One of the most intriguing opportunities of an open call juried exhibition such as SALON 2017 is that it imposes few limitations upon the artists. Submissions vary staggeringly in the visual narratives they expound, the formal or contextual concerns they examine, and the mediums they employ. Such diversity is reflective of the evolving role artists play in modern and contemporary society. The artist’s studio, Christine Macel notes in her introduction to this year’s Venice Biennale, is no longer solely a place for introspection and solitary production. In today’s world of conflict, social disparity, racial and gender inequality, climate change, and increased nationalism and anti-elitism, the voice of the artist becomes all the more vital. Artists are encouraged to develop public personas and address these critical issues.
Conversely, one of the most challenging aspects of curating a juried exhibition is recognizing (and curtailing) the tendency of the juror/curator to impose a totalizing vision upon heterogeneous submissions. After all, in practice all exhibitions, including this one, necessarily work on the principle of selection and therefore exclusion. This is a reality for all artists existing in what Arthur Danto dubbed the “artworld”—a style matrix guided by dominant influences and institutions—and something that must be considered carefully within curatorial discourse.
In light of the strides being made by artists and curators alike to break down the insulating walls of the “artworld,” it would be rather heavy handed to simply distill the wide array of artworks in SALON 2017—here chosen to represent the landscape of contemporary American art today—into strictly formal (i.e. aesthetic) categories. Rather, I propose to examine the ways in which the artworks meaningfully engage with political and social conversations within the framework of the following broad, though critically germane, trends in contemporary art discourse: the occupation of an expanded field, the cultivation and challenging of systems of belief, and the situation of art as archive.
I. The Expanded Field
The expanded field, conceived by Rosalind Krauss in 1979, addressed the transition from Modernism’s medium-specificity to Postmodernism’s medium-multiplicity and the resultant pluralism in the term “sculpture.” Krauss attempted to clarify the distinctions between, and the intersections of, sculpture, architecture, and landscape art to distill the parameters of each practice. Artists today continue to grapple with this, experimenting with the conceptual, spatial, and material properties that expand the fields of not only sculpture, but also installation art. Hayden Richer and Lily Erb’s site-specific installations examine objects’ tentative presence within a space—the forces of gravity they depend upon, the voids in their support systems, and the tension in perception they engender. Marissa Geoffrey’s photographs of shadows created by light moving through three-dimensional composite stencils complicate our perception of space, recasting structures that are beyond the scope of our vision. Rachel Bury and Alice Pixley Young further examine this ambiguous distinction between two- and three-dimensional planes, constructing illusory spaces that parallel those imagined in alternate or dystopic realities.
Now often contemporaneously discussed as a realm occupied by new media and digital art, the expanded field is also a productive place in which to situate craft. Artists, curators, and critics have, until recently, tiptoed around the term, not only because it is a distinction traditionally distanced from high art circles, but also because its plethora of encompassing materials and historical lineages have stretched the exact meaning of craft thin. Bumin Kim, Isabelle O’Donnell, Lael Burns, and Barbara Horlander embrace the ambiguously-defined, pluralistic form of craft. Kim’s sewn textile paintings expand the pictorial plane of two-dimensional painting. Thread, the “mark-making” medium, conforms to the formal lines and gradated colors of painting, but also betrays the illusion of flatness. O’Donnell too explores the relationship between traditional abstract painting and textile practices. Her assemblage fabric “paintings”—comprised of found and often hand-dyed fabrics—are sewn and stretched on a flat plane. Burns’s ethereal abstract forms are comprised of a range of “low brow” craft mediums—glitter, spray paint, tulle, and ribbon. Similarly, Horlander examines the tension between everyday materials: nondescript materials such as plywood, metal, and wire and tantalizingly tactile ones such as fur and leather.
