The American flag is a powerful symbol.
It matters whether or not it’s touching the ground, where it is on the pole and even how it’s folded when it’s taken down.
In the newest show at the beta pictoris gallery in downtown Birmingham, six artists each present a different interpretation of a flag and what it means to them.
“(Welcome to) Six Flags – Trouble In Paradise” features the work of six different artists – Florian Heinke, Walton Creel, Melissa Vandenberg, Peter Fox, Willie Cole and Leah Hamel – who each took the American flag as a starting point for two-dimensional graphic works.
The show will be on display at the gallery through May 18.
Guido Maus, the owner of beta pictoris, describes the show as an exploration of the possibilities involved in the flag as a symbol, not necessarily an example of Americana. “I think sometimes Americana represents the past, but the flag is a present thing,” Maus says. “What was interesting to me, especially in an election year, was what artists thought of the flag. People of different cultural backgrounds have different ideas of what America stands for, has stood for and can stand for. This is really an exhibit that shows what this symbol can mean personally.”
Several of the the artists supplied Weld with brief statements regarding their contributions to “(Welcome to) Six Flags – Trouble In Paradise.”
Walton Creel – Flag Over Fort Sumter, April 1861
“This is a replica of the flag that flew over Fort Sumter April 12-13, 1861 when the Confederates attacked U.S. forces, starting the American Civil War,” said Creel, a Birmingham artist. “The flag survived the battle and went on to tour the North. It was used to boost morale and raise funds for the Union war effort. It came to be seen as a symbol of the strength of the Union, even when the flag itself is in the direct line of fire. This flag, like the original, is full of bullet holes and is covered in burnt gunpowder.”
Florian Heinke – The System of Diplomatic Chaos II
“It shows a portrait of the ‘nobility’ of ideals,” according to Heinke,” a German painter and graphic artist. “Are they really? So far, maybe, for the adapted and the followers. At the end of the day, everybody has to look out for their own profit, ideals in mind or not. For me to show my stuff in galleries, the hoe, the stock broker, Che and even Ban Ki-moon. No one on the top got a clean start. That’s for sure.”
Melissa Vandenberg – Untitled (Flag Study)
“The U.S. flag has become propaganda, as are most flags,” says Vandenberg. “It is a vehicle to explore Western-centric political agendas. I came of age creatively during Bush-era policies, which significantly shaped the way many artists of my generation make work. We are suspicious of those in power, yet many of us still carry a great deal of hope and idealism. ‘Untitled (Flag Study)’ uses my fingerprints to create an abstract monochromatic flag relief. The paper substrate has been sliced horizontally, and the flag stripes become paper shutters, raised off the page. The result is far enough removed from the original reference that you may or may not detect its flag-ness, depending on context. It is neither right nor left, and fails to illicit any outward appearance of pride.”
Peter Fox – White Flag
“My work in the show began as an open meditation on Jasper Johns’ ‘White Flag,’ a loose re-understanding that appropriates his basic formal elements – graphic flag theme, divided canvas and monochrome palette,’ says Fox, a New York artist. “Johns’ flag serves as a conceptual jumping-off point – a place to depart rather than arrive. From there, mine takes a more reductive, minimal tack. The division of the support is simplified as two equal panels, and gestural brushwork is translated to a uniform, repetitive drip motif, becoming an abstraction of Johns’ already abstract flag. The image of the flag is no longer foregrounded, but hovers near (or just below) the threshold of conscious perception. Its flagness is mute, sensed instead of seen – an un-flag. While working on it, I was cognizant of white flags as surrender signals. Perhaps that’s how this work operates – as a release, a letting go, of identity, control, expectation. An opening up. A freedom?”
Willie Cole – Stowage
Guido Maus, owner of beta pictoris, offered his thoughts on this piece by Cole, a widely exhibited New Jersey-based sculptor and graphic artist. (We were unable to contact Cole by our press time.)
“Willie Cole used graphic elements such as the ironing board to represent a slave ship, its markings referring to the Brooks Template (a document used to optimize loading of slaves into a slave ship), and steam irons referring to the different African tribes on said slave ship,” Naus says. “The use if the steam iron, it’s shape, as well as its reference to branding / scarification, has become an iconic image in Cole’s work.”
And Cole, according to Maus, once offered this statement regarding the almost magical power of these objects and materials:
“I think that when one culture is dominated by another culture, the energy or powers or gods of the previous culture hide in the vehicles of the new cultures. I think the spirit of Shango (Yoruba god of thunder and lightning) is a force hidden in the iron because of the fire, and the power of Ogun — his element is iron — is also hidden in these metal objects.”
Leah Hamel – Flag
“Sculpture, for me, is a way to give life and tangibility to an idea,” Hamel says. “My search for self-identity has manifested itself in my work through explorations of family and cultural history. The urban context I live in, juxtaposed with the environment my Native American ancestors existed in, is one major thread in my work. For “Flag,” the use of the American flag reconstructed with arrowheads speaks to geographic history and displacement of Native Americans. The five white arrowheads placed within the blue field represent the original five tribes of the Iroquois Nation. I chose to represent the Iroquois Nation because of my Mohawk heritage from my father’s side of my family. Although I work in many different sculptural mediums, each piece I create has a link to the family ties I explore and how we are all shaped by our history.”
“(Welcome to) Six Flags — Trouble in Paradise” is on display at beta pictoris, located at 2411 Second Ave. North downtown, through May 18. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 1-4 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., or by appointment. (205) 413-2999. www.betapictorisgalley.com
Andy McWhorter is a contributing writer at Weld for Birmingham and a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.