Re:Program, Aqua Art Miami 2018
Next week, the Ernest G. Welch third year MFAs will begin installation of their group exhibition at the Aqua Art Miami Fair for Art Basel Miami week. Beginning December 5, they will welcome to Room 212 the international crowd that flocks to Miami Beach each winter with a fresh showcase of multi-disciplinary work. An MFA-designed and professionally-printed catalogue accompanies each iteration of our MFA fair exhibition. This year, our catalogue was designed by Graphic Design MFA, Ana Coello, and guest essayed by Atlanta artist and scholar, Dr, Fahamu Pecou. This year’s exhibition has been titled “Re:program” after Fahamu Pecou’s essay. Read the introductory essay below for a glimpse of the exhibition and stay tuned for Aqua Art Miami week coverage.
In 2016, during a bitter and unprecedented Presidenhttps://artdesign.gsu.edu/wp-admin/plugins.phptial race, federal authorities issued warnings to Congress of a new kind of terrorist threat, the widespread manipulation of a core foundation of our democratic way of life: our elections. These officials and cyber specialists warned that our systems were being hacked, infiltrated, manipulated, and circumvented by foreign agents hell-bent on destroying our way of life. Ever since this revelation, hacking has become somewhat ubiquitous. Formerly the type of stuff relegated to the realm of nerd fantasy or the mostly foreign world of cybersecurity and IT professionals, in recent times hacking has become a salacious and buzzworthy term. Dare I say, sexy, even. Despite its new position as zeitgeist, hacking has become mistakenly labeled as something nefarious; think Russian spies, Chinese bots, voter fraud, and exposure of personal financial and credit information. Mostly it is misunderstood, confounding most people who have little to no idea how hacking works and or how hacking can be as generative as it is destructive.
Generally speaking, hacking is merely a form of programming or perhaps, counter-programming. Initially, hackers merely explored the limits of programs and systems, deciphering and rewriting codes, pushing the boundaries of what a computer could and could not do. But on the other hand, a hacker can wreak havoc on a computer system or network by altering, deleting, and even stealing data. These types of digital breaches threaten to leave us exposed and vulnerable as our lives play out more and more on digital platforms.
In moments like these throughout history, artists have responded with works which complicate the often didactic notions and fears expressed across the social and political landscape. During my visit with the MFA candidates at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design at Georgia State University in the fall semester of 2018, the term “hacking” came up many times. At a certain point, it became almost thematic, but in ways that both intrigued and comforted me. What was most refreshing and exciting is the unique and compelling ways hacking was invoked in the students’ practices.
For this diverse group of artists, hacking is broadly interpreted. It is not limited to technology, but rather, extends to ways of reframing mediums, social mores, and even expectations. These artists are not referencing the term in the same way. Rather, it seems to float just over their heads, nearly imperceptible, but certainly influential. As each artist explained their process and thinking, what became clear is this idea that the artist’s role remains uniquely positioned to explore us, our fears, our feelings, our hopes, and our ambitions. Each of the Georgia State graduate students, working across a broad spectrum of mediums and disciplines, attempts to navigate this world by offering fresh and engaging interpretations of what it all means. Who are we? What is art? What can art mean to and for us? These are substantial questions that are more rhetorical than demanding a direct response. However, in my opinion, art should always raise more questions than it answers.
Just as hacking uses the digital tools we’ve become dependent on against us, we can use those same tools to be productive, teaching us new ways to fortify and secure our digital landscape. The questions raised by these artists via their respective works operate similarly. Much of the work produced by this cohort at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design repurposes familiar concepts, mediums, and materials to ask us to see something more, to look beyond the surface, past expectation. They hack our sensibilities and preconceived notions using familiar vessels that transport us to foreign spaces. In doing so, they subvert established ideas about both the practice and material function of art and uncover new expressions that introduce us, ultimately, to new ways of inhabiting and experiencing the world around us.
Andrew Adamson takes ceramic sculptures to new levels of application and intention. The art world is often critiqued for its almost surreal high-brow and pedantic insistence on catering to specific tastes and lifestyles. Adamson’s wit and irony are on full display in works that depict raffish characters elegantly crafted in delicate porcelain pieces. Adamson’s keen knowledge of sculptural techniques and traditions allow him to manipulate the medium as well as our expectations in clever ways.
Aaron Artrip’s exploration of the visual experience of sound is perhaps one of the more obvious projects that employs hacking—however, only in the sense of materiality. Using a variety of analog electronic devices, Artrip repurposes them to create unique works of art, revealing aspects of our lives that often go unnoticed. While most don’t think of sound visually, Artrip, whose background is in music and printmaking, works with sound and vibrations, recording or presenting them as visual experiences. These pieces, often interactive, encourage play and touch, a move towards the tactile in a world that relies less and less on human engagement in favor of the digital.
Jessica Caldas is a provocative performance artist, advocate, and activist whose work centers on the multi-faceted experience of womanhood. Her performances and large-scale works move women’s narratives from the shadows and peripheries into public spaces. For this exhibition, Caldas has created a series of drawings that toy with the weight and wear of womanhood. The lighthearted nature of her drawings belies a much more convoluted narrative. Women’s bodies bear the sheer force of life itself, yet their bodies are strained by the inherent contradictions of patriarchal beauty standards, histories of violence, physical labor, as well as their desires, dreams, passions, and pains. The drawings are accompanied by a larger than life stuffed forms that are also be worn in performances, bringing those very burdensome tensions to life in a visceral way.
