It looks like a blanket, though it might be a flag. There’s an image on it, taken from the most famous work of Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter, entrepreneur and abolitionist who founded the Wedgwood pottery works, with its signature cameo effect, in 1759. In 1787, he made his most influential work: this figure of a nearly nude Black man, kneeling in chains, holding his bound hands up in supplication, surrounded by the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” It’s been modified, torn and repaired, now draped over one shoulder, like a Roman toga, of a man who also wears a skull cap that resembles a laurel wreath. He holds a blood-red, mangled-looking ceramic object before his chest like the sacred heart of a holy icon. Yelaine Rodriguez’ “Saso” turns slightly away from the viewer and tilts his head back, guarded and a bit aloof, as befits one submitting himself as if for inspection.
His companion, Yaissa, confronts the viewer more directly, her head surrounded by a spray of flowers like a nimbus or halo. A stole of pleated fabric wraps around her, incompletely covering her and revealing not the nude glimpse that historical precedent leads viewers to expect, but an unmistakably modern, form-fitting foundation garment similar to the one he wears. She holds a conch in one hand, the thumb and forefinger of the other hand forming a divine circle, while the other fingers point to the shell even as they suggest a well-known, rude gesture. Their mixture of historical details and self-conscious poses speak in a new language still coming into its full power. Gazing at this pair, the viewer may feel captivated by their charisma, the power of their presence.
Precisely half a century ago, women began to give themselves the credit as artists they’d always been denied by men. While they, along with other marginalized groups, still operate at a disadvantage — an injustice too readily accepted by both men and women — it’s certainly become an exciting time for art. Too often, however, art is portrayed as a powerful political force, which it has never been. Yet Afro Dominican York artist Yelaine Rodriguez nevertheless demonstrates the power of art: if not to effect change, then to reveal change even as it occurs. The designation “Afro Dominican York,” for instance, came about as a derogatory term for Dominicans of African descent who immigrated to New York and were later expelled for behavior that would have been tolerated in other populations. In time, the slur was adopted by some Dominicans as a form of identification. “Saso” and “Yaissa,” meanwhile, possess the presence and project the impact of Baroque portraits. This is partly due to their outsize presence and the visual power of their gaze, and also to the way the artist presents them, ornamented with ribbons, cowrie shells, and beads. Each image is also accompanied by an actual object that was held by the subject in the photo, which is like having an eye witness, someone who was there when the picture was created and which, by being present in the gallery, testifies to its authenticity and connects the subjects and artist with their audience. It feels ironic that so much unique expression of individual identity is here reduced to a single component: the marginalization of entire groups, rather than their accomplishments.
Frontier tailors cut vents into the seams of their buckskin garments so the leather would dry faster. In time this fringe became a fashion statement on fine clothing, such as is seen in the fringe on Yaissa’s shawl. Around the margins of a text is where minor details that nevertheless matter are placed: in footnotes and glosses and so forth. A lot of things happen on the “fringes” that may be small and obscure, but are not trivial. Like most new lifeforms, mammals evolved on the margins of a world dominated by more successful species — dinosaurs, in that case — scratching out a living there for more than a hundred million years until a meteorite gave them a chance in the sun. In the past, then, being on the margin has been an opportunity to freely adapt from the perfectly useful and still functional materials that, having been bypassed by those in search of the new, accumulate there.
Speaking of margins, it’s taken for granted that Africans dragged to the New World against their wills transformed folk music with new dynamics, chord structures, and sounds, and that the results, including jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and rock-and-roll, all made the journey from the margins of music to center stage. What’s not so well known, except to some alternative art historians, is that portraits, still-lifes, botanicals, and a host of other art forms were invented by women working in the margins of art, where they had been forced to live on their wits by the dinosaurs of painting and sculpture, and that only when their intriguing innovations became so popular they began to destabilize the markets did men take possession of them.
Today, of course, it’s not control, but attention that is sought after; those who would conquer the world by force are widely excoriated while giant corporations compete with sensationalism for our attention. The four women featured in UMOCA’s Beyond the Margins, though, bring back proven pleasures from the margins, where they survive along with their enduring cultures; bring them with skill and forcefulness to offer a respite from mere novelty. That’s not to say there is nothing new here, rather that today’s content is dressed in proven, historic forms. To take another example, cut paper is an accessible craft medium widely and brilliantly employed by poor peoples, but elevated by Puertorriqueña Frances Gallardo not by doing it better, but by using it to achieve something more than a decorative effect. Paper cutting is a two-dimensional medium, but it’s done like carving, by removing what is not wanted. Lenka Konopasek, Utah’s Bohemian arts transplant, resolves this dilemma brilliantly by assembling cut paper into bristling sculptures and bas-reliefs. Gallardo, whose island home has known devastating hurricanes, uses four overlapping layers in her “Carmela” to represent not just meteorological facts, but sometimes violent psychic, emotional, cultural and political patterns of behavior, rendered in sculptural depth.
Tamara Kostianovsky takes extraordinary risks in large, colorful, frequently hanging sculptures that represent the violence of human exploitation in the animal world. The danger is that viewers will mistake the art for a celebration of slaughtered livestock and butchered trees. Her defense might be that by rendering them in colorful materials she preserves their living beauty into death and dismemberment. One body of her work is titled “Actus Reus,” or guilty act, a legal term that refers to the external or objective element of a crime, which under law must be accompanied by the mens rea — a guilty mind — in order for there to be criminal liability. In other words, merely not feeling guilty cancels the heinousness of how many humans treat nature. “Every Color of the Rainbow” presents a hung turkey that revolves before the viewer’s eye. Benjamin Franklin once proposed the Turkey as an alternative to the scavenger Bald Eagle as the American national symbol, and still today, the Wild Turkey is the world’s fastest bird in level flight. Seen in the gallery, fettered and with feathers made of worn out scraps of cloth adroitly chosen and appliquéd to emphasize how far they’ve fallen, the ironically titled “Every Color of the Rainbow” speaks to what’s become of Franklin’s vision for the newly invented nation and its ideals.
In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf argues that because art had always been a male prerogative, so that the world it presents was always a male world, women could only succeed as artists by making male art. Today, thanks in no small part to the influence of Woolf’s insight over the intervening years, we can all share the way Nancy Rivera turns the tables on one of the male artists who took possession of what had been a female subject, the botanical study, and made it his own. As she recounts in the story of her “Impossible Bouquets,” she was inspired by Jan van Huysum, an 18th century Dutch painter who spent up to two years on each of his stunt bouquets, painting in flowers that in those days could not be found in the same place or grown at the same time, so that when completed the contents of his vases spanned the whole world and the calendar year in a single bouquet. Rivera’s response was to reproduce these collections using entirely artificial flowers, which could be put before her camera all at once. Thus she calls attention once again to the treachery of the image, not just as a modern notion but, as Huysum’s example shows, formerly a well-known fact. The notion of “Truth in art” has been much discussed in philosophical debates and discourses throughout art’s history, but in Rivera’s response we see how a time-honored understanding has been undercut by technology. The spurious credibility of the photograph turns one artist’s gift to the world into a deception that, while harmless and perhaps even charming in this context, has undermined our cultural ability to differentiate between convincing, but deceptive fictions, and the truth on which so much depends.
Beyond the Margins: An Exploration of Latina Art and Identity, curated by María del Mar González-González, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 4