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An Art Exhibit Considering Our Collective Future

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If an artist makes new work during a pandemic, is it automatically considered “pandemic art”? While many artists create in response to current events, which can imbue the work with relevance, others create to deliberately escape from reality. However, during the pandemic, even art made to promote an escape to a better, safer, or more healthy space was created within the context of COVID-19. Whether or not an artist chooses to directly address current conditions, politics, and social movements, either way, in the past year they were making art in response to the largest medical and economic crisis of our time. What’s interesting is that, in both scenarios, artists are envisioning solutions to the problems that plague all of us. In bringing their vision into focus as physical objects, they present new paths we can take as a society.

Spark IV, an exhibit produced for the past three years during the festival Light City as a collaboration between Towson University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), presents a convincing case for a collective and multifaceted vision for the future. Hosted this year at Maryland Art Place and curated by Catherine Borg, the exhibit considers a number of interrelated and overlapping themes—“altered time, imagined places, future focus, climate horizon, and equitable future”—with many of the works addressing several concepts at once, within different layers and contexts.

This large multimedia group exhibition, up through June 26, considers the impact of the dramatic mass shutdown in March 2020 upon minds, bodies, and society as a whole. While isolated at home and focused on individual glowing screens for connection, we watched as painful truths were laid bare about inequality, public health and safety, and police brutality and racism, especially after more extrajudicial police killings of Black Americans in 2020 and the subsequent protests that arose across the world. The premise of the exhibition Spark IV posits that once most aspects of normal life were taken away, artists were free to imagine new narratives for our individual and collective lives, both for the present and the future. The artists in this exhibit look to the past for insight and attempt to provide models for collective action, adaptation, healing, and the possibility of building something better going forward.

Jon Lundak’s “Simulated Travel: yet, my bags remained empty”

When everyday experiences were abruptly forbidden and previously mundane activities became a kind of fantasy, the resulting isolation and an altered sense of time became bewildering or traumatic for many individuals. Some artists reacted to this experience by elevating, and even fetishizing, previously common but now restricted experiences and creating objects that venerate our former lives. Travel is one of these experiences that suddenly disappeared in March 2020. The news reported total chaos in airports and governments revoked or limited international travel, instructing us all to stay at home.

This fear and sudden lack of mobility are addressed in Spark IV with two small inflatable backpack sculptures near the front of the gallery. In contrast to the widespread terror around travel and frustration with travel restrictions, Jon Lundak’s “Simulated Travel: yet, my bags remained empty” (2021), made of sailcloth with interior fans, buzzes with an interior energy that suggests their potential, but as art objects they offer no practical use.

Like a readymade, where a common thing is presented as an art object so that the viewer can appreciate their design abstractly or metaphorically, their function is not to hold and carry, but to represent. Lundak’s hand-made objects offer an ironic critique: despite their apparent potential for use and stylish exterior, they are inflatable icons to the idea of travel, an everyday pastime that became an exotic fantasy during the pandemic. These demure objects speak to the longing for our lives before COVID-19, for the simple activities that previously gave us pleasure, a totem to mourning for the past.

 

Safiyah Cheatam, “Freedom Farm Dreams"
Nahid Tootoonchi, "BLM" (ink on paper)

In contrast with the playfulness of Lundak’s backpacks, a number of artists in the exhibit present works that overtly address the historical, social, and political issues of our time with clearly stated urgency. Safiyah Cheatam’s “Freedom Farm Dreams,” a small framed Afrofuturist portrait in green and brown ink, celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist and voting rights organizer who, among other things, advocated for agricultural sustainability in the South. Hanging next to it, a lyrical calligraphic painting in blue-green ink with red accents by Towson University professor Nahid Tootoonchi, offers an elegant abstract composition. However, once you realize that the calligraphy spells out “BLM,” the title of the painting written in Farsi over and over, the meaning of the seemingly abstract piece transforms into activism.

Rahne Alexander’s “I Am the End of the Patriarchy and So Can You (center panel),” with hand-painted words on silk, spells out a 21st-century transfeminist manifesto in purple, with lines like “Unlearn” and “Banish Every Binary.” Originally part of a series of three, the banner works in conjunction with Cheatam and Tootoonchi and other artists in the gallery to present a multi-faceted map for social justice for those whose existence is oppressed in America. Collectively, these and others on view speak with determination based upon lived experiences and draw attention to the copious omissions in US history for marginalized people and the need for structural change within power systems.

Foreground: Carrie Fucile (installation), with Rahne Alexander, Evan Tedlock, and Kimberly Hopkins on back wall
MAP Gallery with Carrie Fucile installation in foreground, with Kelley Bell and Melissa Penley Cormier, Jon Lundak, Samantha Sethi, Irene Chan, and Sarah G. Sharp
Evan Tedlock, “Occam’s Frame”
Evan Tedlock, “Occam’s Frame” - viewed through external screen

Evan Tedlock’s installation “Occam’s Frame” features two computer screens placed low, on cinder blocks, and perpendicular to each other with the word “white” on each. However, hanging from the ceiling are additional clear frames, which look like mirrors, through which you can look, where the “white” screens transform into bold color. On the left, the screen reads “TERRORISM” and the right says “HEROISM.”

Additional information appears on the screen and reads mainly as colorful flashes, but is based upon data collected by the Center for Strategic and International Studies listing terrorism incidents, including mass shootings and white supremacist violence, on US soil from 1994 to January 2021. The flashes in color, viewable only through the hanging frames, equate to dates on which terrorist actions occurred, and a succession of flashes indicates an increase in such activities. The distance and height of each frame cleverly alter the viewer’s ability to read through them: some are easier to see and some more difficult, based upon your height and your physical position. This vision accentuates which view of whiteness—terrorism or heroism—is most prevalent and visible in America today and the disparity and division between the two views.

