December in New York City was a strange time. Statistically speaking, eight in ten of the people you passed had voted for Clinton in November, and so the slightly haunted, tired look on their faces made perfect sense. The extent to which people felt shaken became even clearer when you spoke to them. I was there for a breakneck three days, going on studio visits with my mother to choose the pieces that will be shown in an exhibition at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center in Manhattan this summer.
Several of the artists are people I’ve known nearly since birth and haven’t seen in a decade, and even so, the first thing on our minds was not attempting to catch up on ten years of gossip but the sense of cataclysm that we all felt.
There’s an argument, and it’s a convincing one, that all art is political and, in the interim period between the election and the inauguration it felt truer than ever. There was an atmosphere of displacement and shifting ground. Between daily revelations about suspicious calls to Russia and plans to defund sanctuary cities (of which New York is one), no one seemed to know where they stood.
For the Brooklyn artists’ community with which I was in contact, this feeling was literalised. At least three of them had just signed a three-year lease with no real idea of where they would go when it was up. Rent prices in Brooklyn are skyrocketing; just two weeks after I was there, it was reported that they had risen over 15 per cent in the last year alone.
To make matters even worse, everyone was certain that come the next budget, the funding for the arts programs they depended on would be slashed. These practical problems aside, the existential angst that seems to suffuse American society bled through to their work. One artist that we approached left our email in her inbox for a while, before eventually replying that she didn’t feel able to make anything new and yet none of her pre-2016 pieces felt right anymore.
Much of art’s connection to politics comes from what people bring to it. Perhaps it’s the best example of the observer effect: what may have seemed neutral becomes political, or the lens with which we see something changes after we come back to a work of art years later.
One of the pieces in this exhibition—Oliver Jones’ ‘The Deceitful Season’ (2014)—involves a collection of battered driftwood upon which an excerpt of a misspelled, garbled poem about the weather is printed, which once might have seemed a more straightforward statement about decay or the environment.
Today, though, it feels like a warning, about our own hubris and the dangers of those who lead us: ‘Those, who go out ont the hill with the stalker, kno who w very little their famed prescience is worth’. These changing meanings also affect those trying to exert control, who often find them threatening, although thankfully the situation in the United States has not (yet) come to active repression of artistic expression. It is at times like these, full of crisis and turmoil, that art seems to be at its most confrontational.
One of my strongest memories is of sitting in the back room of my mother’s gallery in 2002, months after the 11 September attacks. In the following years, that space wasn’t so full of the constant political back and forth that was inescapable during the run-up to the war in Iraq and all the following catastrophes, but still allowed a channeling of fear and emotion, a creation of catharsis.
The art on the walls wasn’t always explicit with its politics, but anyone viewing Duston Spear’s ‘War Night’ in 2003 in all its vast horror and beauty couldn’t fail to think of the constant chaos in the news.
Maybe ironically, the show we’re curating now is being exhibited in the shadow of the new World Trade Center building. As a result, there are certain restrictions. The building can’t accept mail—for security reasons—and everyone involved is hypersensitive to the potential implications of any political statements in the show.
Yet politics are at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. The exhibition itself is called Text/ure. It is a collection of art relating to texture, language, and narrative, some conceptual and some verging on representational. A theme common to many of the works involved is how texture, literacy, and the legible work as a part of communication—from the swooping arches reminiscent of the practice-marks as a child learns to write in David Henderson’s ‘History of Aviation’ (2010-17), to the illegible written confessions dipped in beeswax and formed into a honeycomb of Brenna Beirne’s ‘Confessional Cells’ (2014-17) which recognize our own complicity in the hurt of the world.
When the concept of the exhibition was proposed many months ago I had not thought of it in this way, but now the question of how to understand one another when communication is hard seems central, in a time of distrust and hostility.
To me, art like this is exceptionally effective at wrenching us outside our comfort zones, or even the ‘bubbles’ that have seen such a great deal of attention lately. Beirne’s work in particular requires a degree of active participation—as visitors are asked to write down their own confessions as they leave. It doesn’t necessarily work if all you do is glance at it. Instead, it forces the viewer to think, to interrogate, to discuss.
Text/ure opens Tuesday 30th May, at the Shirley Fiterman Art Centre, 81 Barclay Street, New York