ST. PAUL, Minnesota — There’s something about having a president who openly promotes hate and fear that makes a country reconsider its foundational values. We are the society that created Trump, that created Dylann Roof, that opened the door for a white supremacist madman to drive his car into a street full of protesters. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.
So it’s time to go back to the drawing board. What are we teaching our children in schools? What are the statues that tower over us in public places? What is the art that visitors see in museums? And if these cultural artifacts embedded in our institutions don’t lay the right framework for creating the open, respectful society we want, perhaps it’s time to do some rethinking.
It’s in this context that the Minnesota Museum of American Art presents We the People, a group exhibition organized by four curators who each grapple with the question of how to reshape our American social contract. The show follows up on a similar investigation the museum undertook two years ago when it presented American Art: It’s Complicated.
Like the earlier exploration, We the People takes an intersectional approach to the question of what makes American art, but this time around, the curators push things a little further in the direction of art with a message and protest art, with many pieces that grapple not only with American identity but with an all-out call for revolution.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong Native American presence in the show, with works that reflect on Standing Rock, Native American mascots, and the recent local controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” that was briefly erected at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, before protests against the Walker Art Center prompted its disposal.
The Twin Cities is a hotbed for Native artists, with at least six galleries that feature either specifically Native American artists or indigenous artists from the Americas more broadly. Two of the four curators for We the People are based in these indigenous communities. Maggie Thompson runs Two Rivers Gallery in Minneapolis, which features Native American artists, and Mary Anne Quiroz is part of the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, which features Latinx and indigenous artists as well as artists of color.
For this exhibit, both curators chose artists who represent current struggles that face Native people. Among Quiroz’s selections are Josue Rivas’s “Standing Strong” (2016), a stark photograph of a scarf-wrapped figure standing on top of a hill, with an encampment in the background. The image captures the harsh conditions that faced the water protectors for months as they camped on the banks of Cannon Ball River in hopes that they could stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being installed.
Cannupa Hanska’s “The Weapon Is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists)” (2017), selected by Thompson, offers a bit of a tongue-in-cheek take on the ephemeral nature of documentation, particularly within a resistance movement. Hanska transfers what appear to be cell-phone photographs of Standing Rock onto ceramic tiles, giving the social media–type images permanence and critiquing the notion of art that “stands the tests of time,” suggesting that a snapshot holds just as much value as a more permanent structure.
That tension — whether a political piece of art can last beyond a particular moment in time — does present itself as a problem in some of the works selected. Beyond a piece of art losing its relevance once a current event is no longer current, there’s a danger that work focused solely on one issue can come to lack nuance. For example, Marlena Myles’s swirling digital-vector print, “Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse” (2017), which takes on Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture, feels a bit flat, especially since that issue has been, for the most part, resolved.
Holly Young’s “Native Nations Rising” (2017), meanwhile, nods to historical uses of ledger paper to create Native American art. Young depicts three figures wearing long skirts and holding umbrellas, each with some element in their outfits that shows off their Native identity. The figures face away from the viewer, looking toward a Native American protester across the street and, farther off, a national monument occupied by tipis. Like Myles’s work, this piece feels like a document of a moment, though Young’s is less specifically placed on a single issue.
Johnnay Leenay’s contributions as curator bring personal reflections by artists within the realm of political art. Many of Leenay’s selections are LGBTQ artists, which, perhaps inherent in issues revolving around those identities, draw on intimate stories of the self and relationships. Dustin Yager’s “Untitled (Trash Can)” (2015) includes a life-sized porcelain garbage can with a drawing of a gay couple on the outside. It stands in front of a mirror, with a roll of paper hung to one side. There’s a note instructing visitors to write a letter to a past, current, or future lover — and then throw it away in the bin. The piece navigates vulnerability, exploring a kind of banal cruelty that comes with romantic relationships. Yager’s work is more personal than political, though perhaps even in our post–same sex marriage era, centering a gay couple is itself political.
Similarly, “Something for Everyone” (2017), Josh Schutz’s erotic tower of porcelain sacs (they look vaguely like condoms filled with sand, or perhaps male organs, though more squishy), promotes a “we’re here, we’re queer” kind of message. More than that, Shutz enters into a titillating exercise with the viewer, due to the sexual nature of the monument.
The final curator, Christopher Harrison, adds an element of abstraction into the mix, choosing works that investigate form as much as content. Tia-Simone Gardner’s installation “Slap!” (2017) features the frame of a screen door standing about a foot in front of a large piece of paper, where a reverse shadow of the door is apparent, plus added textures of perhaps a crocheted table cloth. The work evokes notions of home and safety but also hints at violence. James Maurelle’s intriguing sculpture, “Nile” (2014), constructs copper pipes into a stately form. He transforms objects that usually lie beneath the earth into a moment of beauty, and in doing so, alludes to the labor associated with people than install and clean such pipes. It’s as if he is attempting to upend hierarchies with his work.
Like American Art: It’s Complicated, We the People doesn’t offer a definitive answer to what being in American society is supposed to look like. Rather, the four curators ask viewers to reflect on the somewhat messy task of engaging with American discourse through an intersectional lens. In the end, there’s no one answer, but rather an open dialogue from different perspectives.
We the People continues at Minnesota Museum of American Art (141 East 4th Street, Suite 101, St. Paul,) through October 29.