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University of Kentucky Art Museum’s ‘This is America*’ exhibit hold mirror up to society today


By Whitney Hale
University of Kentucky

From a celebrated portrait of the nation’s first president George Washington to a drawing of George Floyd, University of Kentucky Art Museum’s “This is America*” examines the nation’s story — the good, the bad and the ugly — as we approach the most divisive presidential election in recent history.

“Originally planned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election, ‘This is America*’ explores various aspects of history, citizenry, race, dignity, power and struggle,” UK Art Museum Director Stuart Horodner said. “In recent months, the U.S. has been shaken by a global pandemic and waves of social unrest centered around issues of social justice and policing practices. Additional works reflecting these conditions have been added to the exhibition dedicated to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died on July 17, 2020.”

Planned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election, “This is America*” explores various aspects of history, citizenry, race, dignity, power and struggle.

The asterisk after America in the exhibition title is meant to indicate an omission or a blemish in an otherwise outstanding achievement, Horodner explained. America is a concept as much as a place. It has been fraught with contradiction from the beginning.

The museum notes those contradictions through a series of contrasting popular quotes and sayings: “America is a promise written by founding fathers who were slave owners. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We hold these truths to be self-evident, but we’ve got some explaining to do. America is exceptional, except when it isn’t. We have white picket fences and internment camps. No justice, no peace. America is ritual and risk, haves and have nots, wide open spaces and too big to fail. Another day, another dollar. E pluribus unum and Don’t tread on me. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. Why can’t we all just get along?”

In “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” an op-ed published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral, Lewis wrote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Putting oneself on the line by marching, speaking out and educating others are ways that democracy is realized. Lewis continues, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.”

Among the work featured in “This is America*” is a portrait of the nation’s first president, George Washington, and a drawing of George Floyd.

Art is another form of good trouble. “This is America*” has been organized in that spirit, with the hope that the UK Art Museum can play a role as a welcoming space for the discussion of difficult topics and uncertain outcomes. Selections from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as art gathered from various studios, galleries and private collections come together to create a dense environment that challenges the viewer to sort out their knowledge of, and feelings about, living in America at this volatile time.

“Having lived in Atlanta for a decade, I would occasionally see Rep. Lewis at cultural events. It was always a thrill, as he was a person whose sacrifice and sustained efforts for social justice, I deeply respected,” Horodner said. “In recent years, whenever I have gotten depressed about the conditions in our country or thought of retreating from the news of the day, I’ve thought of him. If he maintained optimism, given the thrilling progress and devastating setbacks, then I could work a lot harder!

“I like to think that Rep. Lewis would appreciate the multi-voiced nature of this exhibition, with its lively juxtapositions, intensity, empathy and humor.”

Artists featured in “This is America*” include Paul Stephen Benjamin, Louis Zoellar Bickett, Amber Boardman, Daniel Bozhkov, Mel Chin, Elliott Erwitt, Wendy Ewald, Robert Feintuch, Leon Golub, Mike Goodlett, Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, Keith Haring, Jon Henry, Carolyn Hisel, Mike Howard, Lester Johnson, Reuben Kadish, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, Wayne Koestenbaum, Barbara Kruger, John Lackey, Donald Lipski, Frank Weathers Long, Gina Magid, Gordon Parks, Joseph Peragine, Alix Pearlstein and Suzanne McClelland, Kay Rosen, Wendy Bolton Rowland, Tad Savinar, Mira Schor, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Bonita Skaggs-Parsons, Aaron Skolnick, Gilbert Stuart, Sheldon Tapley, Tony Tasset, Frank X Walker (UK professor of English), William Walmsley, Andy Warhol, Paul Weller, John Wesley, David Wischer (assistant professor in UK School of Art and Visual Studies), Jessica Wohl and Michael Wong.

Museum visitors will notice a distinctly different experience than typical white walls. Remnant paint colors clarify spaces as well as contradict them. Juxtapositions and groupings of art shift the possible meanings of individual works.

Museum visitors will notice a distinctly different experience than typical white walls. Remnant paint colors clarify spaces as well as contradict them. Juxtapositions and groupings of art shift the possible meanings of individual works. Likewise, there are only the most basic labels in the gallery. This choice was made to leave lots of room for visitors to look at works without the museum telling them what the art means. (More information about specific works can be found on the museum’s website).

“This is a time when notions of authority and clarity are suspect and not conclusive. Facts are debated and everyone has an opinion,” Horodner said. “Like living in the U.S. today, the exhibit requires that one thinks about complicated things — histories, people, actions and events — and make up their own minds about who they believe and what they believe in. This installation strategy is meant to inspire dialogue and further curiosity about how artists address complicated matters.”

This exhibition contains artworks that depict individuals and events that may be disturbing or traumatic to visitors. Patrons may ask the museum’s front desk staff for clarification before entering.

Also on display at UK Art Museum: “Jeanne Silverthorne: More Flesh and Bone.”

Jeanne Silverthorne is an acclaimed and influential New York-based artist whose works take their cue from the human body, as well as domestic and industrial items including lighting fixtures and bulbs, junction boxes, and various packing materials. For decades, she has thought of her studio as a generative site where acts of thinking, making, destroying and accepting take place.

“More Flesh and Bone” includes new works made of cast rubber, which gives them a decidedly fleshy feel. Crates of varying sizes (with cartoon-like nails and painted wood grain) serve as pedestals for a spinning globe, a pair of skeletons, burnt-out lightbulbs and a small self-portrait. The combination of these works offers a meditation on time, human effort and nagging questions of success and failure.

Both exhibitions run through Feb. 13. You can read more about current and upcoming exhibitions
finearts.uky.edu
.

Whitney Hale writes for UK Now


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