Artists respond to problematic stories, racism in ceramics in ‘Our America/Whose America?’ at Ferrin Contemporary | theater arts
NORTH ADAMS – Norman Rockwell’s illustrations with their “perfectly imperfect armies of girls” never resonated with artist Niki Johnson, a member of the “Atari 2600” generation, as they watched her from commemorative plates porcelain that seemed to be everywhere during his youth – the pages of magazines, TV screens, the walls of Central American homes.
And yet, some 30 years later, she would start buying these commemorative plates, at thrift stores for only a few dollars each, putting them away for a time that seemed right to her, for an as yet unrealized project. For a decade, she would amass a collection of a few hundred Rockwell plates, as well as dozens of other patterns and designs depicting American landscapes, children playing, churches and historic monuments, flora and fauna.
Following the 2016 election, frustrated with the results, she finally stopped working on her art and found peace in the structure of cleaning and arranging her studio space. She started arranging the plates and soon found herself staring at stacks of what she describes as “illustrated MAGA” – “an America where the father knew best, the women knew their place and the people of color didn’t weren’t in the picture.”
In that moment, she said, she knew what she was supposed to do with those stacks of plates representing idyllic white American domestic bliss — separate them, insert themselves into the American narrative.
With an old photograph in hand – a photo taken in the late 1990s of his torso, bare belly and a cigarette in his hand, an accidental self-portrait that could only have survived in the days before instant access to photo film from a camera – she instinctively decided to create a mural out of porcelain mosaic tiles.
The resulting work, “Fitting In With The Squares (Self-Portrait)”, is part of “Our America/Whose America?”, a collective exhibition of 23 contemporary artists responding “to specific and deeply problematic histories in the ‘history of consumer ceramics’. on view at Ferrin Contemporary through October 30.
“I came to understand that the woman in this portrait was so much like the young women I worked with. I see in her nuances my mother, who raised me in a time she helped defend” , writes Johnson in a blog post about his self-portrait. “I see a woman with a greater capacity for action on her life than her ancestors. I see a woman who knows what to take out of life, what to leave and how to build a life from the corresponding pieces.”
Elizabeth Alexander also works with collectible plates—Confederate memorial plates—which she, like Johnson, salvages second-hand from thrift stores and antique stores.
While Johnson has used his work to insert himself into a conversation, Alexander’s series, “A Mightier Work is Ahead,” aims to remove fictionalized images of the Civil War from conversation.
“I imagine these objects as Trojan horses hanging innocently among family photos. These plates were printed long after the Civil War with romantic illustrations and created for people to hang in their homes, to convey dangerous values to future generations, aided by collectible marketing,” she wrote in her artist statement.
The plates are left whole, displayable, but with obvious changes, as Alexander literally cuts out soldier illustrations from them, grinding others, along with any symbols or traces about the Confederacy. The impact is immediate – gaping holes and large white spaces are framed by what remains, ripples of blue sky, sunsets, green grass and buildings. But the imagery it has suppressed, which fuels a contemporary white supremacist culture, should not be ignored or swept under the rug. Instead, she picked up the dust, shavings, bottled it up, and put it on display, where it can be kept under a watchful eye.
Jacqueline Bishop made her own kind of memorial plate, one in the style of the cherished ceramic plates owned by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and kept in a special mahogany cabinet. “The Market Woman Series”, a collection of 15 plates, mixes images from early Jamaican postcards, paintings of slave women from Brazil, the colonial paintings of Italian Agostino Brunias and current photographs with images of flora and fauna. abolitionist. Here she creates a new narrative, which pays homage to the “market woman”, placing images of this defining symbol of Jamaican and Caribbean society in a place of honour.
The works in the exhibition are not limited to ceramic dishes or porcelain plates, although many use these mediums to spark conversations about colonialism, colonization, racism and sexism.
Salvador Jiménez-Flores, Russell Biles and CRANK, an artist duo, use sculptural form and contemporary cultural icons and images in response to societal issues.
Jiménez-Flores’ “A Hand Gesture To Systematic Racism”, a pedestal holding a giant green cactus in the shape of a “bird flipping” hand, is a depiction of the artist’s frustration with “visible and invisible racism on the workplace, schools, churches, government, universities and in the public through the microaggressions, xenophobia, discrimination, bullying, manipulation and more” experienced daily by Black, Indigenous and people of color, as well as immigrants and refugees.
A bronze rifleman, kneeling as he surrenders his weapon, sits on a pillar of skulls painted in red, white and blue stripes, is the culmination of Biles’ realization that freedom and security of his youth were imposed “by a magic gun” and the fear that future generations “won’t accept this reality”. “Cancelled,” recognizes the reality and price of America’s freedom, a legacy built on death and the old adage that “freedom isn’t free.”
CRANK, an art duo, who use Native American vessel shapes and red earth clay to explore “concepts such as ownership of open source material, cultural appropriation, immigration, sexual orientation, consumerism and pop music” has several giant vessels emblazoned with pop culture imagery In View. One, “Agent Orange,” features an orange cartoon cheetah, similar to the Cheetos mascot, with the presidential seal on the reverse.
Although different in medium, the messages are equally clear, from artist to artist, all charged with emotion in a range from frustration and anger to hope and belief in a distant future.
What: “Our America / Whose America?” curated by Leslie Ferrin and Lauren Levato Coyne.
Who: Elizabeth Alexander, Russell Biles, Jacqueline Bishop, Judy Chartrand, CRANK, Connor Czora, Michelle Erickson, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, Garth Johnson, Akinsanya Kambon, Beckie Kravetz, Steven Young Lee, Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Beth Lo, Niki Johnson, Angelica Pozo , Leo Quiles, Paul Scott, Rae Stern, Momoko Usami, Kukuli Velarde and Jason Walker.
Where: Ferrin Contemporary, 1315 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
In view: Until October 30
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to Saturday
More information: 413-346-4004, ferrincontemporary.com
Hidden in Plain Sight: Illustrated Ceramics and American Identity
What: Panel discussion at the online symposium, “Illustration and Races: Rethinking the History of Published Images”, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum on September 23-24
Who: Panelists Elizabeth Alexander, Jacqueline Bishop, Judy Chartrand, Niki Johnson and Paul Scott, all “Our America/Whose America?” artists, with moderator Leslie Ferrin.
When: Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Registration and more information: rockwellcenter.org/news/virtual-symposium-illustration-and-race-rethinking-the-history-of-printed-images