Shanequa Gay’s works employ animal motifs and human forms to create hybrid images of Black bodies. These works powerfully compel a sort of neo-mythology that invokes and skews values of Americana with visceral and pointed narratives of contemporary Black life. Though themes of violence and erasure occupy space beneath the surface of Gay’s works, concepts of feminine strength, motherhood, and resilience take center stage. Gay’s masks, larger-than-life dress forms, drawings, and paintings evoke the presence of divine female deities. In this mythos, Gay’s figures and hybrid forms give history, purpose, and meaning to a people long-denied such luxuries.
Amin Ghasemi works primarily with digital painting. His works incorporate traditionally photographed elements which are digitally altered along with digitally painted elements. Ghasemi collages these elements to create mystic realms and painting that invoke Eastern philosophies and concepts. His work is informed mainly by traditional Iranian landscapes which are themselves interpretations of altered consciousness. In many ways, Ghasemi attempts to hack the viewer’s subconscious. Though the forms in his work may at first appear abstract or alien, upon closer examination, one recognizes trees, mountains, and other natural elements arranged and presented in highly meditative compositions.
Mohammad Javad Jahangir’s photo-based abstractions are commentaries on identity as informed by various social behaviors and social spaces. Jahangir’s struggles as an immigrant are explored through his works. Figures cloistered in abstracted compositions, and multi-media collages are a commentary on themes like isolation, and how identity is negotiated in contrast to others. Jahangir even goes as far as to manipulate various software to alter the outcome of his digital images which highlights the tension of language barriers. These works which become abstractions of the purported empirical reality of digital photography, by contrast, reveal something much more real and truthful: that what we ultimately see is more a reflection of how we’ve been conditioned to think, than what is there, in front of our eyes.
Travis Lindquist’s paintings are exquisite disruptions of both memory and material. Where the often requisite technology of hacking may not first come to mind while viewing Lindquist’s work, upon more in-depth examination, it becomes abundantly clear. His large-scale paintings combine violent marks and gestures in unnatural colors like bubblegum pink, and fluorescent greens over otherwise serene cell phone generated photographs of the beaches he grew up around as a child in Cape Cod. Here Lindquist circumvents notions of memory and nostalgia by asking “What can I let live?” Lindquist attempts to open up new, more complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings by exercising restraint through his mark-making and anti-intuitive color choices.
Ana Carolina Meza Mendoza makes minimalist sculptures using both traditional materials as well as new technologies. A fundamental aspect of her work can be viewed through her passion for architecture and particularly simple structures like stairs and ladders. Using a 3-D drawing pen, Meza creates objects that explore minor architecture, a relatively new theory rooted in the idea of deconstructing the politics of architecture. Meza’s 3-D constructed hats, jackets, and purses are as much a commentary on art and fashion as they are a statement on destabilizing established systems of power. She challenges the idea that power is inherent to stability by constructing objects that appear weak or fragile. Created by building a network of simple architectural structures, these pieces are a commentary on the specificity of objects for human use, what gets kept, what is left behind.
Nathaniel Dean Mondragon uses performance, painting, video, and more to comment on queer lifestyles and popular culture. This work explores ideas around glamour as both masquerade and magic. Mondragon considers his art objects as talismans—, objects imbued with magic or mystical powers. Specifically, Nathaniel’s paintings, digital work, and performance-based objects interrogate beauty standards and the surreal categorizing of “types” in digital spaces like dating apps. For example, the life-size body pillow is an amalgamation of body parts designed to create an idealized cuddle buddy. Notions of symmetry as perfection are echoed in Mondragon’s drag mask paintings, which use drag make-up aesthetics to trick the eye into believing it sees something which isn’t truly there.
Maria Ojeda’s exquisite soft sculptures and forms tap into notions of memory and material. Layers of fabrics, found objects, and other domestic materials are carefully selected and methodically composed and sliced into intimate moments. Each assemblage is like a record, the residue of a history, as if years of collected experiences are found and extracted from the couch in our childhood home, or a grandmother’s closet stuffed with traces of her many lives. These sculptural compositions also have a very painterly effect in their application of color and texture. Sometimes embellished with tassels or coated in South Georgia pine resin, these cross-sections of stuff can be viewed as portraits of our presence.
Carla Powell’s background in textiles informs her work with fabrics. Powell’s impressive textile works can also be viewed as a form of social activism. Incorporating traditional techniques such as weaving, sewing, and fabric dying, Powell constructs and deconstructs textile pieces to create large-scale, fabric collages. These works question notions of agency and authorship for populations of impoverished women whose sense of dignity is often tied to labor. Silk scarves are carefully deconstructed highlighting the complex and labor-intensive techniques used to create them. Gold lurex woven into her pieces point to the intrinsic value of these women’s lives. The portraits are made more compelling by Powell’s intimate knowledge of the cultural and social practices of the women with whom she works and studies.
This exhibition by the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design MFA candidates is a compelling and gripping commentary on contemporary culture. It is a unique time. One that sits squarely at the precipice of a new and yet-to-be-revealed world, the intersection of material and digital culture. The ideas, themes, elements, and articulations of this juncture are wholly evident in this work and provide a space of rich reflection and contemplation. Cyber threats such as hacking have changed the way we do politics, and progressively more and more, how we experience the world. As new technologies emerge, so will new threats, but also new opportunities. It’s encouraging to see these artists engage our world so thoughtfully and with work that is as eloquent in its articulation as it is compelling in its presentation. This is the time for creation. It is the time for questioning. The future is bright. As I always say, “In the future historians will tell what happened, artists will tell how it felt.”
-Dr. Fahamu Pecou