The exhibition “Socially Engaged” at the Welch Galleries at Georgia State University is both visually and conceptually engaging, not always an attainable combination. This fantastic sample of mostly recent photo and video work by seven artists – six women and one man – addresses issues central to identity politics such as race, sexuality, and gender. Each piece owes something to performance art. Guest curator Brenda Massie sees this work as emerging from brazen performance artists of the 1960s, such as Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, and similarly “challenging the status quo.” It’s a timely show, especially given that today’s divisive political climate has compelled artists to respond. The works here raise more questions than they can answer, but they bear the weight well.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s early The Notion of Family series is one of the best projects by an American photographer in the past decade, and it’s represented here by three silver gelatin prints including Shadow (2008), a striking composition of the artist with her mother, and Frazier’s fierce topless self-portrait. This work intimately portrays the lives of poor African Americans left behind in the urban waste of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former industrial city. Frazier draws from both the staged quality of Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table series and the rawness of classic documentary work such as Bruce Davidson’s photos of East Harlem tenements. Yet it’s her highly personal perspective from within a marginalized economic underworld that conveys an unvarnished directness and vulnerability that makes this work stand out as both art and social commentary.
More problematic is an Art21 video related to Frazier’s follow-up series responding to a misguided Levi’s ad campaign for its hipster consumers that presents Braddock as a site of authenticity without acknowledging the city’s tortured history. The video captures a performance by Frazier clad in Levi’s jeans, which she rubs ragged on the sidewalk while observers watch from inside a Levi’s photo workshop in New York’s SoHo. It’s a dynamic spectacle, but what’s the political efficacy? Does Frazier’s use of her own body personalize a larger economic violence or mostly just inscribe her own star power?
The performance strikes me as an example of an artist responding to critical and market success with a more overtly activist approach that ultimately distracts from their real talent – in this case, the harder, more resonant truth-telling of Frazier’s photos. Frazier seems to sense this work’s insufficiency as social action. In an interview segment, she says it’s her job as artist to ask hard questions. But she then states she most wants to go back to Braddock not as an artist but as a citizen and do something more direct to improve her community.
Limits to socially engaged artmaking have prompted the rise of social practice art, for which artists embed within a community to effect change, if only instilling some sense of agency. The show’s one example of this – and notably, the only example where an artist crosses racial lines – is white Chicago-based artist Cheryl Pope. For One of Many, One (2014), Pope worked with 25 Chicago teens who had lost friends to gun violence and produced portraits of the victims on T-shirts marked “In Loving Memory, RIP.” The video shows one teen after another covered in layers of shirts and gradually slipping them over their heads onto another participant. The ritual memorializing to this endless exchange works as art, but the video also documents a real-world community engagement in the art’s making.
In Portrait of a Man (2016), Pope uses a police body camera to record a well-dressed young African American man alternately walking through city streets and wading deeper into a bay as the sky and water turn darker shades of blue with nightfall. The piece suggests an ineffable release from the paranoia that results from persistent surveillance and racial profiling. Yet, by foregrounding her use of the body camera – it sits in a display case below the video screen – Pope underscores an interpretation that isn’t necessarily earned in the normal process of viewer identification with a character given this short 9-minute film lacks dialogue. This raises an issue surrounding much socially engaged art, that it preaches to a choir that can sketch in the requisite background histories and cultural codes in order to “get” the artist’s meaning.
Most of the show’s work is content to operate within traditional image-making limits. The short video by Christina Price Washington, the lone Atlanta-based artist, is formally beautiful and deals obliquely with troubled domesticity. Its shattering and unshattering teacups create an urgent percussive sound that fills the gallery.
More playful and direct are three digital C-prints by Chinese-born photographer Pixy Liao, who collaborates with her male partner Moro to reimagine gender roles in a heterosexual relationship. Liao’s humor initially makes this work feel slight, but it’s disarmingly effective. The standout Start Your Day with a Good Breakfast Together (2009) depicts Moro sprawled naked on a kitchen table surrounded by toast and juice while Liao eats from a papaya covering his genitals. It’s male castration without the anxiety, and a memorable image.
Deborah Bright’s late 1980s pre-digital photo interventions are the historical outlier in the show. In a panel discussion at GSU, Bright talked about growing up watching movies and wanting to be the hero who had adventures and won the heroine’s love. In her Dream Girls series, she slyly creates this new position for desire by inserting images of herself into stills from classic Hollywood films such as Adam’s Rib and East of Eden. These images call to mind Cindy Sherman’s influential Untitled Film Stills but offer an updated gender-identity alternative.
If this work now seems dated, The Management of Desire (1993), Bright’s riff on Thomas Eakins’s famous realist painting The Agnew Clinic (1889) feels surprising and fresh. It highlights that the surgery Eakins depicted is a woman’s mastectomy and that there amid the action is a portrait of Mary V. Clymer, one of the first women trained to assist in surgical procedures. Playing against the destructive language of disease once used to characterize lesbian desire, Bright boldly reimagines Manet’s Olympia as a self-portrait with her as the reclining nude, a mastectomy scar across her chest, and Clymer as the attending nursemaid standing behind her.
The best known artist in the show, Marilyn Minter, has a “bad girl” reputation for working with male porn and her own provocative photos. The well-received Minter retrospective “Dirty/Pretty” toured the country in 2015-16, and her Green Pink Caviar video was recently featured in the “Gut Feelings” show at Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum. Her champions argue her work twists fashion advertising to open up space for an empowered female sexuality. Minter typically works with candy-colored Photoshopped images of female body parts (mouths, feet in high heels, pubic hair). These images find their more complete fulfillment in large, lushly arresting enamel paintings.
Minter’s hypnotic 8-minute video Smash, on view here, nicely represents her visually stunning aesthetic. Shot at 700 frames per second for crisp super-slow motion, Smash captures a woman’s feet in 4-inch stiletto heels bejeweled with colorful baubles and dancing amid periodic deluges of silver paint. The drama in this confined, hyperreal world unfolds when one foot shatters the unnoticed fourth wall glass separating the viewer from the action. Fashion may be a smart woman’s guilty pleasure, as Minter has noted, but the visual fetishizing in Smash risks mere complicity with the codes she claims to critique. Deconstructed cheesecake may have more aesthetic interest than the mainstream fare, but we’re still talking empty calories.
The sole male artist in the exhibition, Kerry Skarbakka, is best known for dramatic staged photos of himself falling, a metaphor for personal and social instability. His inkjet prints here are less arresting and more conceptually confused. Billy Jack No.7 (2015) shows one white man in a suit held in a painful chokehold by another. A mantle display with three portraits of Skarbakka suggests an embattled male arc as an eager boy in cowboy hat becomes an anxious young soldier and later a grizzled survivalist. This work seems to explore and stand-in for the damaged and damaging white male rage underlying Trump’s America, though to what effect is unclear.
More unclear is why this compelling show doesn’t contest or complicate the limits increasingly set by identity politics on who can make socially engaged work and about whom. After all, 2017 has seen several controversies within the mostly progressive art world, most prominently the firestorm set off by the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial of white artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket that depicts mutilated Civil Rights icon Emmett Till. Massie’s curatorial statement advocates for the integrity and freedom of the individual, the “self-self” as opposed to the historically burdened, socially constructed self. Yet the artworks here show artists working almost strictly within their own identity categories; only Pope seems to have earned a travel visa and then only into other well-defined categories. Artists and curators must allow for a messier, less doctrinaire terrain than that.
“Socially Engaged: Performance and Photography/Video” is on view through November 10.
Louis Corrigan is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.