Art

A Sprawling Show of Artists as Social Critics

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Jeff Sonhouse, “Meeting at the Crossroads” (2003), oil and mixed media on canvas, 75 x 65 x 3 ¼ inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Pizzuti Collection — a nonprofit museum that opened in Columbus, Ohio, just three years ago for the express purpose of publicly showcasing selections from the Pizzuti family’s private art holdings — is currently showcasing Us Is Them, an exhibit that considers a wide-ranging group of international artists as social critics. Spanning several media, much of the work here makes social commentary from the perspective of underrepresented populations. Notably, the show features some of the biggest names in contemporary African-American art, bringing the focus on the fraught nature of black existence in the US.

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Installation view, Titus Kaphar, “Doubt” (2010) and Kehinde Wiley, “Treisha Lowe” (2012) (click to enlarge)

According to Pizzuti Collection Director and Curator Rebecca Ibel, the concept for the show arose organically from the existing and recent acquisitions by the Pizzuti family — a truly international menagerie of sculpture, photography, fiber, video, painting, and mixed media works. Unfolding across three floors of the museum, these objects are aesthetically appealing, but carry heavy concepts of justice and personal expression.

Stalwarts from the American contemporary art scene include Nick Cave, Hank Willis Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Jeff Sonhouse — as well as an entire gallery devoted to female artists, bringing together the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, and Kara Walker. The blurry movements of shadow puppets and suggestion of sexual violence between the cut-out characters in Walker’s video piece “Testimony” (2014) occupy the blank wall space between Weems’s blurred, tinted photographs of black divas and performers in “Slow Fade to Black, Set II” (2009–2010). Staring from across the room is Thomas’s sexually actualized figure in “Tell Her It’s Over” (2006), who sits naked on a bed, making demands of her lover. This gallery could have merely been a grouping by type, but together the pieces amount to a collective impression of shared experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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Mickalene Thomas, “Brawlin’ Spitfire Wrestlers” (2007), resin, paint, Swarovski crystals, 10 x 14 x 9 ¾ inches

Anyone in the Midwest who missed the run of 30 Americans at the Detroit Institute of Arts could drop in on Us Is Them for an encounter with many of the same artists — including an arresting array of works big and small by Wangechi Mutu — but the Pizzuti Collection is also engaging in its points of departure from the established mainstream of contemporary art. For example, works in the all-female gallery on the top floor include button-embellished dolls and a multimedia painting by local hero Aminah Robinson, a mainstay of collections in the Columbus area, but lesser known outside her hometown.

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Aminah Robinson, “Dolls” (1997), mixed media, boy: 14 ½ x 8 ½ x 2 ½ inches; girl: 13 x 6 ½ x 4 inches

The artworks are grouped into broad, roughly continental regions (USA, Europe, African & The Carribean, China, Middle East, South America, New Zealand), but what most drew my attention were the smaller connections between pieces that hint at a kind of secret life of artworks. For example, “Doubt” (2010) by Titus Kaphar, where a figurative bronze male kneels in fervid anguish. Viewed head-on, attention is drawn to the Classic European details (including a white man) visible in an oil painting crumpled in his desperate grip; viewed from behind, it seems as though Kaphar’s figure is kneeling before Kehinde Wiley’s “Treisha Lowe” (2012), perhaps astonished or reverential to have found a regal black woman lurking below the surface of the painting he tore away. Again, the gallery groupings could be seen as merely aesthetic exercises within collections by type (United States male artists), but together they build narratives beyond, perhaps, any explicit intent to do so.

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Installation view, Marthine Pascale Tayou, “Le M’KAM VU, La société secrète ou le conseil des 9” (2001), and El Anatsui “Plot a Plan II” (2007)

On the ground floor, two clusters of glass figurines draped in patchy garments and detailed tribal accessories by Marthine Pascale Tayou, collectively titled Le M’KAM VU, La société secrète ou le conseil des 9 (2001), face each other in the suggestion of a tribal ritual or meeting. The collection of eight figures stands in two groups, bracketing a wall piece by El Anatsui, “Plot a Plan II” (2007) so that Tayou’s “council” seems to be discussing the texture- and color-rich draped tapestry. On the opposing wall, two 2014 photographic portraits by Omar Victor Diop oversee the scene; they feature a young African man dressed in costumes that smack of Renaissance portraiture, but include the accessories of a contemporary soccer player. The gallery collectively presents an active conversation around African identity, with ancient traditions, colonialism, and the efforts to salvage a new contemporary identity from the waste and influence of capitalism all struggling for focus.

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Installation view, Yinka Shonibare, “Magic Ladder Kid IV” (2014), mannequin, dutch wax printed cotton textile, fiberglass, wooden ladder, steel baseplate, globe, 115 x 55 x 32 inches (click to enlarge)

From the playful entryway installation of Yinka Shonibare “Magic Ladder Kid IV” (2014) — where a globe-headed mannequin-girl in an exquisite handmade dress mounts a wooden ladder with rungs made of canonical books that were mainstays of British colonial efforts to “teach” native children — to nearly an entire gallery devoted to a 2000 portrait series by political performance artist Zhang Huan, Us Is Them is all about eye-catching moments. Like Zhang’s “Family Tree” (2000), which chronicles the progression of an event staged by the artist, inviting three friends to write on his face. Over the course of nine 87” x 70” C-prints, the artist’s face becomes so thick with black-inked characters that he becomes an inhuman-looking blackened mass. But taken in gallery-sized bites, the unrest and dissent underlying many of the works seem to rise like steam off hot pavement. Zhang, pictured from the shoulders up, stares unflinchingly in a staring contest the viewer is bound to lose. “More culture is slowly smothering us and turning our faces black,” says Zhang in his artist statement. “In the middle of my forehead, the text means ‘Move the Mountain by Fool (Yu Kong Yi Shan).’ This traditional Chinese story is known by all common people, it is about determination and challenge.”

While many of the works within Us Is Them are quite beautiful, their surface appeal becomes the bait that conceals the hook of political or social commentary, the real conflict at the root of these artists’ creations.

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Installation view, Zhang Huan, “Family Tree” (2000), C-print on Fuji archival paper, 87 x 79 inches each

Us Is Them continues at the Pizzuti Collection (632 North Park Street, Columbus, Ohio) through April 2. 

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