SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — As Fox News recently faced fresh allegations of devising and promulgating fake news, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona was installing an exhibition that examines the diverse ways artists are using language to counter propaganda past and present, while also imagining radically different futures.

Language in Times of Miscommunication features works created by 18 American artists between 2016 and 2023, a period of United States history marked by identity politics, divisive language, and alternative narratives.

On one level, the exhibition serves as a guide to recent political strife: Ann Morton’s embroidered Proof-Reading series, for example, was prompted by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, its editing marks cleverly changing the meanings of some of the former president’s most divisive declarations. 

Pick any issue addressed in mainstream or social media during the past decade and you’re likely to find it represented here. There’s Patrick Martinez’s neon on Plexiglas “Nothing Is Up but the Rent” (2021), for example, and Andrea Bowers’s flashing “Abolish ICE” (2018), created with cardboard and LED lights. 

Fortunately Lauren R. O’Connell, who curated the exhibition along with Keshia Turley, didn’t settle for crafting a visually compelling tour of America’s current forays into capitalism, fascism, and racism. Instead, the museum has gathered artworks that address the roots and antecedents of contemporary social injustices, including a trio of sculptures from Jeremy Dean’s Fundament series confronting foundational systems of white supremacy in Florida, the state where recent headlines highlighted book bans and curriculum changes meant to erase the histories and deny the humanity of entire groups of people.

April Bey, “Welcome to Atlantica” (2019)

While making the case that lies of omission and commission are a feature, not a bug, of the nation’s systems of repression and oppression, exhibiting artists also create space to imagine futures that move past the nihilism that so much propaganda seems designed to reinforce, in part by centering individual and collective action. 

Inside the museum, viewers see April Bey’s glittering “Welcome to Atlantica (Hotel Room Planet Guide),” a 2019 artist book conceived as a guide to a mythological place where Black culture thrives, and Safwat Saleem’s “Concerned but Powerless: Rough Translation” (2023), a digital video in which the artist talks with his young daughter about words and concepts related to xenophobia. Behind the museum, one of Anna Tsouhlarakis’s (Navajo, Creek, Greek) billboard vinyl pieces from the series The Native Guide Project (2019–ongoing) faces an arts district marketed as a hub for Native art, where it challenges stereotypical views of Native American people while driving narratives of the future. Minimalist black text reading “IT’S GREAT HOW YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT NATIVE AMERICANS ARE STILL HERE” counters popular assumptions about the aesthetics of Native art while questioning art world practices related to land acknowledgments.

William Powhida’s “Possibilities for Representation” (2020–ongoing), an expansive watercolor and gouache installation comprising a timeline of the United States’ political history and several imagined futures, speaks to the existence of propaganda across time with an elegant mix of history and humor, conveyed in part through images culled from the overlapping realms of politics and pop culture.  

Collectively, these artists prompt viewers to question and resist propaganda in its many forms, including frenetic tweets and endless breaking news headlines aimed at creating such a singular focus on the urgency of the now that memories of the past, visions for the future, and the actions they demand, no longer exist. 

Ann Morton, works from the Proof-Reading series
Jeremy Dean, “Fundament III”
William Powhida, “Possibilities for Representation,” detail (2020–ongoing)

Language in Times of Miscommunication continues at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 East 2nd Street, Scottsdale, Arizona) through August 27. The exhibition was curated by Lauren R. O’Connell with Keshia Turley.

Lynn Trimble is an award-winning writer based in Arizona who specializes in arts reporting and arts criticism for regional and national publications.