The National Open Juried Exhibition “America, Now” is on view at Providence Art Club (PAC) through July 20. It offers diversity in media, subject and style, and is a collaborative exhibition juried by Dr. Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Americas Department, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with Michael Rose, who is gallery manager at PAC, and a curator in his own right. Rose is quickly becoming a star in the curatorial field, skilled in balancing the traditional with the contemporary. Because “America, Now” is an ‘open call’ platform, the final collection on view retains a ‘mixed in quality’ tone. This means that there are some strong contemporary works alongside others that are less effective. This condition sets up an excellent foundation for talking about and asking what makes a work of art ‘good art.’
The theme of the exhibition is clear: art that defines what America is at this present moment. To define the moment, artists have considered the past, examined the present and guessed the future. As expected, the works on view document and examine important topics relevant today during this transitional political and cultural time. What is most interesting about “American, Now,” in its totality, is how the exhibition is arranged within the gallery space.
It opens and is introduced by a photographic color portrait by Jennifer Garza-Cuen (Reno, Nevada) of a teenage white man wearing a hoodie sweatshirt imprinted with the American flag. He is standing casually, not smiling, hands in pockets, in front of a car which is also decorated with the red, white and blue colors evoking the flag. The location is assumed to be rural because of the outdoor setting with trees in the background. The title is “Untitled — Boy with Gift Wrapped Car.” In this picture, we have an image that provides one definition of what American culture is: young, white, male, adventurous and sentimental. In a different time, the young man would be standing with his horse. The tonality in this portrait is a contemporary version of the old idea of Romantic Nationalism. The attempt at pride and patriotism, by the young man, is obvious but it is also uncomfortable because of the kitschy manner in which the symbolic red, white and blue is manifested making the overall aesthetics cheap and low brow. The artist, Garza-Cuen, is featured in another photograph in the exhibition that also suggestions a ‘coming of age’ story. “Untitled — Girl with Snake” depicts an adolescent blonde girl in blue dress holding a large snake.
The exhibition then moves into considering other aspects of Americanness. Retaining the theme of white American culture and economic instability is “American Portraits: A Dying Breed” by Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, (Murraysville, Pennyslvania), a fiber art quilt printed with vintage black and white portraits of farmers, all men, along with text. This is a wonderful work because it continues on and expands traditional American quilt craft. The text within the quilt reveals its meaning as a document of and testament to a great change in cultural identity. One block reads “In 1900, Half of the U.S. population lived on farms — now less than two percent live on farms.”
Next up is a contemporary text work, minimal and powerful, engaging in a conversation about the compacted, layered and contextual meaning of words. The work is “Reminder” by Lois Harada (Providence, Rhode Island). It is a letterpress print of a text block that reads in all capital bold lettersL ‘I AM AN AMERICAN.’ This work is fantastic because it simultaneously sets up condensed questions and answers: What is an American? You are an American, I am an American, We are Americans, but what does that mean? Alongside Harada is Peter Campbell (Lincoln, Rhode Island) with an oil and assemblage figurative work, “Yearning To Be Free,” a painting about past and present immigration. It depicts in grayscale an image of Ellis Island immigrants: a mother with her children as the underpainting. On top of this are smaller portraits in color of Middle Eastern refugees, a mother holding her young child, a boy behind bars and a terrified child in an orange life vest.
After “Yearning To Be Free,” the exhibition is a mix of diverse works and the feel in the main gallery is expansive with a global and cross-history perspective. Works to look for here include: “Home” a portrait by Irina Parfenova (Shrewsbury, Massachusetts) of a dark-skinned man in an oval frame. He is placed against a golden globe, he wears green, a universal color of goodness, and his facial features show the fullness of all humanity. “The Blue Diner” by Glenn Murray (Southwick, Massachusetts) depicts the American classic diner, the place where the working class goes to eat. In this picture, two black men are lunching at the counter evoking an obvious and powerful conversation about past and recent events in America regarding discrimination and racial tension. Economics, invisibility and exclusion is the direct subject of “Might as Well Be Invisible, NYC, 2018,” a black and white photograph of a homeless man by Sam Scoggins (Hurley, New York). “Rodeo Hardware” by Charles Mintz (Cleveland, Ohio) is a color photograph of the interior of old hardware store capturing, as documentation, the store’s unique and messy character and layers of personality and history.
While the works in PAC’s main gallery hum with interacting voices and crisscrossing conversations filled with healing and hope, it is the small side gallery that closes the exhibition with a heavy message. It is in this tiny space where the important underlining themes in “America, Now” coalesce into one powerful statement. The placement of the works within this side-gallery is clever because it forces the viewer to get up close and engage with uncomfortable truths. Of special note is “Untitled Order” by Sandra Jean Ceas (Littleton, Colorado), a mixed cloth wall sculpture featuring military clothing and a shredded discarded American flag arranged to look like a human figure holding a ball of red, white and blue threads as if it were a human head separated from its body. “Actively Imagine Understanding” by Adrienne Shishko (Brookline, Massachusetts) is a fabric construction braided to look like the American flag. It’s constructed from discarded and recycled textiles. In this work, Shishko depicts America as an amalgamation of different fabric material that when assembled creates an honest America, imperfect, yet harmonious.
The most significant work in “America, Now” is “Untitled (Skinned)” by Kevin Clancy (Savannah, Georgia). It is a mixed-media sculptural wall hanging taking the American flag as primary source material. It is a sculpture of two flags, the colored flag being physically skinned off the underlining white flag. The piece is held in place by heavy metal chains in a figurative position reminiscent of a modified spread eagle. The explosive message is clear: the whitewashing of American’s violent history of subjugation, oppression and continued racial cleaning.
“America, Now” arrives at an important moment and PAC is smart in organizing an exhibition that encourages an examination of American culture. It is a polite and civilized show and yet with works such as “Untitled (Skinned)” and “Reminder (I AM AN AMERICAN),” it bravely and appropriately cooperates in necessary political activism in a manner that is equal parts gentle and hard hitting.
The participating artists are: Lindsay Adler, Cristalle Amarante, Dora Atwater Millikin, Del-Bourree Bach, Paul Bonneau, Paige Bradley, Jane Bregoli, Cate Brown, Dana Brown, Richard Busher Jr, Peter Campbell, Sandra Ceas, Gerry Chapleski, Kathryn Cirincione, Kevin Clancy, Michael Collins, Pamela Crockett, Joshua Cross, Alastair Dacey, Robert deJonge, Lucia deLeiris, Joanne DeLomba, Sharon D. Eisman, Shirley Fachilla, Carol FitzSimonds, Priscilla Foley Blackman, Jennifer Garza-Cuen, Nick Gebhart, Lois Harada, Garry Harley, Joseph Heathoctt, William Heydt, Susan Hong-Sammons, Craig Hubbard, Darrin Isom, Marc Jaffe, Bonnie Jaffe, Loretta Jeremiah, Dave Kendrick, Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sharon Knettell, Madeleine Lord, Robert Martin, Jana Matusz, Milo Milowsky, Charles Mintz, Audrey Monahan, Glenn Murray, Paul Murray, Mark Neumann, Irina Parfenova, Michelle Peterlin, Valerie Phoenix, Laura Radwell, Sarah Schneiderman, Sam Scoggins, Sarah Serio, Adrienne Shishko, Beverly Silva, Emily Slapin, Alan Strassman, Anita Thompson, Carolyn Winter and Rebecca Zilenziger.
(“America, Now” runs through July 20 at the Providence Art Club, 11 Thomas St., Providence, Rhode Island. For more information, call (401) 331-1114.)