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II. Systems of Belief
The didactic, critical, and celebratory functions of art have, throughout history, been employed in the service of widely held or fringe systems of belief. These belief systems can incorporate any combination of religious, cosmological, spiritual, philosophical, political, or ideological beliefs and openly embrace vernacular forms of culture that challenge traditional hierarchies of high and low art. Destry Sparks and Sarbani Ghosh work within, and revel in the wonder of, spiritual and cosmological systems of belief. The found biomorphic forms—bones, shells, bits of string and metal—floating dreamily upon the surface of Sparks’s assemblage paintings stimulate a contemplation of past and future mythologies. Ghosh explores the collision of the religious, cosmic, and scientific. Her miniscule figures inhabit alternative realities that are constructed from stock photos and painted embellishments. Matthew Batty generates mythologies based upon the folklore of his southern upbringing and the realities of American capitalism. His immersive ecological environments posit new ways for humanity to coexist with our surrounding natural environments.
Other artists don’t necessarily work within a system of belief, but examine the ways in which systems of belief are cultivated between the artwork and the viewer. Lydia Enriquez’s sculptures, which resist material categorization, rely upon a suspension of belief by the viewer. The mysterious surfaces of the works could be real or faux marble—or perhaps something less material swimming beneath the surface. Heather Sincavage, Melissa Mohammadi, Ouyang Jing, Juan Camilo Guzman, and Ingrid Wells transform systems of belief into actions or rituals. In “A Transfiguration of Longing,” Sincavage, mirroring the rhythmic beating of the heart, raps a stone against a wall for seven hours. This durational performance piece explores how emotions evolve as we experience them, and how yearning can quickly turn into a more destructive form of longing. Mohammadi identifies and performs “tiny acts of labor” to recreate structures and patterns she finds in nature. Jing aligns the consumption of luxury goods—in this case the counterfeit purses and garments that play a seminal role in the Chinese economy—with the ritualistic tendencies of religious worship. Camilo Guzman and Wells explore the object as commodity and its propensity for ritualized aestheticization and mass reproduction.
D. S. Chapman, Tim Best, Kayla Seedig, Gracelee Lawrence, Andrea Mauery, Megan Van Groll, Jessamyn Plotts, and Allison Maria Rodriguez challenge existing systems of belief and the social construction of gender. Chapman uses her own body both as a signifier of trans femininity and as a material in which to perform, provoke, and complicate the rituals surrounding the construction of gender. Best complicates the long-established relationship between photographer and model, voyeur and subject. In the “POLISHED” series, the vulnerability of the subject (here the artist) is amplified by the physical erasure of the genitals. Similarly, Seedig uses experimental printmaking processes to obscure sex/gender signifiers and heighten the visceral presence of the body. In transforming female figures into fruits (particularly those, such as the pineapple, that have a documented history of capitalist commodity), Lawrence examines how eroticism and exoticism within the sculptural tradition have been shaped by patriarchal power dynamics. Mauery looks at the social position of hair as a gendered body part and attempts to pushes past the specificity of individuality to examine larger social and environmental issues.
The relationship between femininity and anger is explored by Van Groll in her hyperrealistic paintings depicting women at the height of fury. Plotts investigates the most salacious or disturbing moments of popular films. Neither the paintings (nor the accompanying text in Plotts’s work) reveals a cohesive narrative; instead they isolate moments of abject terror, pain, or anxiety. This allows us to consider the exact instances of sexual violence that are so often minimized within the larger context of the narrative. Rodriguez too examines trauma in “One Girl’s Fantasy,” a public seven-screen video installation that documents the voices of female-identifying artists who have utilized childhood fantasies to overcome extreme circumstances.
Finally, a small group of artists examine systems of belief in entirely literal ways. Chris Bexar distorts architectural photos in order to test the boundaries of what our brain will or will not believe to be real. Julia Dotter, Matthew Dercole, and Peter Nicholson similarly explore a very specific realm of psychological experience—the uncanny. Dotter examines the dissociative material quality of a football, the quintessential beacon of heteronormative masculinity in her home state of Texas. When ripped open it is transformed into something uncannily sensuous. The jarring and purposefully distasteful sculptures in Dercole’s “Asexual Appetite” series—an ice cream cone filled with worms, for example—speak to the human propensity for listlessness and a discontent with necessity. Nicholson’s photographs depict the quiet complexities of the human-altered landscape. Though framed in documentary-style, the photographs reveal elements such as a Hitchcockian flock of birds flying over a steeple or an inert body spread upon the pristine lawn of a state house that evoke the uncanny.
