Left to right: Johanna Winters, SEEKUR (REDDYING), 2022; Harold Smith, Jr., Untitled (from the series Man of Color), 2019;
Johanna Winters, EN CAYSS UV ROMANSS, 2022; Harold Smith, Jr., Untitled (from the series Man of Color), 2022.
Featuring new work from three Charlotte Street Fellows — Andrew Mcilvaine, Harold Smith, Jr., and Johanna Winters — this year’s Charlotte Street Visual Artist Awards exhibition is a study in what it means to be seen. And although each artist embraces their own perspective and motivations, the concepts of identity and how people perceive one another permeate the installations.
Mcilvaine, who identifies as Mexican American, draws inspiration from his cultural and familial history in “Collision,” a richly detailed, yet austere, body of work involving mixed-media installations. The most impactful aspect of this contribution to the show is the artist’s exclusive use of black and white, a contrast that most humans are prepared to immediately recognize. In limiting himself to just two hues, Mcilvaine’s work has an aura of quiet dignity, and the juxtaposition lends a stronger effect to the skillfully executed embellishments and ornamentation that highlight the pieces.
“Collision” incorporates found materials that invoke an idea of modernity and affluence, such as athletic shoes, while also relying on more universal ingredients. This dialogue between the contemporary and traditional is perhaps best expressed in the work entitled “Skin and Chrome” (2022), which features a wooden altar reminiscent of the ofrendas used in some Mexican households to welcome home the spirits of departed loved ones on the Day of the Dead. The piece succeeds as an homage to Mexican heritage, but the anti-roosting spikes arrayed menacingly across the top of the altar suggest that not all wayward souls are truly welcome there. The dichotomy between life and death, the familiar and strange, and the past and present add just the right touch of provocative magical realism to “Skin and Chrome.”
Meanwhile, Harold Smith Jr. explores the concept of Black masculinity in his series “Man of Color.” The untitled acrylic on canvas portraits that comprise the collection feature headshots that betray varying degrees of abstraction and anguish. Notably, it is the dense, purposeful brushstrokes that do most of the heavy lifting here and imbue the characters with a life-like power.
The palette for some of the entries is dull and muted, and the facial expressions of those subjects is correspondingly morose. Other pieces broadcast every color of the rainbow, but Smith’s men still stare back with troubled eyes, almost inviting the viewer to lean in and ask “what’s wrong?” The answer, of course, belies a simple explanation, and the beauty of this series is the way in which Smith sensitively exposes the trauma inherent in being true to one’s own identity while navigating societal expectations and judgments.
Johanna Winters offers a poignant coda to the exhibition with her video installation “EN CAYSS UV ROMANS” (2022). The short film follows a humanoid creature, called the Protagonist, as she meanders through a forest and provocatively disrobes atop a bed. Made of paper mâché and acrylic, the Protagonist’s mask and costume present a gnarled, grotesque visage to the world. In rendering her character this way, Winters brilliantly captures the sociological phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” This theory suggests that as humans interact with artificial creations that resemble people, our emotional affinity toward them increases — up to a point. It is when such entities look almost human, but not quite exactly, that we tend to experience unease or even revulsion and find it much harder to empathize with or relate to the nearly human imposter.
As a metaphor for the genuine struggle of belonging and being accepted into a world that relentlessly demands perfection of its inhabitants — particularly women — Winters’s Protagonist serves an important role in enhancing the exhibition’s dialogue.
This year’s Charlotte Street Visual Artist Awardees speak with a potent voice, and their work both honors and critiques the challenges of being seen and valued for who we really are inside.
“2022 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Awards” continues at H&R Block Artspace, 16 E. 43rd St., through Dec. 10, 2022. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Closed Nov. 23-26; the gallery will hold an Artspace Open House from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 2. For more information, visit www.kcai.edu/artspace