Truth to Power 8
Pleiades Arts at Power Plant Gallery
Speak Truth to Power is the title of a 1955 Quaker pamphlet that pushed against America’s commitment to violence as international doctrine. It continued to reflect America’s struggles in 2013, when Durham’s Pleiades Arts—then a physical gallery, now a community arts organization—adopted the pamphlet’s spirit and title for its first-annual group exhibit addressing matters of social justice.
This month, in its eighth incarnation, Truth to Power launched into a perfect storm, when structural racism dominated the conversation and a relentless pandemic forced us to experience art without ever setting foot in a gallery. This is to say that, culturally, it couldn’t be a better time for an activist exhibit meant to bring people together in dialogue with the art and one another. But practically, it couldn’t be worse.
The show is housed at Power Plant Gallery, an arm of Duke’s Experimental and Documentary Arts MFA program. It’s bound to Duke’s COVID-19 response guidelines, which require the space to remain closed for the foreseeable future. In lieu of wandering the gallery, you can walk through an online catalog of the show.
Pleiades does its level best to translate the power of each work from the gallery into the digital realm. Each artist gets a two-page spread that displays their work along with text and a supplementary video link. For anyone immersed in contemporary art, it’s a given that a JPEG on a computer screen pales in comparison to the real thing. So the online format is apt, in that it feeds a frustration that is inherent to this sudden, necessary withholding of cultural experiences.
Keep in mind that we are witnessing a pioneering moment when galleries and art institutions are inventing new exhibition strategies as they wade through the pandemic. They are probing new digital territory so that they will remain financially sound and continue to provide for their artists and patrons, regardless of physical space.
No one would claim that this is the ideal medium for, say, large-scale paintings, but if you take your time exploring the catalog, the effort pays dividends. Jurors Angel Dozier and Cornelio Campos selected 30 artists who represent a buoying swath of personalities and experiences. The texture of the show is satiating in its breadth, while each selection is steadfastly anchored to the common cause.
The pieces that stand out transcend the digital format by playing directly to its strengths. Rox Campbell’s “Color Bar: American South” is at home on the computer screen. The short video is structured around a color bar of progressively darker gradients of brown. Campbell pairs each tone with a personal tale told by a young Black man in intimate close up. The stories are touching and disturbing at once.
The understated quality of the video is striking, and the correlation of each subject’s skin tone to a bluntly graphic color swatch carries the piece on an abstract level. Campbell describes the color bar as “a frame in which the racialization and gendering of Black males in our society can be viewed and denounced.”
An oil painting by Bethany Bash titled “Self portrait as Amy Cooper” spins us into an entirely different perspective on racism. It conjures a phrase from the Quaker pamphlet that says, in bold, “The Necessity of Self Examination.” Bash depicts herself as the notorious white woman who called the cops on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog. The woman falsely claimed that he was threatening her.
Bash’s assertive brushwork and vivid colors translate well into luminescent pixels. A sullen, suspicious character looms over her nervous pup, frowning. Her expression provides a subtle dose of humor that mocks the real Amy Cooper, who was arrested, lost her job, and temporarily had to forfeit her dog.
In the aftermath, Bash was struck by the reaction of white women who found one way or another to separate themselves from Cooper, writing, “We need to make the difficult dive into our own racism so that we can uncover what is lurking below our consciousness.”
It’s entirely possible that there are even better works in the show that shine best on the walls of Power Plant’s physical space. But only when we walk through the gallery, stand inches from the art, rest our heads to one side and soak it all in, will we know.
For now, for the sake of the artists and for the sake of the cause that Truth to Power represents, we can embrace one of the early attempts at bringing an overtly political exhibition to view when a multitude of forces—natural, social, and political—seem deadset on repression.
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