Christopher Abrams’ “Lie of the Land” and Christina Zwart’s “Strength in Unity” arrive out of our collective anxiety and offer a question: how did we as an American people get ourselves into the political, cultural and economic situation we are in now?
For Abrams, the answers are in American history. His mini-dioramas spotlight the elements of American nation-building and the transformation of a constructed identity.
For Zwart, the answers are found in cultural understanding, core values, and civilizing actions. Her monumental bundle of painted tree branches function as a communication tool — a warning, telling us how we should behave if we want to survive.
Together the two artists encourage an examination of important keywords: Lie and Strength, and Land and Unity.
“Lie of the Land” is an installation of five, skillfully crafted, mini-dioramas: “State of the Union,” “Manifest (o) Destiny,” “This Land Was Made for You and Me,” “From Sea to Shining Sea” and “Huddled Masses (Back is Best),” that are presented in open wooden boxes. They are assemblage sculpture with the tonality of play toys. They can also be viewed and classified as an updated brand of American Regionalism, in which scenes of American life as captured within.
The boxes hold miniatures, the type of objects used for architectural and landscape planning, and suggest old fashioned train model structures. In the gallery, as an installation, they are placed along the walls surrounding a mountain landscape sculpture, called “Continental Divide,” that is made of papier mache and painted. Installed within the mountain landscape sculpture are miniature blue and red emergency sirens — blue on the left, red on the right, with the mountain dividing the two sides. The blue and red color is important because it connects Abrams to Zwart’s “Strength in Unity.”
At first glance, the entire installation appears innocent and playful, the mountain landscape evokes Mount Rushmore, and the boxes hold within, what appears as, cute vignettes of American culture. As we move in closer, a dark and sinister reality begins to reveal itself. The sirens on the mountain suggestion danger, the train within the diorama is broken and vandalized with graffiti, the blue vintage pick-up truck has been dead for decades; there’s a cage for holding a baby, and a tower to keep people in and out. The earth within the diorama landscape is dry and life-less.
From the exhibition statement: “Drawing on his background as a builder of architectural and scale model, Abrams pairs scenes and narratives with titles that highlight the discord between American self-mythology and the realities of the current state of public life. Abrams abandons and subverts nostalgia and conservatism in favor of pointed civic critique.” Talking casually in the gallery about his sculptures, Abrams said that his goal with the Lie of the Land is to encourage and engage in serious conversation by way of veiled key points. “People have stopped talking to each other,” he said, “I wanted to be subtle.”
“For example, in “Manifest(o) Destiny,” the piece featuring a train boxcar vandalized with graffiti, the train itself alludes to the transition in American life from covered wagons moving West to the so-called ‘iron horse’ — the steam locomotives that cut across the United States becoming the symbol of “Manifest Destiny.” Moving forward to our contemporary culture, graffiti artists now use trains as art environments, imprinting the boxcars with their tags as communication devices. On Abrams’ train boxcar, in tiny letters, requiring the viewer to move in very close to the sculpture to see it, he’s painted the tag MAGA, today’s code for Make American Great Again. Inside the boxcar, as a red abstracted form, is a jumble of tiny red hats.
From the exhibition label: “Whether a provocative expression of Manifest Destiny or poorly-conceived 2016 campaign slogan on a pile of red hats, these incitements always seem to share the same fate, exploited briefly and then abandoned when they no longer serve a purpose. “The abandoned red hats also evoke the history of ‘freighthopping’ a practice of riding a railroad freight car for free which grew as a common form of transportation after the American Civil War during westward expansion and then later developed into the ‘hobo’ migrant worker movement. The key element to this is economics as the hobo movement became a symbol of the Great Depression. With “Manifest (o) Destiny,” Abrams is spotlighting what is not being talked about: people are financially insecure, feel great shame, but are unable to openly discuss their fears and financial enslavement within a capitalist culture.
The reality of poverty, politics and nostalgia is strong in Abrams’ “State of the Union.” This sculpture is more obvious in its engagement. The back platform of the baby blue vintage pick-up truck holds a presidential podium. Here we have a piece providing an interpretation of what is fueling MAGA: a return to a time that in reality was and has always been broken. The underlining anxiety of “State of the Union” is that even though the truck is in decay, tires off, stuck in place, the broken tonality, shame of poverty, fueled by class value system, with a twisted hope for a better future, is shaping the American character.
