New Dominion, a group show at Mixed Greens, brings together the work of eight artists living and working in Richmond, Virginia. In a cultural moment where it seems as if the state of affairs of the American South has been on everyone’s mind, the show draws a timely focus on the former Confederate capital while still managing to respond, in part, to social dynamics that affect us no matter what region of the world we call home.
Indeed, the former Confederacy is a very far cry from utopia. This fact is especially difficult to ignore when the Confederate flag still decorates license plates, living rooms, and the occasional statehouse. Though many Confederate apologists cry “heritage, not hate” as justification for the continued visibility of the flag in public (southern) spaces, the absurdity of that claim is confronted in Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” (2015) and “Unraveled” (2015). The artist has manually unraveled a Confederate flag — not unlike the many that I have seen proudly displayed in Richmond — as if to say that the work of dismantling white supremacy is laborious, a physical effort.
Still, explicit nods to Richmond’s actual history are minimal. In her curatorial statement, Lauren Ross emphasizes “rebirth and forward-looking change” for Richmond while also examining the ways in which one’s relationship to a place can be informed by wider cultural and political realities such as climate change and race. Or, conversely, the ways in which individual actions — the proud waving of a rebel flag or one’s material consumption habits, for instance — might affect the culture of a place. What would it mean for no more Confederate flags to fly in the former confederate capital? The South? What does the state of a local biological habitat say about a community’s commitment to the environment?
Such an interrogation is made stronger with works by Hope Ginsburg and Susie Ganch. In her single-channel video “Land Dive Team: Rice River Center Wetlands” (2015), Ginsburg and two companions meditate on land, in full scuba gear. The meditation takes place at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Rice Rivers Center located outside of Richmond, an ecological site that has been harmed due to chemical waste. Part of the artist’s Breathing on Land series, the video reckons with and calls attention to the relationship between physical health and the health of the environment in the Richmond area but also asks viewers to consider what restoration and healing could look like in the wake of environmental catastrophe. Ganch’s structurally astounding “Triangle Trade” (2015) comprised of discarded coffee cup tops sourced from cafes in Richmond reflects the ruminations of an artist meditating on the relationship between the environment and collective consumption.
Interdisciplinary media artist John D. Freyer also thinks about interpersonal relationships. Freyer’s “Free Ice Water” (2015) is an ongoing seven-step participatory art project that invites gallery-goers to partake in one-on-one conversations during visits. Before beginning, participants are instructed to fill a mason jar (provided by the artist) to the brim with ice water (also provided by the artist). Upon conclusion of the conversation, both parties take a drink from the jar, refill it, and then seal the jar which is then displayed on a shelf in the gallery. Originally conceived as a method to discuss the often taboo subjects of addiction, mental health, and recovery, the project uses relational aesthetics as a means of centering human relationships. Within the context of this show, participants are encouraged per Freyer’s instruction booklet, to “have a real conversation” on any topic in order to generate intimate, vulnerable moments of introspection.
However, other works featured in New Dominion are not explicitly political in this manner and though intriguing, the architectural paintings of Richard Roth and handmade paper diptych by Ben Durham seem disconnected from the curatorial framework. Sand castle salt forms by Noa Glazer are easily forgettable and the visually striking “POLITICAL CONSTRUCT #1 & #2” (2014), a steel sculpture by Arnold Kemp, is woefully tucked away in a corner of the gallery’s north corridor — a decision that left me quite perplexed.
Without becoming dogmatic, New Dominion is a show that posits that our individual lives and the communities in which we live can be extremely connected, informed by policy but also the aggregated consequences of daily habits. That it is not heavy-handed in this assertion is a reason to commend Ross. Yet, in other ways, its full potential is only half-realized with a few works emerging as clear standouts and others towing the line between artistic placeholders and thematic outliers.
New Dominion continues at Mixed Greens (531 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 17.
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On this topic I highly recommend the show “Dixie” at Cathouse FUNeral Gallery in Brooklyn (260 Richardson Street, Brooklyn). It opens on July 16, 6-9 pm and runs through Sept 6.
DIXIE confronts the South’s history of slavery, exploited labor and fraught racial relations, specifically the struggle for emancipation in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. I saw the central piece “Master/Slave”(2013), a tight grid of twelve stretched canvases representing Confederate flags that are “batiked with blood”. Very powerful. Do not miss it!
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