After the abject failure of our government to protect Americans from COVID-19 or to provide essential healthcare services during the start of the pandemic, one artwork stands out in Spark IV to address this failure with sensitivity and empathy. Monique Crabb’s “I’m Sorry” (2020), is a large quilt made with plant-dyed fabric, wool batting, and thread, and it functions as “a soft and unstable monument to the unavoidable nature of loss and turmoil.” Centered over a baby-blue tie-dyed background is a large brown tornado shape. Coming in closer, you can read the words “I’m sorry” stitched in a looping cursive text. This open-ended message captures collective grief around a year full of unnecessary loss and death due to the pandemic and racist violence.

Will we learn from our mistakes and do better in the future? Or is this apology our new mantra for failure? Either way, it captures the feeling of defeat during the past year and the elusive comfort we sought, especially during times of retreat and despair.

Kat Navarro "Watch the hand that sews," (video) and Monique Crabb, "I'm Sorry," (quilt)
Amanda Burnham, “Material Disconnect”

Some works in Spark IV present an interior vision of the artist’s mind, which mirrors the mental instability shared by society at large. Amanda Burnham’s two framed collages in warm rich color and a barrage of contrasting forms are one of just a few painting-like works in the show. From a distance they are harmonious and the colors beckon. However, in “Material Disconnect” (2020) and “Self Care” (2021), both digital collages, a closer read reveals scenes of conflict and trauma, where hand-drawn and painted elements have been scanned and repeated, printed and cut out, and then reassembled. This process works well for Burnham, who has created much larger installations in a similar Guston-like cartoon style, with the small-scale offering the same energy and contrast as her larger works. Whether these visions offer a sense of unease or comfort or both, they represent a fractured mindset shared collectively. 

Particularly for the past year, there was a shared sense of the importance of media, of addiction to news, and of the power of television and video. For anyone who consumes news and media regularly, the author of the story—whether Tucker Carlson or Soledad O’Brien—is worth consideration. News and media are not neutral, and the story’s source, and their own agenda, research, and credibility, matter. One boldly patterned work that appears to be decorative wallpaper but reveals itself to be a vision for empowered media is Sarah G. Sharp’s “Women Looking / Camerawoman” (2021).

The custom-designed wallpaper with a black-and-white diamond pattern depicts a tight grid of proliferating Rosie the Riveter-styled women carrying a large, phallic film camera. The pattern was made from images from an underground feminist publication from the early 1970s and speaks to the revolutionary and transformative power of media, in particular film and TV. This work also considers the democratizing impact of early public access TV, which was considered “the many speaking to the many,” and in that way is similar to social media today. “Women Looking” also references our current media landscape where “alternative facts” and news, social media, and entertainment media all reinforce our viewpoints.

Sarah G. Sharp’s “Women Looking / Camerawoman” (wallpaper)
Lynn Cazabon, "Ecobiant: Regeneration," (four-channel video)

Lynn Cazabon’s “Ecobiont: Regeneration” (2021), a four-channel video displayed on a monitor, offers a heady deep dive into environmental science, specifically the work of scientists at the Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) in Baltimore. The entire project is a nine-part series of visual stories exploring the work of scientists and staff, and focuses on different aspects of the sustainable land-based aquaculture system in development at IMET, prompted by massive overfishing and collapse of fish populations around the world. Cazabon’s video offers a static view of a scientific lab, which is occasionally interrupted by the movement of a person coming through.

It’s subtle, but it points to the rigor and research-based aspect of this work, completed at its own pace and over many years. In Spark IV, the final part of this aquaculture system, in which microorganisms are cultivated to generate energy from fish waste, is depicted. Although it may seem abstract or dry to observe an artist’s video of scientific lab equipment in use, this research may play a huge role in how humans obtain fish for food in the future, a forward-looking strategy toward survival in the face of our oceans’ failure and as such, it deserves our rapt attention.

A number of multimedia works on display in Spark IV address these pertinent themes in a variety of overlapping ways, and the show also offers an excellent opportunity to experience the varied expertise of professors and graduate students from UMBC and Towson University, which often do not receive as much attention as MICA, but deserve it. The full list of exhibiting artist includes Amanda Burnham, Beth Yashnyk, Carrie Fucile, Evan Tedlock, Foster Reynolds Santiago, Grace Doyle, Irene Chan, Jenn Figg and Matthew McCormack, Jenny O’Grady, Jim Doran, Jon Lundak, Kelley Bell and Melissa Penley Cormier, Kyohei Abe, Luci Jockel, Lynn Cazabon, Monique Crabb, Nahid Tootoonchi, Jenee Mateer, Kat Navarro, Kimberly Hopkins, Rahne Alexander, Ryan Shelley, Safiyah Cheatam, Samantha Sethi, Sarah G. Sharp, Sookkyung Park, and Stephen Bradley.

As the show winds to a close, MAP will host “I Want to Be,” a performance by artists Anna Kroll and Chloe Engel, on June 25 at 7 p.m. The third in a series of three improvisational performances that occur via telephone conference call and envision imaginary realities, the audience can attend by calling a phone number at a certain time, and a live-captioned version will also be simultaneously available. For more information, visit www.sparkbaltimore.org.

 

Irene Chan, "I-Ching Cards," Artist book and interactive cards
Sarah G. Sharp, "Shelter and Land Use," 2017, Denim, embroidery thread, vinyl fringe, wood

Header Image: works by Nahid Tootoonchi, Safiyah Cheatam, Jenee Mateer, Sarah Sharp, and Sookkyung Park (foreground sculpture)

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