identities that find themselves unwelcome in times of sociocultural regression. Black Love Blooms documents performances where Harlan’s collaborators offer flowers and notes of appreciation to black passersby, engaging in brief but uplifting exchanges with strangers. The wall hanging in the arts center captures moments from those exchanges:

“Black love matters.”

“I’m gonna give them [the flowers] to my mama.”

“It’s all about peace, yeah? I’m from Africa. Africa, we love peace.”

“What’s that for?” “Being Black!”

“Hey! Baby girl! Black girls rock!”

The visual composite at once records the interactions and resumes their project as a hand reaches out from the wall with yet another bouquet. Renzo Velez’s watercolor portraits of Latinx women and children show similar compassion, as do his double-exposure photos of bodies blending with the spaces they inhabit. That technique also characterizes Anissa Lewis’s Pleasant Street series, where larger-than-life projections of residents become superimposed on houses that line the block. The series relates a tender narrative of people and neighborhoods aging together, and like Harlan’s Blooms, it embodies art as an offering rather than a calculated commodity.

Figure 3: Black Love Blooms,
Brianna Harlan

Sometimes that gift reaches toward present-day neighbors, and other times toward people who have gone before us, living through conditions we can barely imagine. Kiah Celeste makes her offerings to Lucy and Anarcha, two slaves whom the early gynecologist James Marion Sims operated on, without painkillers, to perfect procedures he would later use on fully anesthetized white women. Celeste figures Lucy’s body as tightly stretched tarp pierced at intervals by white-headed pins, and she represents Anarcha’s as a similar canvas marked by milky stains and slashes. The trauma of Sims’s research inheres most explicitly in the blank circle at the body’s core, the unborn child who died amid the dozens of surgeries Anarcha endured, all for mysterious purposes the doctor called “the greater good”—an idea to which slave women held no claim even as they died for it.

Figure 4: Anarcha,
Kiah Celeste

Like many contributors to the show, Celeste conjures this history in the interest of present-day disruption, grounding the power of refusal in long-term collective memory. That memory triggers distrust of the patriotic logics that mask themselves as civilization and progress while excluding and belittling whole populations. That memory further informs a style of protective negativity that rejects isolationism, authoritarian dogma, and the collusion of corporate capitalism with bodily norms and ideals. Those refusals occur not just in the works that occupy the Arts Center but also the related events that animate its spaces or enliven the outside community. Those include Who is American Today?, a presentation that addresses high school students’ views on national identity and its relation to digital media, as well as The Figurative Feminine Out Front, which shares the center’s concern with revolutionary citizenship while tightening the focus on gender ideology. In all these occasions there exists the invitation to look as a political act, to recognize citizenship as caught, today as in early America, in the traumatic dynamics of civic empowerment and systemic discrimination. It is not only Kong’s or Brooks’s images that gaze back at us, but pieces throughout the exhibit, even where we encounter no discernible faces or conventional means of reciprocity. In those moments we find the most impassioned expressions of refusal to be indistinguishable from outreach.

–Christopher Carter http://www.tb-credit.ru/microzaim.html

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