Aicha Woods and Dave Coon have co-curated “Broad Stripes and Bright Stars,” a thoughtful group exhibition on view at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art through August 13 that focuses how artists are using the American flag as image, object, and symbol. Zachary Keeting, artist and co-founder of Gorky’s Granddaughter, sat down with co-curator Aicha Woods to discuss the artist’s role in the current political discourse. “As curators we are not trying to change anyone’s political orientation, just encourage wakefulness, for which I think artists, and good art, are effective inducement.”
Zachary Keeting: Recently in Artforum, Agnieszka Kurant discusses the concept of interregnum: “the period of crisis when an old social order is dying and the new is not yet born. In this disorienting moment, ideological allegiances are fleeting, and hearts and minds are dangerously up for grabs.” We frequently hear it mentioned that our nation is in a moment of crisis. Perhaps some of the struggles we see around us are repercussions of an empire-in-decline. Have you seen evidence of this in the works you’ve selected for the exhibition? Or does the nation seem stronger than ever?
Aicha Woods: Yes, Dave [Coon, co-curator] and I do agree we are in a moment of crises, but not a new one. Rather, one that’s been gaining momentum for a long time, that all of us need to wake up to. Many works in the show reference long festering crises such as endless war, climate change, inequality, migrations and boundaries.
On the other hand, I believe the show is fundamentally optimistic. Because, even if at times the selections are uncomfortable and dissonant, they present positive challenges. Instead of reinforcing ideological allegiances, the art encourages looking and listening.
We keep returning to an excerpt from the 1974 Supreme Court Case Spence vs Washington: “It might be said that we all draw something from our national symbol, for it is capable of conveying simultaneously a spectrum of meanings.”
A basic premise of the show is that the American Flag is an absorptive vessel that can take whatever gets poured upon it. This makes it interesting.
Artists build things that are complex, nuanced and specific. Ideally, this show will offer some resistance to the current cultural and political trend of over simplification, of the tendency to frame ideas within strident “us vs. them” stances. Our aim is to test the flexibility of the American flag as a symbol, and as an object.
The show had been percolating for some years. Dave, in particular, has long been drawn artists engaged with the flag (from Jasper Johns to Faith Ringgold to Dread Scott) as well as taking note of flag imagery in everyday life. The ubiquity of the American Flag in the aftermath of 9/11 has been recharged dramatically by the recent election cycle. So the timing of this exhibit seems just right.
ZK: Kurant goes on: “the idea that art itself can be an instrument of social change, is inapt, since art is a polyvalent activity rooted in shifting meanings. Because art influences reality in nonlinear, unpredictable ways, it cannot be instrumentalized as a tool of political activism. New conditions on the ground require the recognition that tools for change must be found elsewhere.” Does this statement square with what you’ve curated into the exhibition? Is the notion of societal activism – through artistic expression – generally held in high regard amongst the artists you’ve brought together? Or is such ambition futile?
AW: Precisely because the nature of art is to influence in “non linear, unpredictable ways” it is effective in opening eyes, having us think differently in ways that go beyond ideological constructs.
There are some great examples of works in the show by artists who have committed their careers (or particular past projects) to activism and positive societal outcomes. Going back to the 60s, this is certainly true of Sister Corita Kent. Also, Marc Morell, whose seminal exhibitions were directly engaged in protesting the Vietnam war.
For a current example, you can look to the Justseeds Collective. Fernando Marti and Josh McPhee (among others in the group) continue a graphic tradition of protest posters.
I’d like to mention the company Jay Critchley’s formed in 1989: The Old Glory Condom Corporation. He did so to bring added attention to the AIDS epidemic. His use of the flag as a brand was denied by the U.S. Trademark Office, a decision he fought and won. Critchley has continued many activist projects to this day, and remains very engaged in the Provincetown, Massachusetts, community.
ZK: Is it remotely possible to expect a poster, or a sculpture, situated here in a beautiful Victorian building, to change someone’s political orientation, even incrementally?
