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Boston Society of Architects

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Identity politics

At Mass MoCA, four artists chronicle material culture, memory, race, and resistance

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Trenton Doyle Hancock, Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass.

Photo by Tony Luong, Courtesy of Mass MoCA

In a year when Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, a stainless-steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny, fetched the highest price at auction ($91 million) for a work by a living artist, Pop Art seems to be fulfilling a manifest destiny of sorts in the domination of the art market. In the past dozen years, Koons has twice set auction records, and when one looks at the records set by living artists in the past three decades, the list is dominated by Pop Art white male artists: David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, and Koons.

Koons’ work embodies the deeply superficial commercial ethos nurtured by Andy Warhol, and this relationship to the art market makes it easy to reduce Pop Art into sound bites of inoffensive, universally recognizable, appropriated imagery and garishly tinted portraits of movie stars. However, the foundations of early Pop Art were a reaction to and critique of the excesses of the post–World War II era’s overindulgent American consumer culture. So what has happened to that criticality? Outside the 1 percent of mega-artists and mega-rich investor collectors, how does the 99 percent navigate Pop Art’s legacy in order to find meaning in a commercialized, mostly white, mostly male-dominated America in 2019? The answer may reside in the seam between personal and cultural memory explored through the work of four artists currently on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams.

Using a vibrant palette of both traditional and new materials, Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson presents an installation of contemporary art versions of American Indian Fancy Dance regalia similar to ones worn during competitive dancing at powwows. His work is included in the group exhibition Suffering From Realness. Once banned by white colonizers during westward expansion, native dancing was forced underground; today, it has become a way for tribes to preserve and share their traditions and cultural identity. By infusing this history with references to current events—in fabric containing printed reproductions of President Trump’s tweets disparaging the transgender community, news headlines about Bears Ears National Monument, bruised and battered emojis—Gibson’s work takes on new resonance in a contemporary America that has largely forgotten its oppressive past and present.

In a 2017 tweet, film director Jordan Peele characterizes the “sunken place” into which the black protagonist falls in his debut film Get Out to mean African Americans are marginalized: “No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” In both Get Out and his more recent Us, Peele uses the guise of the horror-film genre to talk about issues of race, class, agency, and identity within our current culture of political discord, social dissonance, and racial inequity.

Jeffrey Gibson, People Like Us. Photo by Kaelan Burkett, Courtesy of Mass MoCA

Gibson seems to be describing the “sunken place” of the historical trauma endured by native peoples as well as that of the LGBTQ community in the Trump era. His ceremonial outfits contain other printed panels bearing phrases such as “Speak to me so that I can understand” and “People like us.” These declarations create a poignant ambiguity; are they rallying cries, responses to racial trolling, or pointing to a greater, systemically imposed social pathology?

Pointedly demonstrating against the commercialization of racial trauma in the art world and popular culture, Cauleen Smith’s hand-sewn fabric banners proclaim statements such as “My pathology is your profit” and “Leave me for the crows.” However, in another body of work included in her expansive solo exhibition titled We Already Have What We Need at Mass MoCA, Smith ultimately gives us hope and, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, a way forward. In the BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019, Smith presents us with a series of 32 nearly trompe l’oeil gouache paintings, each featuring a well-thumbed book. She reminds us that these books (by Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others) have been there all along and only needed to be remembered and recontextualized in order to become keys to liberation, a salve for healing, a spark to inspire heroic resolve against systems of oppression and trauma.

Cauleen Smith, BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989-2019, 2019, Gouache and graphite on paper, Courtesy of Mass MoCA, Tom VanEynde

While Smith assembles her literary influences like avatars and warriors in librarylike order, Trenton Doyle Hancock opts to amass his own pantheon of heroes in a carnival-like multimedia cavalcade of a solo exhibition, Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass. Filling the football field–sized gallery of Building 5, somewhere between amusement park and big-box store, Hancock lets viewers explore the inner workings of his personal mythology, psychology, and what he calls the “Moundverse.” His creations, reminiscent of the underground comix style of R. Crumb and the grotesque parody of Ed Roth, surround us as if we were walking across the pages of a pop-up graphic novel.

Hancock’s memories seem so wrapped up in the consumer culture of his youth that it becomes difficult to unravel fact from fiction. Cluing us into this, he presents his personal collection of vintage toys alongside his own creations: Torpedo Boy, Bringback, the Vegans, and so on. We see however, more sinister undertones at work behind the bright Candyland color scheme of Hancock’s world: tortured souls; grasping, gasping, perforated bodies; eyes searching for help; even Philip Guston-esque hooded Klansmen make an appearance. It seems as if we’ve walked into a mirror world to our own. When we compare this world to the pop culture from which it spawned, it all makes sense; the toys are as fugitive as our fleeting childhood. Played with for a time, then forgotten, they function like decaying memories of a simpler, more innocent—or more ignorant?—time. Hancock dissects these memories and then reassembles and reanimates them with all the analog nostalgia of special effects from a 1980s alien movie (in a good way). His heroes fight back against the seemingly unstoppable grown-up system of commercialization and the business of pop fantasy, what Smith might call “corporate servitude.”

In the group exhibition Still I Rise in Mass MoCA’s teaching gallery, Kidspace, memories and pop influences also appear in Genevieve Gaignard’s installation I See Color and It’s Beautiful, which invites the viewer into an intimate bedroom tableau (replete with a faux gable ceiling) that radiates with Americana. When one looks closely, though, one sees anachronisms: There is a poster of a youthful Mariah Carey and another of the Netflix series Stranger Things; there is one of Bob Ross, who in death has found new life offering supportive good vibes to the YouTube generation. Gaignard presents us with perhaps the most hopeful of moments in the whole museum: two Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, one black and one white, share a seat on a wicker chair in front of the window in which an American flag passes for a curtain.

Using pop cyphers throughout, Gaignard not only explores her identity as a biracial woman (her father is black and her mother is white) and the complexities of “passing” but also shows us how identity is perceived and determined by an American society that creates lanes based on race. The fact that this installation is in Kidspace doubles its power as an educational tool in dispelling the fallacy of a “postracial” country and promoting the optimism for a “postracist” America.

These artists couldn’t be working at a better time, as our political rhetoric becomes more polarizing, as our differences seem less reconcilable, as the middle ground erodes away as quickly as our middle class. Perhaps we can learn from these artists, who are not simply creating vacuous bunny-shaped mirrors for billionaires but using the critical chops of Pop Art and popular culture to create spaces for dialogue and provide an antidote to the systems we have all inherited.

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