We are because they were: “Getting to Know You” at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery

The Reinberger Gallery. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

“Identity” is taking an increasingly central stage in U.S. political discourse.

The “intersectional” paradigm lets us speak of the diversity within demographics which had previously been treated as homogenous. Progressives and conservatives alike are more likely to acknowledge that right-wing contrasts between “coastal elites” and “real Americans” amount to valorization of white Christian identity. “Nationalists” of lesser and greater degrees of racist are increasingly successful in shoving into the sphere of respectable opinion.

But “identity” involves more than picking a set of team colors to wear. The exhibition Getting to Know You, now in its final week at the Cleveland Institute of Art, calls attention to the historic dimensions of identity. From different perspectives, the four artists displayed in the Reinberger Gallery explore how the past shapes our present.

Stepping into the exhibit, viewers first encounter a neon daydreams of Haley Josephs. The recurring subject throughout Josephs’ work is feminine fantasy. Specifically, she shows women and girls in the act of fantasizing. Their imaginations leak into the world of the painting. Outstretched arms curve into rainbows; plucked flowers gaze up with serene, babyish faces. A girl listens intensely to her friend, while effortlessly holding a gymnastic pose.

Haley Josephs, “Mundys Corner, Nanty Glo.” Oil on canvas. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

All Josephs’ scenes take place under impossibly bright skies. The supernatural light makes grass glow fluorescent green. The girls’ purple and orange skin flashes with a rubbery shine. In t-shirts, shorts, and ripped jeans, the girls have dressed for a day outdoors. Their legs are often splashed with mud. Tears, saliva, and snot trickle down their faces. They cry in rapture, a heightened state in which joy and sadness blur together. Everything is glorious, but it is so, so much. The intensity of their feelings could be the pained longing of an adult woman, reminiscing about a too-perfect childhood that never really happened. Or, the tween girls might be feeling the first stirrings of puberty and its amplified emotions. Either way, Josephs’ work celebrates and dramatizes girls’ childhoods in ways we rarely see. They are free to run through dirt and get grass stains on their jeans.

Haley Josephs, “Childhood’s End.” Oil on canvas. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Natalia Arbelaez is a Columbian-American sculptor and ceramicist. Born in Florida, she earned her MFA from The Ohio State University. Arbelaez styles her artworks after those of pre-Columbian American Indians. Her aim is not only to preserve indigenous aesthetics, but deploy those artforms in contemporary dialogues. Put another way, she keeps her tradition a living one.

However, the weight of history is not a burden for Arbelaez. Though never “light,” her work does evince a sense of humor. Her humor is that of a satirist, using jokes to sting complacence and complicity. Arbelaez’s most explicit barb is “Anchor Baby,” named after a nativist boogeyman. The sculpture consists of a terracotta anchor huge enough for two people to stand on it, one on each hook. In making the image, Arbelaez ironically claims the label. The two figures, the titular “babies,” have linked arms behind the anchor. They will not be be moved.

Natalia Arbelaez, “Anchor Baby.” Terracotta and gold luster. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Equally poignant is “El Dorado (Zipa’s Gold)”. In it, a man lies in a rowboat. He is now rowing. Gold trinkets bury his arms, and all his body below his chest. His mouth twists into a scream of fright. The title references the “city of gold” which represented to conquistadors the unimaginable wealth the Americas promised, if it could be wrested from the natives. Arbelaez’s tragic character is a victim of his own greed. Even if the boat does not sink, its pilot is in danger of suffocating under his treasure. One could draw a parallel to industrial society: By burning the fossil fuels mined off conquered land, Americans might boil their own civilization to death. (Though indigenous people will feel the burn first, and most deeply.)

Besides indigenous art, Arbelaez draws influence from cartoons. In “Waiting for America,” one of her characters is stranded on a desert island just large enough for just one palm tree. Such locations are frequently settings for newspaper comic gags. The figure lays on his back, limbs sprawled limp in the sand. His eyes are x’d out, symbolizing unconsciousness or death. Arbelaez makes most of her figures from rust-colored terracotta; but this one is made from hand-built stone wear. His body is white, but streaked red on the shoulders, thighs, and the crown of his head. Without America to shield him, the white man withers in sunlight.

Natalia Arbelaez, “El Dorado (Zipa’s Gold).” Terracotta and gold luster. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Julie Heffernan’s paintings address the “old masters” of Western painting, and our ways of remembering and revering them. Like many classical painters, Heffernan’s compositions center the female nude. However, the woman she depicts is herself. Heffernan uses the self-portrait to assert her agency as a painter. In juxtaposing the authority of an artist with her own nudity, Heffernan brings us to mind of the thousands of nameless models male painters have built their careers on, and forces us to consider their inner lives.

