Reclaiming cul­tural iden­tity

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MARK JENK­INS style@wash­post.com

There’s a lot more fish skin in “De­col­o­niz­ing Alaska” than in the typ­i­cal con­tem­po­rary-art sur­vey, but most of the other el­e­ments are fa­mil­iar. The art in the atrium of the for­mer Cor­co­ran Gallery (now the GW Cor­co­ran School of the Arts and De­sign) in­cludes reflections on per­sonal and cul­tural iden­tity, as well as on po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Fig­u­ra­tively, glaciers and per­mafrost melt just out­side the frame of many of the pieces.

Among the 31 con­trib­u­tors are peo­ple of in­dige­nous and Rus­sian de­scent, but also rel­a­tive new­com­ers who sing their af­fec­tion for the land and its cul­tures. Of­ten, the artists jux­ta­pose tra­di­tion and tech­nol­ogy. Video plays be­neath a salmon-skin screen and is pro­jected on the head of a hand­made drum. Three ab­stract sculp­tures have been fash­ioned out of cari­bou antlers, and moose antlers have been wrapped in a plas­tic sheet that the ar­ti­fact has partly de­formed.

The mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tion that com­bines video and drum is Da-kax­een Mehner’s pointed re­sponse to a heroic statue of ex­plorer Capt. James Cook, who in 1778 claimed a piece of Alaska for the Bri­tish crown. Michael Conti’s “White Gaze” re­acts to an­other sort of an­nex­a­tion: It places a photo of an in­dige­nous woman, press­ing on the glass with her hands, in­side a mu­seum-style dio­rama of a na­tive fam­ily.

Other come­backs to the Euro­peans’ ar­rival and its ef­fects are more per­sonal, and sev­eral turn on the ef­fects of booze. Holly Nord­lum as­sem­bled a mo­saic-like por­trait of her brother, adopted after he was ne­glected by an al­co­holic mother, out of beer bot­tle caps. Susie Silook’s carved statue cel­e­brates con­quer­ing al­co­hol de­pen­dence; “de­col­o­niz­ing is for me an in­ner reck­on­ing,” she writes.

Al­though many of the show’s in­gre­di­ents are specif­i­cally Alaskan, the artis­tic styles and gam­bits de­rive mostly from the world of the col­o­niz­ers. Rus­sian re­li­gious icons and Old Mas­ter paint­ings pro­vide the model for works such as Linda In­fante Lyons’s “St. Kather­ine of Kar­luk,” a Madonna-and-child scene in which mom is a shaman and baby is a seal pup. Po­lit­i­cally, ex­tri­cat­ing Alaska from its self-styled dis­cov­er­ers is im­prob­a­ble. Ar­tis­ti­cally, it’s sim­ply im­pos­si­ble.

De­col­o­niz­ing Alaska On view through March 18 at GW Cor­co­ran School of the Arts and De­sign, 500 17th St. NW. 202-994-1700. cor­co­ran.gwu.edu/ de­col­o­niz­ing-alaska.

Ques­tion­ing Power

There’s lots of video in “Ques­tion­ing Power at VisArts,” which com­prises four in­di­vid­ual shows on over­lap­ping themes. The medium suits the sub­jects, most of which are grist for re­cent ca­ble­news com­mu­niqués. But the most im­me­di­ate works are Este­ban del Valle’s satir­i­cal draw­ing-paint­ings, which por­tray an­gry older men in red hats that read “Make Amer­ica Great Again.”

“1,000 Yel­low Dahlias,” Este­fani Mercedes’s video piece, chron­i­cles both the artist’s Septem­ber 2015 per­for­mance and re­ac­tion to it. Re­spond­ing to Don­ald Trump’s at­tacks on Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, Mercedes brought dahlias (Mex­ico’s na­tional flower) to Trump Tower. There were too many blooms for the artist to man­age, and her in­abil­ity to de­liver them drew glee­ful re­sponses from rightwing web­sites. But the mess was in­ten­tional, a the­ater-of-the ab­surd mo­ment de­signed to high­light sim­plis­tic rhetoric and In­ter­net com­men­ta­tors’ propen­sity for snap judg­ments. Some cy­ber-pun­dits as­sumed, for ex­am­ple, that Mercedes is un­doc­u­mented and Mex­i­can, when in fact she’s Amer­i­can-born and of Ar­gen­tine lin­eage.

