SUMMIT, New Jersey — “White Jesus isn’t coming.” It’s an offhand inscription, barely legible, scrawled across the bottom edge of an otherwise meticulously crafted painting/sculpture hybrid by Renée Stout. And she should know. A black woman living in black-majority Washington, DC, she has held a front-row seat for the past year-and-a-half (is that really all it’s been?) to a presidency hellbent on returning the nation to the days of Jim Crow (I’m writing this within an hour of the Trump administration’s announcement of its intention to derail affirmative action in college admissions).
And yet this work wasn’t made in reaction to the steady stream of degradation and depravity issuing from the White House since January 20, 2017. Rather, it was done in 2015, and its title, “Storefront Church Georgia Avenue, NW,” refers to one of the more horrific mass shootings of our current vortex: the massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
And perhaps that rupture in time is the most chilling aspect of the work — that an accident of history could transform it from a shrine for martyrs into a portent of the future. Depicting a church facade, topped by a white wooden cross and festooned with a floral wall pattern (subtly spattered with drops of red) and a real wooden window, whose glass panes have been replaced by a vertical, two-part painting, the work keeps its political subtext close to its vest. The artist, however, is quite clear in her purpose, as stated in a passage on the accompanying wall label:
I made this piece shortly after white supremacist Dylann Roof went into a Charleston Church and shot nine people. As I was looking at Internet images of the demonstrations that followed, I spotted a black woman holding up a sign that said, “White Jesus isn’t Coming.” This is the statement that’s written across the bottom of the painting. The painting, which was done in 2015, is still relevant as far as I’m concerned—especially given the way white Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump (who has aligned himself with white Supremacists) in the 2016 election. What the original sign holder’s statement said was that a white Evangelical version of Jesus will not come to save black people.
As Stout suggests, what is especially startling, and disturbing, is the way the term “White Jesus” has mutated in light of the cultish devotion that Christian Evangelicals — that is, the 50% who are yet to be repulsed by his behavior and beliefs — have lavished on Trump. Is he the White Jesus invoked in the painting? The bible spells out the allure of a false god in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, warning them not to be suckered by the Antichrist:
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned. (2 Thessalonians, 2:9-12)
At the risk of spinning this train of thought too far into the ether, it can be argued that the shifting of context in the realm of art — the ability of an artwork to attract associations like iron filings to a magnet, no matter how much social or political circumstances have altered — offers a form of prophecy that anyone can believe in, simply because, thanks to its closely interrogated object-hood, the work remains true to the moment even as the moment changes. By engaging with it, reading into it, and allowing it to shape our perceptions, we become our own oracles.
Stout’s “Storefront Church” is part of the group exhibition Oh, What a World! What a World! (the famous lament — itself a perennial nugget of shifting contexts — from the Wicked Witch of the West as she dissolves into a sulfurous splat) at the Main Gallery of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, curated by Mary Birmingham. The phrase’s connection to the show, as explained in the introductory wall text, derives from “the loss of control many people felt in the wake of the contentious 2016 presidential election. Since then, American society has become increasingly polarized, with a heightened state of anxiety about the future of the country and the world.” The exhibition “examines how artists are responding to these recent changes” and how “their work addresses issues such as climate change, immigration, politics, gender identity, race relations, feminism, and the state of our democracy.”
To her credit, Birmingham has chosen work that is by and large heavy on ambiguity and light on polemic. Even where meaning lands squarely on the nose — as in Salvadoran artist Fernando Orellana’s “Voice” (2017), featuring robotic wooden machines that, at the push of a big red button, raise and lower signs reading “We the People,” “We Are All Immigrants,” and We Are Human,” among other platitudes — there is room for irony: the protesters, after all, are not people or immigrants or human, but machines, and the raucous noise they make while operating brings to mind, as long as we’re in a biblical mode, the empty monstrations of “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1), devoid of sincerity or conviction.
Elsewhere, a prevailing matter-of-factness weaves a forceful effect. Dahlia Elsayed, with her series of narrative drawings about her attempts to learn Western Armenian via Skype from a Syrian-Armenian refugee, works through the particularities of a dialect to find a shared sense of displacement. The photographs of erupting smoke bombs from the Italian duo Goldschmied & Chiari (set off in their studio), which they have printed on mirrored glass, evoke the mass destruction of modern warfare as well as memories of 9/11, while implicating our reflections in the turmoil.