Other serious topics of conversation in “Lie of the Land” are: immigration and migration in “This Land Was Made For You and Me” which features a tower made of metal sheeting, a homage to the pre- and post-Civil War military fort towers that were placed throughout the Western United States during westward expansion, and alludes to today’s building of walls in the southern border; landscape degradation and manipulation in “From Sea to Shining Sea” which features the St. Louis Gateway Arch over the unstable and flooding Mississippi River, and the caging of innocent people, especially children in “Huddled Masses (Back is Best),” a structure of what looks like a baby crib made from prison fencing and barbed wire.
“Huddled Masses” also suggests a remembrance of what white Americans did to the children of Native Americans during the 19th century as communities where dislocated, moved to reservations, murdered and Native children separated from their parents and culture and sent to Indian Schools to be white-washed. The last time artists fully examined the problems of an evolving American culture was during the Great Depression and the American Regionalist movement. After World War II, America moved into a period of great economic expansion with promises of wealth, technological advancement, and equality for all people. Lie of Land exposes the myth-making of the post-World War II generation and the yet unfulfilled American Dream. For more about Christopher Abrams visit his website: christopherabrams.com.
CHRISTOPHER ABRAMS: LIE OF THE LAND: Q & A:
JFM: What came first: the material objects or the concepts?
CA: The quick answer is the concepts. Once the overall idea about exploring our national civic condition was firmed up in my mind, the ideas just started emerging one after another (I have dozens written down or sketched out). But sometimes I have an object or material that suggests its own place in the overall scheme (the train car fits in this category) … and I have to pursue the piece that way.
JFM: Did you sketch out the design before building up the box dioramas? Tell us about the process.
CA: Everything starts with sketches. I use drawings to explore and plan out how I’m going to build a piece, but I also use it because there are so many ideas that I don’t have enough time to build everything that comes to mind. Drawings let me record everything, and get a sense of what’s practical to make and what needs a longer time and effort to explore.
JFM: How is this series similar to or different from previous work?
CA: I make a lot of small-scale objects, so this show presents work similar to what I’ve done previously. But I’ve never made political work before. I’ll admit that I’ve always been a little afraid to, for a variety of reasons. But I just felt like it’s too pressing a set of issues we’re facing now, and that sense made its way into the work.
CHRISTINA ZWART: STRENGTH IN UNITY
Christina Zwart’s “Strength in Unity” is a massive one-piece assemblage sculpture of painted tree branches bundled together. The branches or sticks are painted red and blue representing America’s political and ideological groups. The purpose of “Strength in Unity” is to offer a hopeful warning. From the exhibition statement: “Zwart unveils a sculpture that represents what’s possible when people stop shouting and start listening.” The inspiration for the piece comes from Aesop’s Fable, “The Bundle of Sticks” — “as sticks are stronger when bundled together, and weaker on their own, so are we.”
Even though Zwart’s conceptual goal is a positive point of view, there is another way to read “Strength in Unity.” The opposite point is apocalyptic: bundled together, the red and blue branches/sticks will burn together in a massive fire. As they burn together, it forces a question: what and why are they burning? Is destruction the goal? Togetherness doesn’t always mean positive cooperation; tight bonds can be uncomfortable, creating distressful energy and a yearning to pull apart and fight against the closeness. The tonality that radiates from “Strength in Unity” isn’t peace, it’s anxiety, and that’s the beauty of Zwart’s aesthetic. She’s a master at creating nervous accumulation that engages in a counter-posting inquiry. Are the bundled sticks truly strong? Or, is there a weakness in the forced unity? For more about Christina Zwart, visit her website zwaetinstalltions.com.
Q & A: CHRISTINA ZWART: STRENGTH IN UNITY
JFM: When did you begin gathering the sticks for the bundle, what types of trees are they from, where did you house everything while working out the design, and how was it transported to the gallery?
CZ: I started gathering the sticks, mostly oak and pine, in August, using tarps and a cart, which took a few weeks, especially with all the trimming. I laid them out in my yard to paint them, which was difficult in that we had some whacky weather and I was constantly running in and out to cover them with plastic. I also ruined our grass, and got paint all over the driveway, and even my dog. Ultimately, I transported the sticks to the gallery wrapped in smaller bundles in the back of a U-Haul truck.
JFM: Did you sketch out the design first, or did you work it out via experimental construction/assemblage?
CZ: I don’t sketch! I envisioned the design and worked it out via experimental construction and assemblage.
JFM: The painted color is red and blue; why not red, blue and white?
CZ: I thought about adding white, but it would have diluted the intense colors of the piece and would have made it only about America. This left/right, us/them polarization is pervasive across the globe. And it gets us nowhere.
(“Christopher Abrams: Lie of the Land” and “Christina Zwart: “Strength in Unity” remains on view through September 29 at Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon-6 p.m.; for more information, call (617) 482-7781.)