AW: All works are inherently political. In fact, the notion of having the choice to be neutral – or disengaged – is privileged, and assumes a comfort with a status quo. I don’t think the question is about ambition with regards to “societal activism” or promoting a particular ideology, it is more about survival, and understanding, and shining a light on what’s going on.
Both Merritt Johnson and Eli Wright are artists who shared their art at Standing Rock. Merritt Johnson’s performance Waving the Red Flag is an elemental and gorgeous piece, a work that clearly embodies action. In and of itself, it exerts the power of change. It’s not a representation of a political message, it is something that literally shifts molecules.
As curators we are not trying to change anyone’s political orientation, just encourage wakefulness, for which I think artists, and good art, are effective inducement.
ZK: There’s an interesting article in the most recent issue of Harpers’ Magazine by Masha Gessen. She argues that our current state of affairs (endless war on terror, incremental infringements upon civil rights, the escalation of a militarized police state) has deep roots: “The war that began in 2001 is unlike other wars: The enemy is not a nation or an army but a tactic, one that has existed for millennia. This war cannot be won, because a tactic cannot be eradicated. A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not. Nor have the liberties surrendered by Americans in response to 9/11 been restored.” Is there a sense that things are worsening, or are some artists you’ve selected openly celebratory toward the state? Is the flag a stand-in for the government, or something else entirely?
AW: This show is about real people, and particularly, deeply personal responses to the image of the flag. In the response to the first question, we believe the current state of affairs has deep roots. The show itself has its conceptual origins in the aftermath of 9/11 and the uneasy ubiquity of flag waving. This was, of course, soon followed by military engagement, and the erosion of civil liberties. That said, we as curators are not taking a position about the “state” or “government” as abstract entities, we’ve tried to organize an exhibition more about everyday experiences.
For example, Natalie Baxter’s twisted, sparkly-soft sculpture America, Current Mood from her “Bloated Flag” series conveys (with humor) fraught, ambivalent feelings of patriotism and dissent. Much of Baxter’s work is rooted in her family heritage from eastern Kentucky. This is apparent in both in her use of traditional craft practices as well as her videos of Appalachian life. Another of her small, glitter-encrusted wall-mounted sculptures is entitled People will think you are making a Trump flag.
Likewise, Destiny Palmer situates her work through family history research in North Carolina, and the legacy of cotton: a ubiquitous art material (canvas) with incredible sociological weight in African American history. In her bold abstract composition of fabrics, she layers found pieces of cloth patterned in stripes and stars evocative of a confederate flag, with African textiles, ordinary household linens, and raw cotton. It’s entitled Layers Of Pride Come With Truth.
ZK: Gessen continues: “in The Power of the Powerless the Czech dissident Václav Havel described an individual who ‘lives within a lie,’ the lie of the official ideology, without consciously accepting or rejecting it. Totalitarianism robs a person of the very ability to form an opinion.” Does this powerlessness seem evident in the show, is anxiety and dread a recurring theme, or does the image of an American flag engender strength?
AW: I think one of the most on-point pieces in the show (in this regard) is Maria Stabio’s I Voted from 2017, which super imposes English and Filipino words. It reminds us to look at populist and nationalist movements in a global context, not just as an American situation. Many of the works in the show are about survival and resilience and truth.
ZK: I’m curious to know more about the flag’s role in specific works: how it operates as a vessel for symbolism, how it functions as an ingredient in larger pictorial / performative contexts? Is this particular symbol an easy target? Is the flag most frequently summoned as a shortcut for attacks of grievance? Or have you found it also lauded, cherished, loved?
AW: Citizen Project is a group of designers who made proposals for a new flag on the 200th anniversary of the flag’s design. Mark Olshansky’s cross stitch piece called Betsy Ross’s Doodles is a playfully imaginative take on how the first American flag was designed. To me, the works of Jane Fine and Michael St. John and Christopher Crawford consistently show a tenderness and vulnerability in the use of flag imagery.
ZK: I’m sure some Americans are made uneasy encountering American flags within critical visual contexts. Dread Scott’s What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag? comes to mind. Is this a hang-up anywhere else in the world? Does this unease percolate through your show?
