After witnessing the first month of 2017, it was made brutally obvious that this year, and the years to come, will focus on issues of identity. From the historic post-inaugural Women’s March to the shocking Muslim ban, identities are being questioned and redefined like never before. The Portland Art Museum has chosen to address this issue head on: the first exhibit opened this year is entitled “Constructing Identity,” a collection of African American art from the Petrucci Family Foundation. This exhibition opened Jan. 28 and will remain open until Jun. 18.
The exhibit’s diverse content was shocking. Pieces are incorporated from as early as 1908. More than 80 African American artists’ work is showcased and mediums vary from standard oil on canvas to bottlecaps and recycled materials. You could say this exhibit is a bit different from the repetitive Andy Warhol exhibit that had occupied the space previously–not to mention the predominantly European, Italian Renaissance-inspired exhibit across the hall.
This exhibit’s pieces have been categorized into six central themes: “abstraction,” “community,” “faces,” “gender,” “spirit” and “the land.” As it is nearly impossible for me to review each piece (in addition to that ruining all the fun), I have decided to pick the piece I found most striking in each category to provide a snapshot of the gallery as a whole.
The museum defined “abstraction” as a “series of songs without words” or, in another sense, pieces showing the essence of African American culture. I found Marita Dingus’s “Blue Quilt” the most captivating in this category. While I struggled to relate some abstraction pieces to African American culture, the quilt demonstrated a key aspect of it, along with its aesthetic appeal.
Next, “community” focused on defining identity and “how African Americans shaped – and were shaped – by America.” When focusing on this theme, I was torn between an ironic piece and a more sentimental one, so I decided to include them both. One is entitled “Afro Abe” by Sonya Clark, a mere five dollar bill with an afro drawn on it (do with that what you will), and “Mattoon #4” by Debra Priestly, consistenting of images of the artist’s own family in mason jars.
Moving on, the “faces” theme strives to show the defining elements of African American faces in a culture where they are often deemed inferior. Nelson Stevens defies these cultural boundaries in his piece, “Spirit Sister,” using silkscreen to print vivid color on an African American woman’s face.
The works of the “gender” category were some of my favorite, resisting stereotypical representations of Afican American woman in popular culture. Arvie Smith’s “Trapeze Artist” is one of the exhibit’s defining pieces. Smith used his firsthand experience in the Jim Crow South to show the beautiful imperfections of an African American woman in vibrant oil colors.
The museum defines the spirit category as pieces that “manifest in the openness to the ecstatic potency of being.” Interestingly, these pieces focused less on making a social statement and more on entertainment. The deceased Gregory Warmarck’s “Guitar,” for example, is made out of bottle caps and other recycled materials, giving it a sort of bedazzled effect and making it one of the exhibit’s stand-out pieces.
The final category, “the land,” focuses on nature, home and sense of place. Mickalene Thomas’s “Landscape Majestic” was the first piece to genuinely captivate me in the Museum. Thomas used a mix of woodblock, silkscreen and digital print to collage images of nature and objects of symmetry together. In addition to the themed pieces, “Constructing Identity” includes an educational community gallery entitled “The Art is Ours.” By partnering with Museum of Impact (MOI), the museum was able to create an interactive element for museum-goers; there are more than 30 African American art history books and a community artistic response wall. Since the exhibit had just opened, the exhibit was sparse at the time of attendance. I would, however, be interested to see what pieces fill it in the months to come.
The museum is working hard to include the community in this exhibit by whatever means possible. On Feb. 11, the event “Constructing Identity: Conversations of African American Art & Culture” is being a held: a two-part program bringing the collection’s curator and many featured artists together for panel discussions and gallery talks. In the context of 2017, I believe this event could not be more relevant for LC. students and the Portland community as a whole.