Late last year, Ceres Gallery in New York City invited me to jury a show they were calling Signs of the Times. Considering the actions of the Instigator in Chief--from putting children in cages to praising nazis to stirring up racial strife--the signs were ominous. I looked forward to seeing how artists beyond my own sphere of experience saw the world. The exhibition was scheduled for spring 2020. Then in what could only be seen as the most ominous sign of all, a pandemic arrived. The exhibition began online and remained there until recently, when the gallery reopened. Let me share some installation images with you, provided by the gallery, and my catalog essay, which I have illustrated here with the artists' submission photos. If you can't visit the show, you can see the catalog, designed by Joann Brody, which contains artists statements and full information about each work.
Juror’s Notes for Signs of the Times
The call for entries for Signs of the Times came just before Covid-19 permeated every mile and meter of our planet. This monstrous virus stopped us in our tracks. What an irony that the biggest sign of all, a global pandemic, does not figure into the artwork on exhibition. Certainly its presence changed the timing of our show. We began as an online exhibition and just now have been able to see it realized in the gallery space. The work I selected for Signs of the Times aligns primarily along social and environmental issues, leavened with a bit of the order and chaos of abstraction.
We start, as always, with women. We are still under siege, as Kathleen A. Kneeland’s Target, a uterus drawn onto a paper gun target, makes clear. Her tiny pink felt sculpture, Thorny, fights back. Yu Huang’s painting, Where Is Ana Mendieta, remembers the early beacon of earth-body performance art who fell (?) to her death in 1985 (her husband was acquitted of her murder). Sheryl Intrator’s Pussy Hat Flag employs that icon of the MeToo movement, a reminder of the many transgressions against us and, equally important, our great numbers as a political force to secure justice. We are powerful together. This is a message underscored by Isabele Milkoff’s Women’s Power 1 and Joan Easton’s All Women Are Sisters.
Kathleen Kneeland, left and right
Isabele Milkoff; Joan Easton
In her monotype, Deconstructed American 5, Toby Sisson expands women’s solidarity into something larger. Her series uses the word ‘American’ as a collage element, its recombinant patterns offering, Sisson says, “numerous perspectives on our country’s national identity.” Chillingly, some of those identities are not those we would wish to welcome. To wit: In Joel Tretin’s manipulated photograph, a Klan snowman set against the backdrop of a peaked-roof house is an evil American Gothic that seems to get more normalized by the day. Toby Needler sees in her cut-paper work, Reality Never Got in the Way of Their Convictions, the disparity of outcomes between who has power and who doesn’t. In her small linocut, Censorship,
A. Bascove laments the repression of journalists, a situation as frighteningly true today as it was in 1992 when the artist made her print. Robert Sherman’s collage, You Are Going Straight to Hell, says what we are all thinking about the other side (of course, they are thinking the same about us).
A. Bascove, left; Robert Sherman
One of the unexpected consequences of our social isolation, it has been noted, is that there have been no mass shootings. Two artists, Sheila Wolper and Heather Stoltz, have each created quilts commemorating the Sandy Hook massacre, which took place just over seven years ago. Wolper’s collage of vintage handkerchiefs and image transfers reflects what she describes as “the disturbing disintegration of our society.” Stoltz’s Innocence Lost, starts with Sandy Hook. “In the six years that followed there were 392 shootings at schools in the United States,” she notes. “This quilt includes one piece of fabric for each of those shootings. It is left unfinished.” Sadly, we understand why.
Heather Stoltz; Sheila Wolper
There’s more. Elizabeth Frischauf’s America Under Gun, a double-sided hanging, mingles guns and stripes with stars and bleeding hearts—“the wreckage of lives and families from a gun-happy, violence/fear-controlled nation.” In Nicole Shivers’ Who’s Balance, a weapon disturbs the equilibrium.
