On May 21, 2015 ’60 Americans’ opened in the Chelsea Arts District at the Elga Wimmer Gallery on a unseasonably hot and humid day in New York City. A massive crowd of art professionals and enthusiasts entered the gallery that displayed the works of 60 American artists, providing an alternative perspective and discourse on the current climate of the American contemporary art scene. The curators were Noah Becker, Terrence Sanders and Alexander Venet and their collective vision was to present an opposition to the ‘money corrupted and trend obsessed gallerists, shopping mall inspired art fairs, nepotism and favoritism’ of the so-called “artists” that are molded by the MFA programs in America. Their strong and clear sentiment was supported by the multi-disciplinary work that reflects America’s artistic landscape with themes covering politics, post-colonialism, obesity, the prison-industrial complex, pop-culture dilemmas, the over saturation of technology, the dysfunction of urban and hip-hop culture, artist authenticity, and much more.
The works are varied in media, sizes, and disposition, but they are all united by an ‘edgy’ factor that portrays personal artistic statements that either mimic or oppose the socio-cultural dysfunction in our society. One prevalent thought arises as one peruses the room filled with an international crowd even with the defined conceptual goal: ‘art for the sake of art’ has become a discourse that is binary even when opposing the mainstream appropriation of art. However, this predicament dates back to 19th century reflections and even further back to the ancient Greek philosophy on didactic creation versus the intrinsic value of art.
However, the collective viewpoints are better understood as one focuses on the voice of each individual artist and their personal intent. One particular photo stood out for its boldness and mystery regarding the subjective nature of our perceptions and individual socio-political standpoints. It was Michelle Elmore’s large photograph titled “9th Ward,” that portrayed a close-up shot of an African American male’s mouth with a complete set of gold capped teeth. As I interviewed Michelle, a very interesting dialogue on individual identity and cultural disconnect emerged as she spoke of audiences either being aggressive in regard to the glamorization of violent cultures as opposed to completely misunderstanding individual expression due to a history of cultural disconnect. Michelle openly accepted the ambivalent views as she proudly spoke of her experience of dedicating 2 years in New Orleans to rappers while constantly receiving suspicious looks as a Caucasian woman who happened to be their photographer and documentarian. Fast forward to the photo hanging on a Chelsea gallery wall creating a dialogue that is both serious and light-hearted as it highlights the mainstream glorification of hip-hop music and its fashion without the social and historical context of African-American culture.
Similarly, Sol Sax, a multi-disciplinary Brooklyn-born artist, exhibited a digital montage which overtly centers a prominent African-American figure and Sub-Saharan mythic figure called Obatala, from Youruban traditions to “retrieve the ancestral knowledge that was lost” and is still lost in our post-colonial world. The print portrays a woman clutching herself and the bed she rests on as she is taken by Paul Robeson, a prominent African American actor and singer who was also a civil rights activist, wearing an iron-cast mask of Obatala. At first glance, the general audience would not be able to dissect this digital piece since we are not culturally equipped not only in regard to the Sub-Saharan mythical knowledge, but also of how to reify cultural identification that has been heavily disconnected by colonialism. As I learn more from Sol Sax, I am intrigued by this powerful deity Obatala, who is in fact the creator of Earth, purity, and humans in Youruban traditions. Like Zeus of Greek mythology, Obatala is flawed with human qualities, but is an instrumental figure in spreading wisdom and inspiration. I was humbled by this knowledge and astounded at the same time that although I had intensively studied Greek mythology in high school and college, I have vague to barely any knowledge of African mythology.
It is inspiring – whether one is an artist or a not – to pick up on the nuances of a creative person that is dedicated to the authenticity of their sense of self. The discourse of art and its complexity becomes less hazy when we hear the voice of individual artists among of the sea of 60 artists in the gallery space as well as the millions in the world outside.
Writing by Upahar Rana
Photographs by Jamie Martinez
Elga Wimmer PCC
Exhibition runs May 21 – June 14th Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11- 6pm
526 West 26th street #310
Curated by Noah Becker, Terrence Sanders & Alexander Venet