Asking the Urgent Questions in ‘Us Them We’ at the Worcester Art Museum

Traditionally, modernists focused less on subject and more on form, material, technique, and process. Some artists have taken it to extremes – minimalists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, for example, can be seen as doing purely artistic art.

At times like these, this focus can feel like antiseptic navel-gazing. But such thinking has forged a model for this exhibition, which features 47 artists and is broken down into four formal categories: text, juxtaposition, motif and seriality.

The content is still there, of course. There is no escaping it. But by focusing on the form, the curators create a solid structure to explore the stories, traumas and misunderstandings of racism and other forms of prejudice. The works breathe and dialogue. Many works inevitably fall into more than one category, but this tightens the narrative and thematic threads that run through the show.

The showy, declarative pattern section celebrates cultural features such as the textiles of the Black Is Beautiful movement that appear in Mickalene Thomas’ collage “Interior: Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur” or the shiny “2 Queens” cremation urn of the ceramist Roberto Lugo, adorned with historical symbols. photos of two unknown black women, claiming royalty for people long forgotten or erased.

Erasure is implicit in our American history. In the text section, Karlos Cárcamo uses it strategically in “Untitled (study for the painting ‘Kase’, green).” Cárcamo reproduces the tag of the late graffiti artist Kase 2, then cleans it with the solvent that many communities use to remove street art. He does this over and over again, creating an unreadable, lush surface like the fog of war.

Byron Kim, “Synecdoche: Danielle Brunner, Dominic Shamyer, Ella Kim, George Gountas, Glenn Ligon, Jay Patrikios, Johannes Gachnang, Joanna Bossart, Joseph Benjamin, Konrad Tobler, Kyle Wilton, Louis Barney, Lourdes Mercado, Luciano Berti, Marc Pia , Marvin Siegel, Miguel Maldonado, Niki Hosig, Rémy Pia, Roland Fellmann, Rosa Duran, Ruth Libermann, Sean Casey, Susann Bossart, Vijay Kapoor.”Courtesy picture

On the ground floor, in the gallery of seriality, a deceptively silent painting takes up the old typologies of race and personality. It’s Byron Kim’s — long title alert! — “Synecdoche: Danielle Brunner, Dominic Shamyer, Ella Kim, George Gountas, Glenn Ligon, Jay Patrikios, Johannes Gachnang, Joanna Bossart, Joseph Benjamin, Konrad Tobler, Kyle Wilton, Louis Barney, Lourdes Mercado, Luciano Berti, Marc Pia, Marvin Siegel, Miguel Maldonado, Niki Hosig, Remy Pia, Roland Fellmann, Rosa Duran, Ruth Libermann, Sean Casey, Susann Bossart, Vijay Kapoor.

Kim painted monochrome “portraits” of friends and family members he names in the title and stitched them together in a grid. The color of each panel corresponds to a patch of skin on the subject’s forearm. “Synecdoche”, a literary term for a small piece that represents the whole, here designates a color representing a person. Or we could see this grid and its 25 different skin tones as a synecdoche for humanity – a fraction of the colors of the human race.

On the other side of the gallery hangs Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s photographic triptych, “Byron, Lisa, Emmett” from his “Garden of Delights” series. All three images are digital scans of DNA samples from Kim, his wife and son. Stains and squiggles seem like pure abstraction, but they’re ripe with stories of family and ancestry. Nearby, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” photographic series depicts her own parents struggling to survive in a black working-class community in Pennsylvania. In a way, Frazier’s work is an inversion of Manglano-Ovalle’s. Both are serial works about family, but “Byron, Lisa, Emmett” are front and center in the story, “The Notion of Family.”

LaToya Ruby Frazier, “Momme”, 2008.Courtesy picture

Family resemblances also appear in the juxtaposition section – in “Progress of Queens (L: Devonia, Age 36; R: Nefertiti, Age 36)” by Lorraine O’Grady, pairing a photograph of her late sister with that of a Egyptian sculpture. Queen. Works like those of Frazier and O’Grady have their roots in 20th-century black American artists such as Jacob Lawrence or Allan Rohan Crite of Boston, who rejected abstraction when it was the currency of the kingdom. Telling long-ignored black stories was more important than abstract art’s tendency to focus on the art itself.

Now things have changed. Burns and Sisson can apply modernism’s cool approach to burning themes – and not just to storytelling. The artists here pose urgent questions that “Us Them We” holds, respectfully, in formal containers. No response is provided. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I beg you, be patient with whatever is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” The strict formal constraints of this exhibition engender this patience.

WE THEM US | RACE ETHNICITY IDENTITY

At the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, until June 19. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org


Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

Mildred D. Field