The Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design and Georgia State University present its 3rd Year MFA exhibition, Cultural Maladjustment at Aqua Art Miami 2016. This is Georgia State’s sixth consecutive year to participate at the satellite fair now in its eleventh year. The exhibition offers a glimpse of what is possible when afforded the luxury of time, focus and unfettered exploration. The art fair experience is a marquee highlight of our MFA program, and provides real world practice for our studio artists, as well our graduate art history candidates who contribute to the editorial content of the catalog.
by Sarah Workneh • Co-Director, Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture
“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1)
I can’t pretend that I am not writing this essay at this exact moment – on the eve of an historic election (even though by the time this goes to print the anxiety of this moment will hopefully have passed). The historic moment should be the election of the first female President of the United States of America, but in many ways that history, while deeply related to the election of a woman on the heels of the election of a black man, is overshadowed by the historic divisive and vitriolic nature that has characterized this election year in America.
I also can’t pretend that I am not writing an essay about young artists who live and work down the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church and the home of Martin Luther King Jr.’s archives. These two realities that I can’t pretend to ignore are, of course, related and more importantly they set the frame under which these nine artists – consciously and unconsciously – are making work.
On December 18th, 1963 at Western Michigan University – some 757 miles from Atlanta, some 53 years from today – Dr. King delivered a lesser known speech proposing a new organization – The Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment (first introduced to me by the artist Cauleen Smith) in which he argues:
“Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word ‘maladjusted.’ This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well‐adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis, schizophrenic personalities.
But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of goodwill will be maladjusted until the good societies realize.” (2)
And in this historic-for-other-reasons moment, I find myself thinking…and looking…listening…and looking again…at the world and the work presented in this exhibition. While our world at the moment is filled with voices, claiming of spaces, and identities defined by anger and grievance, the artists in this exhibition present their voices, their histories, and their identities with the glorious and empowered maladjustment for which Dr. King so rightfully advocated. What we have lost sight of as a nation in this election, these artists have made personal, universal, and resonant. Class, economics, immigration, gender identity, lineage, inherited histories, disinherited histories, environment – these are their stories. Some of the stories are more overtly narrative than others, but they hold in common, despite their rightfully disparate representations, nine individuals who choose to forefront and engage a struggle to locate themselves inside of their histories and experiences.
We can almost telescope through the nine artists, beginning in the macro with Kathleen Sharp’s rich, illusionistic photographs that use light to betray dimension and space. Ensconced in a deep single color, the viewers’ senses are violently reduced to create an ambiguous landscape. Sharp’s Red Series is an experiential exercise in disorientation that creates a physical space that is both serene and aggressive, and asks the viewer to distinguish between realities and fictions.
Where Sharp’s architectural and dimensional works leave the viewer in a psychological space, Joe Hadden’s textural paintings are an exploration in surface. The works, highly dependent on the artist’s process and muscle memory, are as autobiographical as they are geographic. The surfaces themselves are almost dystopian in their reflection of chemical and organic decay. The combination of entropy and abstraction become a metaphor for loss and the attempt to regain control.
Where Hadden’s work can be located somewhere in a sci-fi atemporal universe, Larkin Ford’s paintings, despite being dystopian themselves, exist in a specific landscape: the Gothic American South. The paintings function almost as parables, but exist in ambiguous time, where the viewer is never sure if the decay, chaos, gore, and debasement takes place as a warning of a future or a past. The specificity of each scene can resonate on a personal level—you’ve experienced something like this or know someone who has. Regardless, the hope lies in the truth of the portrayals.
A mixture of familial folklore and personal experience underpin the abstract, yet bodily ceramic forms that Michelle Laxalt creates. The physical feats performed by the objects themselves, balancing on their weighted and awkward forms, convey both a fragility and a stature that mimics the life cycle of a body strengthened over a lifetime, yet steadily weakened through age. The evidence of hand in the surface of the material is referent to the care worked in over time. Laxalt’s objects, in these forms, function simultaneously as “patients” but also as talismans – imbued with all of the magical healing that is part of southern and rural culture. These talismans move beyond the discomfort of the ailment, and act as vessels of healing.