AW: Annie Thornton’s piece documents the burning of a flag at Hampshire College on Nov 9, 2016, which elicited a well covered protest by veterans, as well as a Tweet from the new president, suggesting flag burners should be jailed. This does highlight the tenuousness of the present situation, and the need to fight for protections with regards to the first amendment.
Marc Morrel’s exhibition in 1966 resulted in the arrest of gallery owner Steve Radich. We have an installation photograph on display of this important show.
Stanley Forman’s iconic Pulitzer Prize photo of a school desegregation protester using the flag as a weapon is a punch in the gut image. It offends, but it’s also a piece of evidence.
ZK: Sweeping generalities can be dreadful in art. How did you steer clear of this dilemma, within this theme? I’m also curious: did you intentionally include any pieces that willfully topple into propaganda? Or any that successfully co-opt the tropes of propaganda for surprising critical ends?
AW: There are several artists who are also veterans in this show. All have made excruciating sacrifices in the line of duty. These are real and visceral facts and not at all platitudes. It’s interesting to look at how the various veterans display fierce generosity, empathy, and respect toward their fellow vets, while also downplaying their own particular tour of duty, and service. One piece that the local Veterans of Foreign Wars will contribute to the show is a flag retirement ceremony on August 13th. We do have a piece of outright government propaganda: a WWII poster on loan from The New Haven Museum.
In terms of subverting propaganda, Art Codex’s playful and biting riffs on the Gadsden Flag is most apropos. They subvert the flag (originally a Marines flag, co-opted by the Tea Party) in their installation piece, United Snakes of America.
ZK: Would you like to talk about the challenges of organizing such a large assortment of artworks (spanning decades) embodying adversarial aesthetics and sentiment? Diversity doesn’t necessarily imply cohesion. Is this the point?
AW: This has been a wonderful experience. We cast a very wide net, including a broad range of practices from photography and graphic design, to painting, installation, and video works. We’ve included local self taught artists, and those of national renown. We made a very deliberate effort not to pitch our own agenda or political views upon the participants.
I don’t think any of the works are adversarial, but they do bring specific and distinct viewpoints together to create a very lively, and truly moving (as in opening eyes) experience for all audiences. ###
“Broad Stripes and Bright Stars,” curated by Aicha Woods and Dave Coon. Artists and contributors include Alteronce Gumby, Annie C. Thornton, Artcodex, Aude Jomini, Azzah Sultan, Bean Gilsdorf, Brian Edlefson, Buildface, Carol Diehl, Caitlin Cherry, Chico Aragao, Cey Adams, Chen Reichert, Chris Crawford, Christine Tinsley, Consuelo J. Underwood, Sr. Corita Kent, Daniel Eugene, Danna Singer, Daze, Destiny Palmer, Dooley-o, Eli Wright, Erika Ranee, Esperanza Mayobre, Gabriella Svenningsen, Helen Zughaib, Icebucket, Insook Hwang, James Esber, Jane Fine, Jay Critchley, Jeff Mueller/Dexterity Press, Jesse Albrecht, Jim Martin, John T Hill, Jody Williams, Karin Schaefer, Laura Genes, Laura Marsh, Laurel Porcari, Leslie Carmin, Lex Brown, Lisa Kereszi, Marion Belanger, Marc Morrel, Mark Olshansky, Mark Williams, Martha Lewis, Mauricio Cortes Ortega, Merritt Johnson, Michael Nÿkamp, Michael St John, Moussa Gueye, Natalie Ball, Natalie Baxter, New Haven Museum, Noe Jimenez, Paolo Arao, Phil Lique, Philip Knoll, Price Harrison, Rashmi, Robert D’alessandro, Robert Longo, Ruben Marroquin, Sket One, Stanley Forman, Stanwyck Cromwell, Sue Muskat, Susan Clinard, Stephen Shore, Sven Martson, Terrance Weinzierl, Tizzie Mills, Tom Strong, Vic De La Rosa, Walker Evans, Wayne Koestenbaum, Zeph Farmby and Zim-one. Ely Center of Contemporary Art, New Haven, CT. Through August 13, 2017.