We count on artists to interrupt the smooth narratives fed to us by conventional media. The artists in this small exhibition of work from the Nerman collection each face, or confront, a different figure, event, or cultural zeitgeist.
Douglas Miles’ “Douglas Miles Jr. at the Fort” (2018) is a black and white photo of the artist’s son printed on a large fabric rectangle. In the image his son stands in front of the Fort Duchesne, Utah, office of the BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Created in 1824 with the Federal mandate to “subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives,” the BIA has been justly regarded with hostility by Native American peoples for its suppression of American Indian culture and people.
Over time, the BIA’s original mandate has changed and defines its role as a partner with tribes. Here, the artist’s son holds a skateboard made by his father’s company, Apache Skateboards. By printing on fleece, a widely available material, which is warm and comforting, Miles melds the contemporary photo of his son, who stands with the relaxed assurance of youth, with the meaningful tradition of Native American blanket giving, bridging time and cultures. The younger Miles telegraphs cool self-possession and he dominates the image and the BIA sign, perhaps a repudiation of the federal government’s historically devastating role in Native American lives.
Carlos Vega’s “Ziauddin’s Pride” (2015) is a painting of Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Malala Yosafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and went on to become an activist for female education; Ziauddin is her father. Minimally sketched and lightly painted on a sheet of lead, the piece shows Malala seated with a book in her hand. Beside her, smoke rises from a lamp and small cutouts in the lead reveal faces of influential women, both real and fictional, including Freda Kahlo, Queen Elizabeth II, Wonder Woman, Indira Gandhi, and others.
Pictured isolated on this dark and penetrated surface, Malala appears much older than her young years; in fact, rather than a likeness, the image is more of a stylized icon. Through the violent assault on her person and her refusal to succumb, Malala, standing in for all survivors, has become a galvanizing figure of resistance, yet here, her isolation, despite the addition of other women icons, feels real and quite poignant.
Ed Blackburn’s “Painting No. 6, Prince of the City” (1988) is one of his customary paintings appropriating images from film and television. Actor Treat Williams, briefly popular in the early 80s, (and a cousin of one of my college dorm mates; we thought he’d be a big star) interacts with a co-star from Sidney Lumet’s 1981 film “Prince of the City.”
Rendered in his typical brushy and sketchy style, Blackburn’s painting suggests the collapsed borders between Hollywood, visual art, fantasy, big business, and popular culture. The painting has a Pop art sensibility without Pop’s sharp irony and hard edges; yet in the end we understand that it’s the capitalist enterprise that defines the Hollywood imagery we willingly consume in the guise of art and escapism.
Kansas native Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton’s colored pencil drawings, “Commemorative to Artists of the Holocaust” and “Pandora’s Box” focusing on the world’s ills, are darkly pessimistic, despite their bright pastel colors. Both works are crammed with imagery and text, explicitly narrating themselves. Layton’s work often gives voice to the darkness she felt not only inside of herself, but in the world.
Archie Scott Gobber’s series “America Gets Back to Normal” (2002) underlines emotional ideology after the events of 9/11. In these works on paper, Gobber appropriates “LIFE” magazine’s iconic masthead and combines it with the text “America Gets Back to Normal” and Norman Rockwell-esque vignettes of Americana. Yet, he fills the images’ skies with darkly ominous smoke clouds.
Known for his ironic wordplay, Gobber challenges the idea that America would ever be back to any kind of normal after 9/11, and even challenges whether this idealized life ever existed in the first place. These figures — people hugging kids, planting flowers, driving cars — inhabit an airless space, while the word “LIFE” exists in the darkness of the smoke, as if to indicate that life may be smothered by toxic darkness. The works telegraph vulnerability and discomfortingly eschew the idea that we were ever invulnerable to begin with.
“FACE: Ed Blackburn · Archie Scott Gobber · Elizabeth ‘Grandma’ Layton · Douglas Miles · Carlos Vega” continues in the Kansas Focus Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through June 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org