In her seminal text On Photography, Sontag states “[a]s photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people take possession of space in which they are insecure.” (3) Where Laxalt’s work seeks to alleviate the insecurity of the physical body, her peers, the photographers John Prince, Ben Bowden Lee, and Tyler Mann, look both to pasts and temporal insecurities to negotiate personal history and identity.
John Prince’s series Aluminum City is inherently linked to a previous body of work The Near and Elsewhere. Both projects are an exploration of a family history in post-industrialized zone and the cataloguing of what remains. Aluminum City’s focus is on New Kensington, Pennsylvania and its socio-economic relationship with Modernism and the outside world which it is subject to. Prince’s eye tends towards a documentary style that confesses its historiography, and yet conveys the distance and objectivity that comes from someone searching to understand a generation from which he is removed.
Ben Bowden Lee’s works, rather than existing as documentary, weave unknown or lost narratives back together. The works themselves expand photography’s mechanical limitations – in some works through digital manipulation of personal family photographs, and in others by placing found images in relation to others through more sculptural interventions. The images are linked through formal relationships as well as content and invite the viewer to fill in the gaps, as if reading the memories of family histories lost. The images are not always pretty or easy, but portray narratives of human relationships not often discussed – the kinds of liminal images that were captured before the self-reflexive awareness that came with digital technology.
Tyler Mann’s road photos are searching, much like Prince’s, yet are centered around locating the body (even when it’s not physically present) in the vast, non-specific America that lives outside of urban centers but thrives in great American literature. They tell a story compounded as the narrative builds with each successive image. Placing his body, over time, over space, in zones of relative discomfort and unknowing, Mann’s photographs are quietly anxious, wistful and sensitive, and an exercise in contemporary Manifest Destiny—claiming America for trans bodies. Again, Sontag: ”[p]hotographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made.” (4)
Society and its slowness has made the transbody a political body, much in the way that bodies of color are forcibly made political bodies. Elham Masoudi, who arrived in the US just two and a half years ago, brought with her a critical eye towards the political limitations placed on female bodies and voices of dissent within Iranian culture. But like the other artists in her cohort, Masoudi is ready to complicate what we think we know about censorship within Iran. Through painting, installation and reclaiming the censorship tool of pixelation, Masoudi explores the rich cultural lives underneath the mask of the hijab and behind the closed doors of private homes to demonstrate acts of private protest.
Artist Rachel Ballard also seeks to undermine pre-determined perceptions of the female experience, however in this case, the material – ceramics – and the content of the work are inextricably linked in process and form. In Excalibur, the raw clay transcends its physical limitations in its finished forms and becomes almost bodily in its weight – physical and emotional. The viewer is left to wonder, is Ballard seeking to overthrow the medium, or even more specifically the craft, or does she have bigger plans at hand? Admittedly deeply invested in exploring the reaches and negotiations of trauma, Ballard’s choice of material is almost a physical manifestation of working things out – whether personally, art historically, or with a feminist edge.
The creative maladjustment that underlies the work of all nine of these artists can be found in their collective resistance to strict formalism – to engage narratives that tell real stories – that take the America that has become so boiled down to headlines and slogans, and infuse it with the real struggles we face. They present stories that not only refuse to lay flat, but through truth, vulnerability, and exploration refuse to be taken at surface value. History and the future, as it has been presented this year seems insurmountable – pre-ordained – a momentum in which we only become more embroiled. AND YET, these artists offer richness, they offer hope, they offer a real language of conversation. And so, perhaps unknowingly, they echo the wise words of their spiritual neighbor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who some 53 years ago left us with the mission of creative maladjustment that they, as emerging artists, begin to fulfill:
“Somewhere along the way we must see that time will never solve the problem alone but that we must help time. Somewhere we must see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels on inevitability.”
1. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech at Western Michigan University (December 18, 1963), accessed November 8, 2016, http://thepossibilitypractice.com/martin-luther-king-jr-on-creative-maladjustment/.
3. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1977), 9.
GSU’s MFA Program
Considering and MFA? More info on GSU’s program here!