What does activist art look like these days? What did it look like in the 1970s? Two exhibitions at the Frye Art Museum showcase art that reflects injustice, art that is both engaging and painful, art that motivates us to think about the way we receive and inhabit the world around us.
The two exhibitions are similar in their messages and their commitment to storytelling, but they also reflect a generational spread, a different approach to making socially engaged art.
Curtis R. Barnes has been a force in Seattle for more than 50 years. “The Unicorn Incorporated” is a retrospective, bringing together his marvelous line drawings which quiver on the blank page with humor and insight, his dense and moody paintings, and documentation about his mural work and his editorial cartoons for the Afro American Journal, a weekly published in Seattle in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During a recent walk-through, Barnes repeatedly stated that the art speaks for itself. He may begin with an image or issue in mind, but the pen or the brush takes him where it will. He is an old-school, process-driven artist who uses the familiar narrative forms of drawing, painting and print to communicate his points about racism, education and sexuality.
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On the other hand, in another exhibition, three young men — one of whom is the son of Curtis R. Barnes — have a whatever-it-takes approach. Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin and Nep Sidhu use everything from jewelry and carved wood to video and pirate radio. And they have plenty to say about the layers of concepts embedded in their work.
Alley-Barnes kicked off the press walk-through by saying that the original title of the exhibition was going to be “Oh, Ye Parasites, Your Feast has Ended,” a reproachful signal to the viewer that this art addresses ideas of power, opportunism and devastation. The ceremonial flavor conjures up images of a gluttonous historical episode being confronted and corrected over the remains of a feast.
Indeed, the exhibition is full of ritual and relics. The three artists explore how meaning is transmitted through personal and cultural symbols and through institutions that are controlled by those in power.
Alley-Barnes has created a series of “pelts” out of found objects which the artist arranges and mounts to the wall. “Wait! Wait! Don’t Shoot (An Incantation for Jazz and Trayvon)” comprises a jacket, pants, military insignia and other items found over the years at thrift stores. The composition appears to be several things at once: a bearskin trophy and a crouching human figure whose hands are held up in a pleading gesture of surrender. It’s a poignant tribute to Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot in 2012, and, in the artist’s words, “a reflection on Florida’s stand-your-ground law and America’s relentless assault on young black men.”
Clothing, regalia and other symbols of adornment play a prominent role in the exhibition. An installation of garments, designed and made by Sidhu, stretches across one wall of the gallery. The forms are masculine, stylish and chock full of complex symbolism that ranges from biker gear to the insignia of indigenous peoples.
One of the most impactful pieces in the show is Galanin’s “Inert,” a wolf that rises up from a splayed, powerless fur to become a fierce creature. Galanin, who is of Tlingit and Aleut heritage, conjures up implications about the deboning and display of a culture, but also its irrepressible potency.
This art makes us think: Do we merely adopt the clothes, the insignia, the structures given to us? Or can we alter and change these symbols? These artists, having learned from their elders (such as Curtis R. Barnes), take their familial and cultural lessons and update them in deft and daring ways. They are clearly in control of their means and their messages.
The Frye is making a statement with this combination of exhibitions. By mounting a retrospective of Curtis R. Barnes’ work, the museum restates its commitment to the local arts community. By pairing the retrospective with an edgy show of three emerging artists — one from Seattle (Alley-Barnes), one from Alaska (Galanin) and one from Toronto (Sidhu) — the museum shapes its commitment to wide-reaching, contemporary art.
In both shows, the art is not always easy to encounter. It can be confrontational, heartbreaking, thought-provoking. Exactly what activist art should be.