Damage Assessment: The First 100+ Days, at SPACES
“100 days, 100 nights / To know a man’s heart” sang the late, great Sharon Jones, fitting her voice tightly against the pounding retro-soul sound of The Dap Kings. Of course, when that hit song was first recorded almost a decade ago Donald Trump wasn’t yet known as a political heavy-hitter. But on the evening of November 8, 2016 Sharon Jones had a stroke as she watched the Electoral College votes pile up in the surprise Republican candidate’s favor. She died in a New Jersey hospital ten days later. Not that Trump killed her (she died of pancreatic cancer), but her story (and the words of her troubled song about trust and betrayal) underline the fact that those events and the much scrutinized first one hundred days and nights of Trump’s presidency have been hard for a lot of people to wrap their minds around. That includes the artists and organizations participating in the current SPACES Gallery exhibit in Ohio City titled “The First 100+ Days.”
Ms. Jones would have approved. Curated by SPACES Director Christina Vassalo, it’s a show of offbeat, intelligent works conveying disappointed or downright incredulous reactions to Trump’s attempts (to date) to make good on controversial campaign promises.
Curated by SPACES Director Christina Vassalo, The First 100+ Days fills the Gallery’s largest room with works in mediums ranging from old-fashioned acrylic paint and plain colored pencil, to an iphone app that twists more or less real news into proto-fascist grousing. There’s also a timeline that takes the viewer day by day through the past fun-filled four months, from the executive order mandating a wall along the Mexican border on DAY 6 and DAY 8’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, up to the present. It’s an exhibit that asks its audience to be extra alert, wide-awake to content and explanatory text, and also (in many cases) to materials and configuration.
Megan Young’s kinetic sculpture “Cloud of Whiteness,” on the other hand, is hard to miss with or without words on the wall, and may be most interesting (like a lot of good art) when left to drift free in the mind of the beholder. The fact that her “Cloud” is installed in the middle of the exhibit and in part hangs from the ceiling, means that it sets, or at least modifies the tone of the room. With “Cloud” that tone is quirky and poetic, despite posted wall text claims about its meaning. Young’s work says little about whiteness or “social erasure,” but a lot about human things, using rough materials and the idea of suspension to talk about the sky and the city, and maybe anxiety; maybe the sky is falling, a little bit at a time. A motion detector hooked up to a motor pulls a long cord when someone moves one of the bricks that lie around on the floor underneath a burlap bag suspended overhead. The cord gently shakes the bag and a dusting of theatrical snow falls down, slowly coating everything. The bag is a bittersweet sort of a cloud, the snow-covered bricks poke out like ruins, and the feeling is forlorn, like a verse about homelessness and winter. All this may also comment on surveillance and repression if the artist insists, but Young’s simple, homemade combination seems to eloquently convey a heartbroken phase of desperation, lending a dream-like touch to a show that’s otherwise anchored all too firmly in contemporary realities.
The most un-self consciously traditional works on display are two large acrylic paintings by 2015 Cleveland Art Prize winner Michelangelo Lovelace. Continuing his long series of folk-art and outsider-influenced, semi-narrative paintings dealing with life and the American city, especially African-American life in the street (he became well-known a few years ago for his paintings about the Rodney King police brutality incident), Lovelace here comments on immigration and Trump’s infamous Mexican wall. One of these shows a crowd of people approaching a high brick wall and attempting to scale it. Some are falling (wall text points out the similarity to 9/11 images of jumpers from the WTC), a mother and her small child cling to the top by their fingertip, another female figure lower down has three little kids hanging on her arms and neck. Above the wall to the upper left of the canvas the face of Lady Liberty is visible, beaming; on the right police sharpshooters take aim from a prison-style tower. Two figures on the ground are trying to wiggle into tight tunnels. This is a bright, sunlit scene, with blue sky and lots of primary colors. Intuitively and compositionally it’s all about the wall, which takes up most of visual field – not about fear or even about human beings. The people are seen mostly from the back, so the viewer has very few faces to engage with; and they’re small, not quite ant-like, but most are depicted in the same, unlikely spread-eagle posture against the over-size blocks that compose the wall itself. They’re almost like cross-stitches on a quilt. In short, they’re anonymous – an unknown, unrecognized quantity.
Lovelace’s second painting is just the opposite. It’s all about people, crowding around the statue of Liberty. Liberty looks chagrined, even miserable here, and the new Americans don’t look happy either; but their eyes are wide open, and their faces proclaim their individuality. Maybe these are the people who made it over or under the wall, maybe they overcame other obstacles to arrive inside the prison-like gates of the United States. Either way, citizenship is equated here with personhood, inclusion equals at least some degree of empowerment.
Among the most remarkable images/messages at 100+ Days are two large (almost eight feet long) drawings in colored pencil and graphite by Kent State University associate professor Darice Polo. Known for her photo-realist drawing style, she here applies her techniques to a representation of two texts: “Immigration Mass Deportation” and “Resist Agent Orange.” In the first Polo repeats the word “immigration” nine times, stuttering down the paper surface like failing brakes, the letters getting shorter and shorter. All the letters are gray except for “R,” which is a sort of dark gold, so that those nine R’s growl in a column of their own, ending at the word “MASS” also drawn in gold, spreading to fill the available space as if crushed by the weight of the other text. “DEPORTATION” rests at the bottom, gray at the sides, turning gold toward the middle. The whole block of text reverberates with authoritarian heat, compacting and crushing, marching in brutal formation.
“Resist Agent Orange” is a line improvised and made instantly famous by rapper Busta Rhymes and the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest at the 2017 Grammy Awards. RESIST is gray, AGENT ORANGE is gold (of course) – but RESIST is much bigger, raining down as if on the embers of an old fire.
So we’ll see how the next few hundred days go, and what kind of art is made. The SPACES show itself is slated to run through Day 167. Don’t miss it.