Click summary tiles to open each artist's Project page.
III. Artist as Archivist
With the rise of the Information Age, the artist has increasingly been identified as an archivist—sifting through, filtering, and processing the mass of cultural material (and detritus) stored online. Sydney Croskery’s drawings are composed of disparate objects pulled from computer database archiving systems via search functions. The process seems akin to that of automatic drawings produced by Surrealists, however rather than sifting through her own subconscious, Croskery relies on her collection of over three thousand digitally stored objects. AnnieLaurie Erickson adopts the form of the phenomena—digital surveillance—she is critiquing. Through a process of “counterveillance,” Erickson turns the probing lens back upon the elusive aggressor, exposing and creating archives of the seemingly impenetrable data centers. Yue Nakayama draws upon the aesthetic of the internet, overlaying a series of banal digital images and propositional phrases and audio files to frame ontological and political conversations.
Artists such as Cela Luz and Emily Baker mine their memories in much the same way others mine the internet and digital archives. Luz’s whimsical paintings of figures and objects navigating abstracted spaces mirror the artist’s navigation of her own recollections. Baker draws upon muscle memory to reenact the movements of her body as a child gymnast. Conversely, where Luz and Baker draw upon their memories as source material, Lana Waldrep-Appl, Katherine Spinella, Katie Kameen, and Sarah Blanchette create archives to preserve their memories. Waldrep-Appl examines the subtle beauty of nondescript spaces and mundane architecture that hold personal significance. Spinella utilizes digital and manual photographic and printmaking processes to archive her found object assemblages. Kameen strips everyday objects of their intended functionality, encouraging them to instead incite memory and spark communication. And Blanchette employs the practice of quilting as a form of documentation, drawing upon her own traumatic experiences as a young girl navigating virtual relationships and social platforms.
For another group of artists—particularly those with material-driven practices—their works serve as material archives of their process. For Jeanne Neal, the act of incising is as critical as the resulting abstracted forms. The encaustic material in her “Waxing Wary” series was chosen specifically for its reaction to, and documentation of, this physical act. Similarly, William Hall and Adria Arch relinquish control to their materials. Hall allows his process to wholly dictate the form of his bas-relief sculptures, whilst Arch takes a spontaneous action—such as a poured pooling of paint—as her compositional starting point. Kathy Robinson-Hays reuses past works and material experimentations, transforming these previously discarded vestiges into new paintings, sculptures, and installations.
Robert Calafiore, Lori Pond, Daniel Sullivan, Taylor O. Thomas, and Laura Lemna draw upon traditional (and non-traditional) art historical processes, in many instances calling upon methods and forms that have fallen out of popular use or favor. Calafiore’s tableaus of luminous glassware are reminiscent of the Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosity), still widely prevalent at the advent of photography. Calafiore grounds his practice in this era, experimenting solely with traditional non-lens-based photography processes. Pond too experiments with traditional 19th century photographic processes, weaving together art historical references (Hieronymus Bosch features prominently), fantastical characters, and elaborate narratives. Sullivan utilizes the grid—a staple of Modernism—to paradoxically deconstruct the compositions of his photographs. And the expressive brushstrokes and childlike scribbles in Thomas’s and Lemna’s paintings recall the aggressive, yet expressive, gestural actions of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly.
In reconsidering this selected sampling of works representative of the landscape of contemporary American art today, it is immensely clear that I have only just begun to touch upon the expansive and wholly complex practices of these forty-eight artists. Not only do many of the artists’ practices cross-pollinate within the thematic structures offered here, but they also generate discourse in areas well beyond the scope of this essay. However, I hope to have exemplified that these particular, urgent trends—the occupation of an expanded field, the cultivation and challenging of systems of belief, and the situation of art as archive—provide a critical, rather than totalizing framework for the examination of complex intersections of race, class, gender, and conflict. I have no doubt that these artists’ voices will be heard and that their singular efforts will further pave the way towards a counter-hegemonic “artworld.”