Friday, June 27, 2014

Offense & Dissent tour

I'm not going to be able to capture the whole of "Offense & Dissent: Image, Conflict, Belonging" for you, in part because it really is an experience in a masterfully designed space. If you have a chance to go to 2 West 13th Street between now and September 3rd, do pay it a visit!
The first thing you'd see would be yellow, almost a barrier. It evokes the yellow curtain infamously pulled across parts of José Clemente Orozco's murals during the Cold War. (Can you guess whose portraits? It's not Satan and Leviathan!) My colleague/co-curator J has found evidence suggesting it may have been curtained for most of a decade! As you approached you'd notice a wonderfully witty graphic on the wall, a sort of comic-book version of the story, the inspired work of George Bates in response to our research. Co-curator R, who runs the gallery, had the brilliant idea to commission two works of "interpretive" art to bring the visual to an otherwise very text-heavy exhibit. (More) One of the many pleasures of this process has been working with these artists and seeing them come up with works of incredible graphic intelligence which are also beautiful. Here's the other side of the Orozco display.

The archival materials - in facsimiles slightly smaller than actual size - are spread out in a loose and, we hope, inviting way - no glass or plexiglass between the viewer and them. A few highlights are enlarged overhead. Each episode has a color - remember the exhibition logo?The next one you'd see, if you continued clockwise past the "Red Scare, Yellow Curtain" episode, is blood red. Named "Graphic Peace Offensive" it recalls the pop-up antiwar show "My God, we're losing a great country!" put on by seniors at the Parsons School of Design in 1970 instead of their senior show. Some of the works from this intentionally unsigned group show found their way to our archives - and now on to a wall of our show. This episode isn't complicated in the way the others are, but packs a real punch.
One of the things I hope happen over the three months the exhibit is up is that some of these artists hear about the show and come tell us more 
about what was happening. Nowadays we too quickly assume that the New School divisions of the university are the politically engaged ones, but this show came out of Parsons culture just months after the merger with TNS, and may have been the first appearance of Parsons work in a New School setting. A historian who wrote about "My God!" in a book on art and Vietnam war has been in touch with us already... he saw the show in the Graduate Faculty, had no idea it had come from Parsons!
The next space you enter is blue (though you'll also be noticing a busy natural-light filled space beckoning in the distance), its striking headline "Is racist art 'freedom of expression'" from a student protest flyer. This section tells the story of the "Matsunaga Affair," when the blackface logo of a Japanese soft drink company in a work shown as part of an exhibit in this very space triggered an act of protest/ defacement/self-defence by poet Sekou Sundiata - the X. Our show marks its 25th anniversary.
Being the most recent, this episode also yielded the most archival material. It too is accompanied by a work of interpretive art, this in invocation of the 1989 show design by Dimitry Tetin. I think it brilliantly makes the point that the larger structures of power and prejudice
suffuse our world in ways we might not even be aware of most of the time. Behind New School and Parsons catalog images are pixelated images of David Dinkins, Pat Robertson, a Mapplethorpe male torso, Ronald Reagan and Aunt Jemima which are visible only from a distance!
I'll go into some of the details and morals of the Matsunaga/Sundiata story some other time; for now suffice it to say we have lots of angles, and a provocative sense of an unfolding and constantly changing story. The visitor, too, is probably ready to move on by now, to the big space.
Covering the walls on both sides is a photo gallery of current New School spaces, some of them with beautiful or confronting works of art in them. Each has been chosen and discussed by a member of the community (staff, faculty or student) in a little essay displayed in the
center, a delicious taste of the many fascinating ways of seeing and engaging housed in our walls recalling (and inspired by) last summer's "Masterpieces of Everyday New York" show. The individual essays are crying out to become a book, so you may have a chance to read them in that form someday, if not in situ here; the curator of the university art collection also wants to post them in the spaces/with the art works they discuss after our show comes down! (Each ends with three questions with which one might initiate a conversation about the work/issue.)

All pretty awesome, huh? Well, you can be part of the show too! There's one more wall waiting to be filled...

I close for the night. But wait, you may ask, where are the archival materials themselves, the heart of the show? I hope you've got a sense of where and how they are laid out, and might someday share some particulars (most will be available in perpetuity on the website of the University Archives) but I guess I've also shown that the exhibit works pretty well even without them! Our hope is that visitors will be drawn into the historical textures and voices as they move in and out of the various displays and stories. Part of the beauty of Manuel Miranda's exhibition design is this generosity, forcing no particular trajectory through the stories, allowing discoveries and rediscoveries at various levels of concreteness. The freshness and power of the contemporary voices should lead back to the older ones, too. And there's lots to read!

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