Two of the shows ad­dress stereo­typ­ing of young African Amer­i­can men. Shané K. Good­ing’s “To See or Not to See” is a three­screen video piece that fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on four sub­jects, in­ter­weav­ing al­most-still por­traits with doc­u­men­tary footage of the men’s vo­ca­tions (which tend to be artis­tic) and their lives. An­toine Wil­liams’s “gods in the gaps” is a se­ries of mixed-me­dia draw­ing-paint­ings of young men in hooded sweat­shirts and low-slung, boxer-re­veal­ing jeans. Their heads are hid­den or miss­ing, and some ap­pear vaguely omi­nous. The me­nace is all a mat­ter of per­cep­tion, of course.

The largest show, Este­ban del Valle’s “Unset­tled,” was partly in­spired by the Chicago na­tive’s in­volve­ment in his fa­ther’s 2011 run for mayor of that city. In a smaller gallery whose work is all in shades of gray, a video of a per­for­mance piece fea­tures di­a­logue de­rived from speeches by Nel­son Man­dela, Ma­hatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The ef­fect is far from somber, and one of the el­e­ments is a model of the front end of a 1963 Ford Galaxy.

Around the cor­ner, del Valle is show­ing large, vividly col­ored pic­tures of bel­liger­ent Trump sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing one who’s stock­ing up in a home­im­prove­ment su­per­store. (The piece is ti­tled “Build the Wall.”) Yet the artist, who now lives in Brook­lyn, also lam­poons young lib­eral gen­tri­fiers in vi­gnettes such as “Ja­cob Lawrence at a Har­lem Cafe: The Great Mi­gra­tion.” Next to the late African Amer­i­can artist who de­picted his peo­ple’s quest for free­dom is an over­size cof­fee drink topped with whipped cream. It’s the his­tory of up­per-mid­dle-class white priv­i­lege in a sin­gle frap­pu­cino.

Este­fani Mercedes: 1,000 Yel­low Dahlias and Shané K. Good­ing: To See or Not to See On view through March 19. An­toine Wil­liams: gods in the gaps and Este­ban del Valle: Unset­tled On view through March 26. VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200. vis­arts­cen­ter.org.

Chandi Kel­ley & Marissa Long

The ti­tle of “Lu­minif­er­ous Aether,” pho­tog­ra­phers Chandi Kel­ley and Marissa Long’s Trans­former show, refers to a dis­cred­ited 19th-cen­tury no­tion of how light moves through air. The ar­chaic name suits the images. High con­trast, mostly black-and­white and of­ten eerie, the pic­tures evoke Sur­re­al­ist rever­ies, Vic­to­rian seances and vaude­ville magic shows.

The lo­cal artists’ pho­tos are mixed to­gether, which is apt, be­cause they’re com­pat­i­ble in both style and vibe. The back­drops are mostly black, while the high­lights are of­ten a harsh white. Kel­ley some­times uses color, but it can be as faint as the green tint around the edge of the mist in “Dis­ap­pear­ing Act.” Just as the white seems to scar the black, it also ap­pears to in­cin­er­ate the other hues.

Long’s stated spe­cialty is the por­tal, which might be a mir­ror, a win­dow, the moon or a hu­man eye peer­ing through a tiny open­ing in an rum­pled ivory cur­tain. Kel­ley is more in­clined to pose nat­u­ral ob­jects, whether a shell, a snake or a coy­ote skull. What­ever the sub­ject, the goal is not to doc­u­ment the world as it ex­ists, but to gaze within and be­yond. “Lu­minif­er­ous Aether” tricks the eye in a bid to free the mind.

Lu­minif­er­ous Aether: Chandi Kelly & Marissa Long On view through March 18 at Trans­former, 1404 P St. NW. 202-483-1102. trans­formerdc.org.

MICHAEL CONTI/GW COR­CO­RAN SCHOOL OF THE ARTS AND DE­SIGN

Michael Conti’s “White Gaze (Yu'pik Ena),” archival pig­ment ink on can­vas, 2016. On view through March 18 in “De­col­o­niz­ing Alaska” at GW Cor­co­ran School of the Arts and De­sign.

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