Andrea Kirsh’s provocative title, Sharp-Tongued Figuration, suggests artwork that will unsettle the exhibition’s viewers. They might be jostled, speared, bumped in to, jabbed, or elbowed as a pedestrian might be on a bustling street or boarding a crowded subway. But it’s the voice, and in this case the artist’s voice—translated into images—that is sharp. The artists’ barbs are intended to rattle, unnerve, or otherwise disturb the complacency of expectations that viewers bring into an art gallery. Each artist employs figurative imagery in her own vernacular; this approach allows for exaggerated characters and situations, that relate back to our lived reality while accentuating its tensions and conflicts.
The Stedman Gallery of the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts welcomes back Andrea Kirsh as guest curator. Andrea’s earlier curatorial project in Spring 2015, From the Digital Tool Box, presented the work of four artists who worked digitally. Each artist used different tools to create a wide array of subject matter and media.
Sharp-Tongued Figuration brings together five artists with very different agendas, each animated by a compelling tone or agitated emotional state: Sue Coe’s drawings express anger at human cruelty; Nell Painter rewrites exclusive and biased narratives; Mickalene Thomas asserts an aggressive African American aesthetic of the body; Kukuli Velarde recovers the voice of devalued indigenous Andean culture; and Sandy Winters imagines unsettling visions of environmental degradation. These artists describe our world we know in reimagined and disorienting ways. It’s an experience the Stedman Gallery is pleased to offer you the viewer.
Associate Director of Exhibitions
Director, Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts
Andrea Kirsh, Sharp-Tongued Figuration
Sue Coe’s art is born from anger. It is the same anger that drove previous artists
including Francisco Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz and Jose Clemente Orozco who address war and social upheaval to chronicle mankind’s worst behavior. Trained as an illustrator, the British artist moved to New York City in 1972 and immediately found work with the New York Times creating illustrations for the Magazine and the op-ed pages. For a decade her illustrations appeared there and in Time Magazine, The New Yorker, and other major publications. But she became tired of being told to tone down her work so as not to offend readers or advertisers. Coe’s continuing anger stems from her opposition to values inherent to capitalism: it establishes hierarchies among people, places human interests above the rights of other living creatures, and emphasizes financial values over ethical ones. She believes that violence done to animals and that done to other humans stem from the same morality.
The artist describes herself as Nell Painter (the artist formerly known as the historian Nell Irvin Painter) and the theme of multiple possibilities runs through her work and life. Painter tells stories with visual imagery, and her primary concern is what her tools allow her to say. Hers are stories left out of traditional histories, told with the freedom of visual fiction. Painter’s work as both artist and historian come together most clearly in her series of Black Sea Composite Maps (2012). Most of us think of maps as standard conventions for representing geography as it is. Painter understands them as visualizations of stories located in a particular time, hence histories, with as much room for mistakes, omissions, or bias as any form of storytelling. She began the Black Sea Composite Maps after finishing The History of White People, which included the story of the white slave trade.
Mickalene Thomas offers an alternative to a culture where commercial standards of female beauty and sexuality are routinely used to sell products. There are both personal and political motivations behind her billboard-sized paintings of strong, African American women. Her subjects are all part of her life, beginning with her late mother, Sandra Bush, whom she credits as her first muse. Thomas reveals the femininity and sexuality of black women on their own terms, and glorifies a standard of beauty beyond the limited examples promoted by commercial interests; she says she “claims the space [of art] for these women.” The artist is also a woman, looking at other women and desiring them. While her art often refers to well-known depictions of women from European art history—all painted by men—Thomas’s models are subject to her female gaze—and given that they are family, friends and lovers, it is both personal and loving.
The art of Kukuli Velarde is a channel through which she explores the Quechua, her indigenous Andean ancestors and their lineage up to modern times. The artist has said “My art is a straight line from where I came from to who I am.” When the Spanish conquered Peru they forced the population to abandon their religion and language, Quechua. In post-colonial Peru they were looked down upon, marginalized and exploited. When Velarde came to the U.S., that part of her background was obscured by the umbrella label, Hispanic. She studied the ceramics of numerous pre-Columbian cultures as well as the paintings produced by Peruvian artists under Spanish rule. These ostensibly Catholic images inevitably contained syncretic manifestations of their own culture. In 1991 she began working in ceramics, all of which make reference to pre-Columbian examples. In reaction to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, she began a series titled We, The Colonized Ones (1992-1995). It is the response of the indigenous population to those who would have obliterated their culture.
Sandy Winters has envisioned an imaginary world that viewers are prepared to believe in. Its plausibility is due in part to its humorous edge and the fact that, despite the artist’s refined technique and large formats, it bears a distant resemblance to comics. Her titles underline the humor: Quick Sand and Slow Dogs, Trojan Duck, Goodyear and Bad Times. Credibility also derives from the familiarity of her landscape settings. We recognize the leafless trees and stumps, areas of grass, and bodies of water as consistent with the world we know, so are willing to overlook the intertwined tree branches that look more like mammalian circulatory systems than like any botanical forms we have ever seen, and trunks that sprout keloid-like scars and other protrusions that only make sense as science fiction.