Although things have changed a lot in this more egalitarian age, works on paper have traditionally had a little less cachet in the art world than those in the more elite medium of painting. Now, though, the democratizing influence of paper is an advantage. In an arena where the very choice of medium can be a political decision, paper’s availability not only allows more opportunities for widespread use, but also the chance for more transgressive art.
In beta pictoris gallery’s new pulp exhibition, boy does it ever.
The show, which opens on Friday night at the downtown gallery, is in its third year of celebrating works on paper. While beta pictoris has traditionally embraced some very difficult, abstract work, this year’s show – meaningfully subtitled (ire straits) – is about as subtle as a punch in the gut.
Unlike in years past, this year’s edition of pulp is explicitly issue-based, leading to a host of politically charged works on race, freedom and life during wartime. It may well be both the most challenging and the most emotionally affecting exhibit that comes through Birmingham in this anniversary year.
Some works are unavoidably immediate, direct commentaries on modern day society or even current events. Baltimore artist Dwayne Butcher has a host of pithy, powerful messages in stark black and white, including “Stand your white ground,” “Open season on black boys,” and “White liberal guilt.” Other works comment on the phenomenon of anchor babies, prejudice against gays, and – in a moment of surpassing brilliance – a visual representation of the music of the Stuxnet virus, which was alleged to have been created by the U.S. and Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
The one unifying theme, though, is the mercurial state of identity politics in a supposedly post-racial America. Some commentaries are stark, such as Nigerian-American artist Odili Donald Odita’s minimalist SLAVE, which represents the titular word forcefully stenciled into a white sheet of paper, its passionate indentations still visible. Other works are a little more subtle, like Atlanta artist Bethany Collins’ paired Webster’s Dictionary definitions of whitish and blackish, both of which are equally unhelpful when it comes to understanding heritage.
Sometimes the commentary is even outright beautiful, as in Persian-American artist Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi’s gorgeous (and wonderfully titled) Burn with my fire, the cost of your desire. The image depicts a Persian woman, her uncut mane of hair flowing, shouting into a megaphone at a missile-launching jet. As she does, her words morph into the telltale intricate patterns of Persian carpet weaving and a flame of defiance that would feel at home in an illustration of the Shahnameh, the Persian national epic.
The works that will likely stir up the most debate, though, naturally deal with race. Some are visual echoes of 1963, such as Rodney Ewing’s Dry Season #4, which shows children being sprayed with firehoses in gray tones that evoke nothing so much as the iconic photo of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in the middle of a busy road that same year.
Then there’s Travis Somerville’s brilliant, challenging Sing Out America, which sits in the front room like a monolith. It details, through LP covers and the symbolism of blackface, the long history of racist appropriations in Dixieland music and minstrelsy, and it will likely spark the most debate of any piece on display in pulp.
Somerville, who was born in Atlanta in 1963, still feels an attachment to the South, particularly Georgia, despite living in San Francisco for years. “I’m not pointing fingers at anybody,” Somerville told Weld in an interview. “If I am, it’s at all Americans; it’s definitely not just a Southern issue. One of the largest Klan organizations is outside of Sacramento. People outside the South can go, ‘Oh, that’s all down there,’ and it’s not, and it hasn’t ever been.”
The son of a preacher who was deemed too liberal for the times, Somerville remembers moving all along the East Coast due to his father consistently either being fired or run out of town. He was also brought along by his parents to Civil Rights Movement marches and anti-Vietnam War protests, an influence that took a long time to reconcile itself in his artwork.
Mounted on two identical life masks of Abraham Lincoln, Sing Out America is a deeply uncomfortable reminder of America’s troubled history with race. It’s also, due to its level of detail and iconography, a work that’s evocative of classics like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Somerville admits that LP covers like Little Alabama Coon are “still extremely loaded images,” but the fact that they strike a chord indicates that they’re not yet a thing of the past.
While Somerville’s work – including the much more subdued, lovely piece Internment Camp #1 – is provocative, it never demands that viewers feel a certain way. Most modern art is just as much about what a viewer brings to the table as what the art itself shows, and people’s reactions to these stark invitations to dialogue will be telling.
pulp’s difficult, unsentimental approach to the frustrations of the marginalized is bound to turn some people off. The question is, for those among us who don’t reject radical messages, is whether we see an affront to cozy liberal pieties, sigh, nod meaningfully and walk on, or if we actually do something about it.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Ave. N. The opening reception for pulp will take place on Friday, August 9 from 5-8 p.m.