What is the American identity? We are experiencing a time of intense debate when it comes to who and what is considered American. As the push against the United States’ melting pot heritage continues, three Toledo-based artists’ works are brought together to examine what it means to be American; a concept which can be encapsulated by a single word: difference.
A mix of painting, collage, and ceramic sculpture from Josh Byers takes a trip down memory lane by presenting a nostalgic, yet sharp, look at formative years. Sketches and doodles of pop-cultural icons and consumables litter the work: Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy covers, Etch A Sketches, and Trapper Keepers. Images of buxom celebrities, and manly heroes of the seventies and eighties exude a distinct masculinity that was a hallmark of the their time, as well as echo the male anxiety that was a defining feature of Reagan’s America. Byers’ work speaks of the quintessential American infatuation with pop-culture and its fads, trends, and advertising that, to this day, is still growing strong.
American identity can’t be boiled down to consumption alone, there’s also aspects of rejection inherent within it. Faith Goodman’s work deals with a rejection of identity due to not meeting the expectations of one’s culture. Goodman processes this struggle through use of stereotypes and foods commonly associated with Black culture, appropriating typically racist caricatures to subvert expectations built from decades of ignorance. Mixed media and paintings confront the viewer with issues that many would rather just ignore or erase: imagery of watermelons with seeds in formation of how slaves were packed into ships as they were abducted, sculptures created from weaves, hair and tar, and depictions of voluptuous and vicious feminine forms. The confrontational work is timely, echoing the struggles – historically and contemporarily – that Black Americans are facing in this time of intense opposition.
The instability of existence, whether it’s due to social, economical, or political circumstances, is dealt with through issues of boundaries and mobility in David Cuatlacuatl’s work. Paintings and mixed media collage feature figures from pop-culture and found objects, giving them new meaning and life in disjointed compositions. The work is simplistic, an intentional move that takes a jab at the idea of value and hierarchies, which seem to constantly shift. Concepts of conquest – of nature, body, and consumption – are depicted on flat, matte surfaces, never following a linear path. The elements in Cuatlacuatl’s work come together to form snippets of a story, never presenting the full version, though we really don’t need it.
We’re currently in a time where the idea of what’s American is a polarizing issue. These three artists’ works meld together to show that the American identity is more complex, complicated, and varied than most would care to admit. This exhibition serves as a timely reminder that identity, American or otherwise, is always in flux and comprised of so many elements that the only constant factor is difference.
Heterogeneous: States of American is on view until March 4th. For more information visit http://www.river-house-arts.com/