hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture May 2019


Shifting views of what’s real

In MoCA group show, artists explore human condition in post-truth era



Titus Kaphar’s oil painting “Seeing Through Time 2” (2018) is among works by 16 artists that are gathered in the group show “Suffering from Realness” that opened last month at Mass MoCA.

Titus Kaphar’s oil painting “Seeing Through Time 2” (2018) is among works by 16 artists that are gathered in the group show “Suffering from Realness” that opened last month at Mass MoCA. courtesy Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art


Contributing writer


A woman stands in sunlight, looking out with a level, somber gaze at a world where a few generations ago she would have been enslaved.
A soldier returns from duty in Afghanistan to face people who turn away on an American street.

In “Suffering from Realness,” a new show at Mass MoCA, 16 artists are searching for firm ground in a world that can feel more and more fake and absurd.

“What does feel certain and real,” said Denise Markonish, the show’s curator, “is the power and the certainty that comes from being an artist with a voice. I think that is the most real thing these 16 people have. That cannot be denied, and that cannot be taken from them.”

The artists in this show are suffering, she said, because powerful forces have tried to define the “real” world as one where they don’t exist. Those forces can come from sources near or far from the artists’ daily lives, from national leaders or their own families.

Against that pressure, the artists are searching for reality in themselves, in their lives, in their pasts and futures. They find reality in the place where they live and with those they love, in the pain they have lived through and the people who hold them.

In conversations with her throughout their work on this show, Markonish said, the artists have talked repeatedly about the ways they have fought to be themselves -- but even more about the care they have given and felt. They have come over and again to the ways people can lift each other up when the world feels overwhelmed in despair.


Who decides what’s real
Markonish sees this show as a sequel to a group show she curated 10 years ago entitled “These Days: An Elegy for Modern Times.” That show was conceived as the United States was moving from the Bush years into the Obama era.

Today, she sees another political shift as the nation moves through what some have dubbed a “post-truth” era. In the exhibit description, Markonish quotes British filmmaker Adam Curtis: “Our world is strange and often fake and corrupt. But we think it’s normal because we can’t see anything else.”

Realness feels impossible to grasp, she said: “Realness has subjectivity in one moment and the next. What one person sees as real, another may not.”

Robert Taplin’s “Punch Makes a Public Confession” (2012-14) greets visitors in the first room of Mass MoCA’s new group show “Suffering from Realness.”Kaelen Burkett photo/courtesy Mass MoCA

Robert Taplin’s “Punch Makes a Public Confession” (2012-14) greets visitors in the first room of Mass MoCA’s new group show “Suffering from Realness.”Kaelen Burkett photo/courtesy Mass MoCA


The Connecticut artist Robert Taplin, for example, brings a kind of absurdist protest and grief into sculptures of the clown figure of Pulcinella, a stock character from the 16th century commedia dell’arte who evolved into the puppet of the Punch and Judy shows. Taplin sees him as an everyman trickster, Markonish said, a mischief-maker and a stand-in for the ills of society.
At the top of the stairs, at the entrance to the show from the main door, a 9-foot-tall Punch stands mutely, making a public confession.

“We all have a lot to apologize for,” Markonish said.
She feels a similar tension and silence in Vincent Valdez’ images of people from many backgrounds standing at a lectern, not speaking, and in Robert Longo’s black-and-white images, which look like photographs but are drawings.

Longo has been working on this series since the 1980s, looking at media images. In one, a player for the St. Louis Rams holds his hands up in “don’t shoot” position as a protest amid the 2014 unrest that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The player stands on the field, haloed in light.

Longo’s images reveal cycles of violence, Markonish said, from the Vietnam War to the head of a stone sculpture lying in the remains of a temple destroyed by ISIS.

Nearby, another sleeping head rests on marble. Wangechi Mutu has created a woman’s head, shining like brass in sunlight. Markonish can see tension in the woman’s lips and neck, as though she is not asleep, not wholly resting.

Mutu’s work struggles with the way Africans and women often see themselves represented, Markonish said, looking to the next pedestal, where a hand with brightly painted nails holds a machete.


Who tells your story
In visible and invisible faces, Titus Kaphar also asks who tells stories, and which stories get told.
He paints the portrait of a contemporary woman, and she stands in the sunlight with her shoulders back. She is young, and she is black. She looks out from a space cut away from a second painting; the two images are layered, one on top of the other.

The figure Kaphar has removed was standing at the center, and a young woman who remains kneeling in the foreground, holding out a nautilus shell filled with pearls. She looks like a young enslaved woman helping a wealthy white woman to dress. But now, superimposed, she is looking into the contemporary woman’s eyes.

“He is allowing the past and present on equal planes,” Markonish said.
Kaphar is using art to tell untold stories. He asks what stories get told and who tells them -- what stories are remembered, and what stories have been lost.

In another piece, he turns a monument inside out. A traditional form of George Washington on horseback has become a set of fragile shapes in glass.