One could read isolation into Hildy Maze’s Visual Poem-Earth Vermillian; one could also read contemplation—“entertaining the question, not grasping for an answer,” says the artist. In Trump’s Legacy 1: Help, Help!, Raul Manzano depicts our goddess of freedom opening the wire cage of a confined immigrant. With her Going Up, Leila Dorne depicts a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman ascending together to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, “guarded by an Ethiopian Israeli soldier and serenaded by an African musician playing the djembe drum.” The scene offers, says the artist, “both ongoing anger and the possibility of reconciliation.”
Hildy Maze; Raul Manzano
Rebeca Fuchs and Barbara Rugg present images of defiance. Fuchs's I Dare You depicts a wounded warrior who holds your gaze with determination. In Rugg’s Bound Angle, a seated blue figure remains steadfast, surrounded by final notices, bank statements, and the shards of credit cards. A sign of the times, indeed. Ellen Freyer offers some levity. Her Liberté, Egalité, Beyoncé comments on “a world connected by pop culture.”
Below: Ellen Freyer
The inconvenience of quarantine has yielded a positive environmental result: Pollution has dropped significantly around the world as manufacturing and transportation have scaled back. This is a welcome respite for the planet, which—as noted by Marjorie Morrow, Noreen Dean Dresser, and Emily R. Gillcrist in their respective works—has reached a flash point. Morrow’s Even Half of One Degree issues a dire warning. Dresser’s postcard-size collages show us America on fire, her four images underscored by Gillcrist’s vision of our country’s “distressed landscape.”
The richly organic surfaces of Gregory Wright’s mixed-media works, the wall-hung Bound/Frieze 2 and freestanding Bound/Monument 2, deliver the artist’s distressing message: “Each work defines how environmental elements build, decay, weigh upon, and attempt to destroy us and the instinct to survive.”
Nancy Azara sees things differently. A sculptor and printmaker who has long drawn inspiration and materials from the natural world, gives new life to fallen leaves and found tree limbs. Her Blue Cloud is a stand-in for her own presence and, she says, an expression of “the dogged persistence of life.”
The Pleasure of Abstraction
Another sign of the times is that artists keep working painting, drawing, printing, building. Katy Ferrarone’s Fall Deep is an attempt, through mindfulness and meditation, to process the emotion of “falling in and out of love over and over again.” Summer Bhullar’s two silkscreen prints, Conscious Heart Living and Living on the Path Towards Supreme Reality are inspired by her connection to a higher consciousness. Carmile Zaino’s Re-Mix/Hard Cider, a combination of photography and digital collage, imposes a new order to her urban environment. In his My Drawing #4, SeungTack Lim uses scrap wood to limn an assemblage that offers equilibrium without symmetry.
With her Weaving Series August-2, Darla Bjork pulls you into a dense tangle of summer growth. Or is she suggesting a metaphor for the unraveling of our national fabric?
Seung Tack Lim
The last word(s) Caitlin Vitalo’s mixed-media installations are not what they seem. The cheery message in her Welcome mat, Culture of Politeness, has an unseemly side, referencing, she says, “the ways conversations of inequality are often swept under the rug,” while the ecstatic message of her light-and-shadow installation takes a darker turn when we see the full message: Ignorance is Bliss.
As this exhibition makes clear, even difficult times are assuaged by art.
Continuing around the gallery counterclockwise: two by Summer Bhuller, Sheila Wolper, Carmile Zaino, Raul Manzano; on pedestal: Gregory Wright
Foreground: Nancy Azara; on plinth, Caitlin Vitalo
Far wall: Manzano, A. Bascove, Tretin, Milkoff, Wright; left wall: Toby Sisson, Seung Tack Lim
Foreground: Caitlin Vitalo; pedestal: Gregory Wright
In small gallery: Emily R. Gilchrist; four by Noreen Dean Dresser
Final view with Nicole Shivers sculpture in foreground
Installation shots provided by Ceres Gallery. Images of artists' work are by the individual artists.