Aesthetics and Social Justice: “Arresting Patterns” at ArtSpace
Arresting Patterns at Artspace New Haven
July 17 to September 13, 2015
50 Orange Street
New Haven, CT, 203 772 2709
This summer marks one year since New York City police choked Eric Garner to death. Since and before then, an uprising of activism and conversation has highlighted systemic racism and its link to criminalization and brutality. Artspace’s “Arresting Patterns,” curated by Sarah Fritchey with Titus Kaphar and Leland Moore, tackles these issues in a group show innovatively framed around seriality.
Titus Kaphar’s The Jerome Project (2011–present) began with the artist discovering a series of other men in the criminal justice system sharing his father’s name. From the project’s Asphalt and Chalk Series, X (2015) overlaps three black men killed by police: Michael Brown, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo; while XVII (2015) stacks three Jeromes on top of each other. The poignant connections made in these pieces through repetition set the tone for the show.
Adrian Piper also explores the connotations of names with Everything #19.3: NYT Portrait of Megan Williams (2007-8). A search for images of a twenty-year-old African American woman named Megan Williams kidnapped by white perpetrators resulted in exclusively white women and men unrelated to the incident. Piper tightly prints the Megans from the image results and repeats the mug shots of the perpetrators.
Andy Warhol was obsessed with how images of death and disaster could be repeated until they became meaningless. His obsession remains pertinent in our contemporary 24-hour news cycles and perpetually refreshed feeds. Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964) reflects upon the persistent question of police brutality. The piece’s appropriation of a Life magazine image feels immediate in its cold, blurred reproduction.
Connecticut-based Iyaba Ibo Mandingo’s Grave Marker Series (2014) reads with the pop sensibility of Warhol’s protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat and uses bright house paint, oil sticks, and crayon on recycled paper. The pieces commemorate black parents of murdered sons and allude visually and linguistically to African patterns. The language scribbled and repeated on the markers (“Boo!,” “Y do I frighten?,” “I am ur boogie man”) addresses the systemic fear of black bodies.
Language is also central to Jamal Cyrus’s Eroding Witness 7 Series (2014), four pages of laser-cut papyrus reproducing headlines covering the 1970 shooting of organizer Carl Hampton. These works, which include both mainstream and alternative presses from Houston, demonstrate the range of language used to report the event (“Black Militant Slain on Dowling” contrasts with “Exclusive Eyewitness Accounts: Police Fired First”).
“Arresting Patterns” insists on plain and direct confrontation. Dread Scott’s two-channel video Stop (2008) (in collaboration with Joann Kushner) depicts six men of color from New York and London stating how many times they have been stopped by police. Adrian Piper’s Safe (#1-4) (1990) corners the viewer with four images of smiling black families captioned “We are around you,” “You are safe,” “We are among you,” and “We are within you.” The installation, which contemplates questions of assimilation, includes self-aware audio of the artist talking as a white viewer who is having a “really hard time” with the piece.
The works in the show are as much about looking as they are about looking away: Kaphar’s dizzying portraits contain multiple pairs of eyes; Scott’s stopped men stare; Piper’s black families wave. The show is aware of the things that we can’t look at—either because they’re blurred by Google Maps like the unseen jail in the work of Maria Gaspar (Wretches and Paramount (Extreme Landscape Series; Google study of Cook County Jail in Chicago), 2014-5) or because they’re fading and fragile like Jamal Cyrus’s papyrus newspapers. It knows that we’re constantly doing both.
Along with “Arresting Patterns,” Artspace is also showcasing work from The 15th Annual Summer Apprenticeship Program, this year led by Titus Kaphar, Aaron Jafferis, and Dexter Singleton and inspired by The Jerome Project. The New Haven high school apprentices worked closely with visual and performance artists to create work contextualized by a curriculum and field trips. Kaphar discussed processing the heavy experience of visiting a corrections facility with the apprentices and assuring them that there was art to be made about those moments.
The work impressively echoes the ideas of “Arresting Patterns” and shows a range of approaches: from Ruby Gonzalez’s acrylic abstractions (Untitled I) to Emanuel Luck’s realistic white pencil portrait, Don’t Chalk Your Ancestors. In collective collages (Sinque 1, Sinque 2), the apprentices also addressed complex the history of their city, researching New Haven’s cartography and its role in the Amistad trials to inform their art.
The work of Arianna Alamo, entitled Martyrs and The Prophet (MLK), depicts the mug shots of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, among others. Using tar paper and white chalk (like Kaphar), Alamo frames the figures in a gold Byzantine halo, achieving an almost Warholian allusion to devotion. Most striking was the halo around King: a pop collage composed of gold, consumerist jewelry.
Artspace’s approach to both shows is effectively interdisciplinary. Looking beyond the language of art and the space itself, the works are contextualized not just through wall labels, but also through takeaway cards with statistics relevant to the ideas presented in the show. Further contextualization is provided with the space’s reading room, which includes a timeline of American racial violence and books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010).
The conversation about race and criminalization goes beyond the content of this (or any) show. Less explicit in the works displayed are the patterns of policing femininity, queerness, and nationality—which often also intersect with race and with violence.
Still, Artspace’s “Arresting Patterns” and the work from The 15th Annual Summer Apprenticeship Program make important and engaging connections through seriality, language, and confrontation. No matter the age of the work or the artist, the show’s selections feel immediate and challenging.
In continuing the urgent advocacy activism addressing these layered issues, admitting patterns and highlighting repeating acts—of violence, of incarceration, of policing—will remain critical.
Artspace aims to continue the conversation with a free two-day conference on September 12th and 13th at the Yale University Art Gallery. Visit arrestingpatterns.org for registration and more information.