Beside it, another blown glass vessel holds a dark liquid, sealed with a cork. The liquid is a mixture of rum, molasses, tamarind, turmeric and lime. And the glass vessel is shaped into George Washington’s head. In a historical account of Washington’s travels in the West Indies, he traded an enslaved man for these things, Markonish said.

Kaphar seems to call for the story of that man in his absence.


A dream deferred
A few steps farther on, Vincent Valdez and Adriana Corral are telling untold moments in the history of people of Latin American origin in the United States.

Corral grew up in El Paso, across the river from Juarez, Mexico, and Markonish said she talks about what doesn’t get talked about. Here, Corral has collaborated with Valdez on “Requiem,” a sculpture inspired by a Valdez drawing of a bald eagle lying on its back, dead.

In this collaboration, Corral and Valdez asked 243 people to submit a date important to them and explain what that day means to them. Corral carved the dates into the wall of the gallery, in light numbers against a light wall. She burned the wood shavings and the pages of writing, and she rubbed the ash onto the sculpted eagle like a patina, so that the dead bird seems to have been burned.

Valdez comes from San Antonio, and he and Corral both live and work now in Houston. Sharing space with “Requiem,” he has also contributed a series of paintings, “Dream Baby Dream,” inspired by film footage of Muhammad Ali’s funeral.

“He sees it as the last time people of all backgrounds came together,” Markonish said, to celebrate the life of an athlete and activist. (“Dream Baby Dream” was a song written and recorded by 1970s punk band Suicide and later covered by Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and others: “We gotta keep the light burning …”)


Finding calm amid battle
Under gunfire, Shelby Webster remembered the scent of burning cedar. She tells her story in words and images in a neighboring gallery.

Webster served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, and she remembers one night driving a truck in a convoy at 2 a.m., seeing explosions -- lying prone behind the trucks in the noise of bullets. She thought of her young children at home.

“I’m Native American, and I believe in my culture,” she says in an account beside her photograph. “I believe in my Omaha ways. I said a little prayer to myself asking God to protect me and watch over my babies if something were to happen to me. This feeling came over me, and I don’t know if it was my subconscious …”

She heard her grandfather’s voice telling her it would be all right, and she smelled cedar. At home, her people pray with cedar, she said. She lay on the shaking ground, and she could see and hear tracer rounds and explosions, and she held onto that calm.

Beside her story, a photograph shows a woman in uniform in a field of rough ground. She is lying prone with a rifle, and two young girls press close, holding on to her. A heavy truck is parked behind them in the field, and a man stands near a simple brazier, an iron pot set on an upturned log, releasing smoke. His eyes are closed, and he wears a long scarf or stole and holds something like a feather or a cloth in one hand, as though he is praying with the scent of the smoke and the wind around him.

Jennifer Karady has worked with Webster to tell this story. Karady recorded this image and other photographs in this show with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Markonish said Karady talks with them about their experiences, not necessarily on the battlefield but often here in the United States as they see the effect their service has on them and on their families. Karady helps them to recreate moments of tension and anxiety. She builds each image like a film set and displays the resulting photographs along with the veterans’ accounts.


Warriors and dancers
In brilliant colors, Jeffrey Gibson invokes warriors. A Choctaw and Cherokee artist, he has created long shirts, brightly colored and fringed.

The shirts invoke the garments Lakota traditionally wear for the Ghost Dance, Markonish said. They carry also a suggestion of disco because, growing up as a gay Native American, Gibson discovered the dance floor as the one place where he could feel like himself.

He invests warriors’ shirts with the language of drag queens and current events, Markonish said.
One refers to Bears Ears, the national monument in Utah that the Trump administration has tried to diminish in size. It is a place of buttes, red rock and juniper forests, high plateau and plentiful artifacts. The Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Hopi Nation and others are closely bound to this land.

Another of Gibson’s shirts declares, “Speak to me so that I can understand you,” the kind of sentence that can come out flat and hard and contemptuous — or that can be genuine.


How do you rise up
Joey Farso heard her younger son say to her older son, “You destroy everything special I make.”
That lament made her think about the world her sons would grow up in, Markonish said. Farso brought her sons into her studio to build together. They made new work, some of which they knocked down together.

Out of that playful soul-searching come black-and-white paintings that are like simple mental machines for listening and thinking. In them, Farso explores her own body and her experience in surviving breast cancer, and she dedicates a work to Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.
And on that thought, Markonish walks into the final room of the show to see a living artist on fire.
The California-based artist Cassils is a transgender activist, Markonish explained, and often creates work using the artist’s own body. Here, Cassils’ body is set alight with the help of film and stunt experts.

The actual burn lasted 14 seconds, and the artist wore protective gel and full-body gear. But the film lasts 14 minutes.

“It’s a Hollywood stunt,” Markonish said. “But it’s still real and dangerous. You think of the fight they have had to go through, to be that determined.”

She thinks of the monks who immolated themselves in protest.
But Cassils will come out of the flames alive: standing in the light, arms out and slightly bent, and hands open -- like a phoenix with spread wings.