In “Self-Portrait with Lock,” Heffernan depicts herself seated in a an idealized artist’s studio. To her right is a tin of dirtied paintbrushes. The entire floor is dappled with many pigments, as if she has been wiping her camel-hairs on the floor. In front of her naked torso, Heffernan holds a bundled scroll. The scroll’s innumerable yards are printed with images from art history. The tapestry depicts Michelangelo’s Genesis frescos; Al Pacino firing a machine gun in Scarface; numerous Madonnas cradling baby Jesuses; a Mexican standoff from Reservoir Dogs; and mythological scenes of Greek gods predating mortal women.

The mural wall behind Heffernan is painted with a deposition of Christ. However, Jesus’ limp, gray body is in the background. The largest figure is Mary, Jesus’ mother. She wears a blue veil over her bowed head. She mourns, but is not broken by her loss. No tears streak her face, and her mouth is set in a firm straight line. Everything in the room—the rug, the brushes, art history, cinema, Mary’s resolute grief—belongs to Heffernan. In the universe of the studio, everything is an instrument for her use.

Julie Heffernan, “Girl Party.” Oil on canvas. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Heffernan’s scenes are colorful, but dimmed. Boughs of ripe fruit and yards of lusciously-dyed tapestries stretch across her canvases. These objects hint at at vivid hues, but are clouded by faint, dusky darkness. But the sun comes out in “Girl Party.” Heffernan constructed this panorama like a family photo from a big reunion. Five rows of feminine figures face the viewer. They sit, lounge, hold each other, and vogue for the camera. Some wrap their heads, others let their curls flow down their shoulders. At least one has styled her black hair into a conical updo recalling Nefertiti’s crown. Among the crowd are famous faces, like Botticelli’s Venus and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse Elizabeth Siddal. Other ladies have the jagged, mask-like visages of Picasso models; or the lumpy, fleshy heads of Willem de Kooning’s women. But none of these male artists are in view. Heffernan has built a world where the women of art history can live on their own terms, and enjoy each other’s’ company.

Devan Shimoyama’s installations and multimedia paintings commemorate lost youths. They are pleading but hopeful gestures, imploring viewers to make a future free of racism and harshly enforced gender roles.

Devan Shimoyama, “For Tamir III.” Mixed media, including swing and silk flowers. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Most directly, Shimoyama memorializes two black boys whose killers were acquitted, or never even faced trial. With its title, “February” references the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. In the aftermath of the killing, hoodies suddenly became a topic of national debate. Speaking to Fox News’ predominantly white audience, commentators like Geraldo Rivera said that this style of sweatshirt was threatening. Blaming the hoodie exonerated Zimmerman, and also a political culture which supports racism, vigilante mindsets, and unregulated access to firearms. Shimoyama absolves the hoodie and its wearers. He suspends a sweater in the gallery, arms outstretched in a crucifixion-like pose. Its front is decorated with gold sequins, pink flowers, and a tiger emblem. Cleveland is reminded of its own shame with “For Tamir III.” In this piece, more flowers bloom on the seat of a swing. The playground equipment reminds us Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old playing in a park when he was gunned down by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann.

Shimoyama’s “La Lune” envisions a world where men are allowed to be gentle. On an almost monumental scale, it depicts a shirtless young man, slight of build, wearing only jean shorts. His skin is shades of fire, yellow and orange; his hair is made from gold glitter. However, his broad nose and wooly locks indicate his blackness. His lips are full, sensuously parted, glossy with maroon paint. They appear to have been cut from a women’s fashion photograph. He stoops beside a river bank, and stretches out his hand to play with a pair of spaniels. The dogs’ coats sparkle with copper and black glitter. A pink glow outlines both the youth and the spaniels. A bedazzled lobster floats downstream.

The young man is not self-conscious about his hair, his body, or his nurturing attention to the dogs. The sun rains down gentle orangey drops which match his skin tone—he is at home in the world, wholly a part of it. The tableau’s pink, yellow, and deep blue colors bring to mind the commercial designs of Lisa Frank, the girls’ school supplies mogul. The 1990s association is further reinforced by the lobster, a modified Beanie Baby. Shimoyama’s utopia is not necessarily in the future—“Le Luna” might depict a past with an alternate, more tolerant history. By showing us a more decent past, he makes it that much easier to oppose prejudice today.

Devan Shimoyama, “La Lune.” Mixed media, including oil, color pencil, rhinestones, and glitter. Photo by Jacob Koestler.

Getting to Know You will be on display through Dec.13 at the Reinberger Gallery. The gallery is located on the first floor of the George Gund Building at 11610 Euclid Ave. For more information, go to CIA’s gallery website.

Special thanks to Nikki Woods and Kayli M. Salzano. All photos by Jacob Koestler. 

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.