School of Visual Arts (SVA) presents “Being American,” an exhibition surveying responses by visual artists to some of the most pressing social issues in America today. Culled from various forms of contemporary visual culture, the works address topics ranging from recent environmental catastrophes to the pervading effects of the economic crisis; from the long shadow of 9/11 and two overseas wars to the home-front debates surrounding religious tolerance, gay marriage, capital punishment and firearms possession.
Curated by Visual Arts Gallery Director Francis Di Tommaso, the exhibition will be on view at the Visual Arts Gallery, 601 West 26 Street, New York City, from November 22 — December 21.
Curator Francis Di Tommaso explains, “The twenty artists in this show have twenty stories to tell about the experience of being American today. Though many would not normally exhibit in the same venue—the work of some is almost never seen outside of the printed page—they all have immediately accessible and also exquisitely nuanced commentaries to make on American culture.”
Participating artists include: Susan Anderson; Sandow Birk; Steve Brodner; Edward Burtynsky; Jessica Craig-Martin; Andrea Gennari; Reiner Gerritsen; Bob Giraldi; Dustin Grella; Alfredo Jaar and David Levi Strauss; Shai Kremer; Christoph Niemann; Robert Priseman; Aurora Robson; Martha Rosler; Alix Smith; Charles Traub; Lane Twitchell; Type A (Adam Ames & Andrew Bordwin); and Kehinde Wiley.
The preponderance of the over 85 works in the exhibition—whether drawn from the covers of popular weekly magazines or from Chelsea gallery walls—focuses on the hot-button topics at the forefront of our national dialogue today, while others provide a mise-en-scène of telling details that point toward current realities in America. The stories told in “Being American” encompass the public foibles of national icons, as captured in illustrator Steve Brodner’s wittily insightful caricatures of President Obama, Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump posing as Lady Gaga, as well as the personal, often untold stories of private citizens, such as the intimate, same-gender family scenes in Alix Smith’s photo series States of Union, or Dustin Grella’s Prayers for Peace, a stop-motion animation confronting the memory of the artist’s younger brother who was killed in the war in Iraq.
“Being American” maps out extremes in the nation’s social stratification, from photographer Jessica Craig-Martin’s bejeweled, often faceless socialites at play to Reinier Gerritsen’s dour subway commuters en route to another uncertain day on the job, to Kehinde Wiley’s classically-inspired portraits of the modern day African-American and Latino street-level aristocracy. Illustrator Christoph Niemann points to an economic class divide as he depicts wine-sipping titans of finance safely ensconced in lifeboats as the nation’s economy sinks like the Titanic behind them. Aurora Robson’s Junk Mail Collage series, made from the high volume of solicitations she received while struggling to pay her student loans, looks at the economics of waste and the language of commercialism. Susan Anderson’s documentary portrait series, High Glitz, shot on location at child beauty pageants around the country, examines the conflation of success with beauty.
The exhibition considers the changed American landscape in its many forms, from Edward Burtynsky’s elegiac seascape of an oil-wrecked Gulf of Mexico to Shai Kremer’s urban landscapes of desolate lots where neon-lit corporate logos are reflected in pools of wastewater. The work of Florentine realist painter Andrea Gennari, affectionately views ‘the real America’ from the nation’s back roads and small towns, seen on his cross-country expeditions. MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department Chair Charles Traub’s work Still Life in America offers the viewer an interactive map of the continental U.S. made of dozens of photographs taken from coast to coast over the course of several years. Lane Twitchell draws upon the suburban landscape in his intricate folded and cut works, including Heartland, which upon close inspection reveals elements of tract housing, automobiles and suburban landscape perennials.
“Being American” also examines the aspects and intrusions of violence in contemporary American life. Adam Ames & Andrew Bordwin of the artist duo Type A, whose work often deals with how men compete and challenge, here contribute provocative pieces made of spent bullets and life-size photos of specific humans for target practice, commenting both on the fear of violent crime and the need to possess firearms. Robert Priseman’s dispassionately realistic paintings depict the devices used in capital punishment reflecting society’s evolving attempts to make death less unpleasant. Martha Rosler’s jarring photomontages juxtapose documentary photographs of the brutalities of war in Afghanistan and Iraq with the complacency of well-appointed American home interiors. Alfredo Jaar and MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department Chair David Levi Strauss’ Lament of the Images, intended as an op-ed piece for The New York Times, critiques the suppression of evidence of violence following President Obama’s refusal to release photographs documenting U.S. military abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Touching on the collateral damage from 9/11 is MPS Live Action Short Film Department Chair Bob Giraldi’s short film “The Routine.” A response to the rise in Islamophobia, Sandow Birk’s work American Qu’ran transcribes chapters in English, hand-lettered in the style of urban graffiti and places the text within scenes of everyday American street life.
“Using art to conflate aspects of modern, contemporary and popular culture, once a quintessentially American concern, has become of increasing interest to artists all over the world,” says catalog contributor Phong Bui, publisher of The Brooklyn Rail. “The classic obsessions of American artists—race, mass culture, suburbia, apocalypse, nuclear destruction, individuality—have become the preoccupations of the globalized art world.”
An illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition features essays by curator Francis Di Tommaso and critic Phong Bui.