Mary Jean Canziani has taken a hardback textbook called Basic Anxiety: A New Psychobiological Concept and painted over most of the cover — front, back, and spine, while leaving the title exposed — with a Edward Hopper-ish rural landscape dominated by a churning tornado as it bears down on a tiny yellow and red house cringing in the lower right corner. (Mounted near the gallery entrance, the painting doubles as a Wizard of Oz-themed allusion underscoring the intro text on the opposite wall.)
There are also paintings by David Antonio Cruz that explore race and gender, and one from Olive Ayhens depicting environmental pollution. Zoë Buckman has hung a neon uterus in one of the gallery’s two floor-to-ceiling windows, and Turkish artist Felekşan Onar has placed blown-glass birds, also sparked by the Syrian refugee crisis, on the floor in front of the other. Johannah Herr has contributed two eye-twisting panels, in glittering vinyl on acrylic, based on patent designs for Directed-Energy Weapons, and Enrico Gomez, in his series American Sunsets (2017), has interwoven diagonally spliced painted images of twilit US landscapes with the red and yellow star of the Russian flag, made in response to anti-LGBT violence perpetrated by the Russian government. Kern Samuel, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, offers a sewn-fabric work incorporating words, numbers, and silhouettes raising their arms, as if stopped by the police.
An odd but moving work is Morgan O’Hara’s “Handwriting the Constitution,” an ongoing project she began at the New York Public Library on the day Trump was inaugurated. True to its title, the piece involves hand-copying the US Constitution — not just the words, but also its look and feel. An example mounted on the wall was done on repurposed sheets of 18th-century Italian ledger paper, while a vitrine displays multicolored copies by participants in writing sessions conducted by the artist — primers in direct democracy.
For “Damage Control Observatory” (2017), Julie Wolfe, like Mary Jean Canziani, presses a found book into service, pinning its pages into a large grid on the wall and accentuating them with three-dimensional objects that could have been rescued from a riverbed (the wall label mentions “water samples taken from local and international waterways”) or harvested for spare parts on a Quay Brothers stop-motion animation. The artist’s statement on the wall label reads: “This conceptual installation addresses and explores possible futures, alternative and marginalized ways of knowing, salvage practices and the relationship of human activity to earth systems,” an aspiration dogged by ambivalence as “we search for a new way to exist and build.”
Wolfe’s reference to “the relationship of human activity to earth systems” leads seamlessly into the second exhibition on hand at the Center, also curated by Birmingham. Simply titled Containment, it is a group show installed in the Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Gallery and in a repurposed corridor christened the Marité & Joe Robinson Strolling Gallery. The works featured here are in their own way just as politically relevant as those in the Main Gallery — even more so in recent days, given their concern with shipping and global trade, as retaliations against Trump’s tariffs increase in severity and scope (that shifting context again).
The introductory wall text asserts that “containerization has become the single most significant factor in the globalization of trade. […] Today there are more than 17 million shipping containers in the world, and it is estimated that 90% of purchased consumer goods have traveled by shipping container.” It would then seem preordained that the use of containers would become a conduit for creative ideas, but not necessarily with the variety and imagination on display in this show.
Erin Diebboll, who participated in a program called Container Artist Residency 01, sailing on a container ship from Shanghai to New York, has mounted an irregular grid consisting of dozens of narrowly horizontal patterned drawings across two walls of the Eisenberg Gallery, each one depicting the contents of a container on board. Linda Ganjian created a tabletop sculpture of a seaport in which containers, once submerged in accidents, re-emerge from the waters as Lego-colored blocks. David Packer plays on the pertinence of his own name to the exhibition’s theme, contributing a ceramic container with the word “Packer” emblazoned on its side. And Gabby Miller, who also crossed the Pacific on a container ship, chose to take a more personal, if ironic tack by using heavy crude oil to paint images from family photos belonging to crew members, endowing them with a weathered, sepia-toned nostalgia.
Outside in the Strolling Gallery, Leslie Kerby has commandeered the entire space with a video animation and monoprints on one wall and, on the other, a sprawling, site-specific installation of flattened, cut, pasted, and painted cardboard boxes that incorporates aspects of Analytical Cubism, Piet Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, and Arte Povera into a vibrantly rhythmic frieze of open and closed forms.
Taking the message as the medium, she treats the ubiquity of the cardboard box and its social signification (the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs; the disruption of the brick-and-mortar economy by online merchandisers and its implications for the vitality of cities) as a field for formal invention. While it takes no explicit stance, the installation (titled “The World Contained,” 2018) sublimates a trenchant issue into an intuitive interplay of shape and color, at once gritty and seductive, that feels like an escape into sanity, which is its own kind of redemption.