The critical, current events that defined the past 12 months are just beginning to impact what we see in art museums and galleries.
Curators and museum directors are doing what they can, under tremendous pressure, to not only respond meaningfully to the anxious and unsettled world around them, but also to be a place where conversations about shared social anxieties can continue after the heat of the moment cools off.
And so, six months after the Black Lives Matter movement sent people out into the streets to protest — some with bullhorns, others with spray paint — the discourse over race has moved inside, onto the walls of established cultural institutions as they assume the role of moderator in this evolving civic exchange.
If you go
“From This Day Forward” continues through May 31 at BMoCA, 1750 13th St., Boulder. Info at 303-443-2122 or bmoca.org.
The evidence is all around. The Colorado Photographic Arts Center, for example, is showing “Reflecting Voices,” an exhibit featuring three Black artists whose work addresses Black history and the contemporary Black experience. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is using its largest gallery space to present a portion of “Black in Denver,” photographer Narkita Gold’s portrait-and-text series documenting the faces and stories of local citizens of color.
The deepest, and most exciting, dive into the subject of race is taking place at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, where the exhibit “From This Day Forward” is occupying two floors of gallery space through May 31.
The show, guest curated by Tya Alisa Anthony, is about more than BLM and its fallout. It’s a response to the loss and isolation forced upon all of us by the pandemic and to the Zoom-powered technological takeover of our lives that accompanied it. There is work addressing all of those things and more in this eight-artist show.
But it resonates particularly well as an exploration of racial identity due to the inclusion of a few artists who tell rich personal stories through their work, and whose efforts come together into a bigger picture at BMoCa.
One of them is Autumn T. Thomas, whose bent wood sculptures offer a visceral reflection of her own journey as a woman of color. Thomas starts her process with straight, flat, wooden boards — wedge, purpleheart, padauk — which she then cuts, bends and shapes into fluid, three-dimensional works that defy their natural, solid qualities.
For “3rd Eye Musing,” she curved eight, short pieces of wenge and joined them together into a circular mobile that hangs from the ceiling. For “Necessary Beings,” she placed a dozen or so sections of paduak flat against a wall, and then adds a layer of hand-curved boards on top of them, so they appear to pop and curl out of the two-dimensional surface.
For “Lift Every Voice,” the exhibit’s showpiece, she bent a larger section of wood, maybe 6 feet long, into an oversized, hanging armature, from which long, copper tubes are suspended. The piece is a giant set of chimes that museum visitors are invited to interact with as a musical instrument.
Bending wood requires cutting notches into the boards so they become more flexible. As Thomas explains in her artist statement, those notches represent moments when she herself was “cut-down — or negatively affected — by bias, racism, sexism, classicism, heterosexism and the trope of the angry back woman.”
But the pieces are also a recognition of her own perseverance, with their bends and folds mirroring her ability “to maneuver life with fluidity and grace” despite obstacles. This isn’t presented as heroism as much as it is a survival tactic, and the pieces evoke the physical and mental stress that it requires.
Another crucial voice in the show comes from Rochelle Johnson, whose oil paintings hang in the back of the gallery. Johnson’s paintings were all completed in the past 12 months and carry the urgency of the moment. In one, titled “Joseph’s Mask,” a single male subject looks directly at the viewer, his colorful face-covering holding the painting’s visual center. In another, titled “Future Gatherings,” a male-female couple, also in masks, sits around a table. They’re together, though idle and surrounded by the hard brick-and-stone urban landscape around them. Both paintings convey a mix of apprehension and resignation that defined the pandemic for all of us.
The remaining paintings are female nudes depicting figures stretching or reclining or simply gazing off in the distance. Johnson keeps them enigmatic. They don’t have facial features, and she renders them in anti-skin tones of blue, orange, yellow and green. There is almost no detail in the background, so they appear to be floating in their own, unmarked and solitary environments.
By foregoing their eyes and ears and removing their personalities, race and social context, Johnson forces us to encounter them only as bodies and to reflect on how our reactions to their physical shape contributes to our assessment of them as humans. The paintings fit into Johnson’s larger body of work that addresses how black female beauty is considered, overlooked and dismissed in both society and art history.
“As both an artist and a woman of color, I’ve longed to see the beauty that’s all around me represented in art,” she writes in her statement. Finding a limited supply of that in museums and galleries, she is creating it herself.
Anthony, a busy Denver artist in her first outing as a curator, brings in other voices to round out the consideration of race at the moment. She includes a set of Gold’s “Black in Denver” portraits, which are straightforward and journalistic, and balances that with Ella Maria Ray’s wall-mounted ceramic sculptures that fully rely on symbolism to convey the commonalities and distinctions that define dispersed African communities around the globe.
Taken together, the works addressing race are both personal and sociological, intimate and detached; they cross over various media. In that way, “From This Day Forward” presents a surprisingly thorough set of ideas using a small number of objects. It’s economical yet highly impactful.
“From This Day Forward” has ambitions beyond exploring race, and it would be amiss to overlook what it says about other topics. Kenzie Sitterud, who has a sharp skill for creating human-scale immersive installations, contributes “Us/Them,” a set of six cross-sections of wood cut from a 70-year-old tree, and hung from the ceiling using orange chains. They resemble a set of playground swings and serve as a metaphor for the emotional swings that many people felt as COVID raged.
Santo Sunra’s “One Second from the Big Band” is a sound sculpture that emanates various “Om” chants, asking questions about the things that bind us (or could bring us together) as humans. Artists Paula Gasparini-Santos and Kim Putnam contribute rich ideas around gender, repression, the immigrant experience and other topics.
It all deserves attention and recognition, as does BMoCA’s willingness to take such a deep dive into the moment. Most museums are tackling similar subject matter by using in-house curators to develop exhibitions. The usual gatekeepers are standing guard over content.
But by inviting Anthony to create the show, BMoCa released institutional control over the final result to an artist whose own work is known to explore topics involving people of color. In more direct words, at BMoCA, a curator of color is presenting artists of color.
That matters. Honest conversations require people with decision-making power to give it up to others. It’s how an exhibition transcends good intentions and achieves authenticity. “From This Day Forward” is a step forward in that regard.
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