Review of “Revisit: Artwork from Visiting Faculty”

By Lucas Weals ‘19

Arts and Culture Editor

Ray Kleinlein, Lemons

On August 30, the Van Every/Smith galleries opened their first exhibition of the year, entitled Revisit: Artwork from Visiting Faculty. I went to see the work, and then I went again, because a revisit seemed apt to the subject matter. Across remarkably varied media—including video, graphite drawing, 3D modeling, animation, blown glass and monotype collage—these artists, each a former visiting faculty member at Davidson, grapple with a number of overlapping and interrelated issues. In a sort of curious correspondence, these works of “revisitation” seem deeply concerned with how to represent the present moment in light of a past that’s often painful and a future that’s often difficult or impossible to imagine. 

The larger Van Every gallery features artwork from Debra Fisher (b. 1954), McArthur Freeman, II (b. 1974), Liss LaFleur (b. 1987), Lydia Musco (b. 1978), Nathaniel Rogers (b. 1980), Clinton Sleeper (b. 1986), and Felicia Van Bork (b. 1962). I was first struck by Rogers’ works, which are all incredibly detailed self-portraits, some in graphite and some painted. Each piece features a deeply surreal element: be it an enormous, inflatable infant (Fatherhood, 2015) or a grown man pedaling a tricycle through an abandoned suburbs, a severed goat’s head perched atop him like a crown (Despite Sacrifices, He Was Haunted By Past Success, 2017). 

The notion of haunting by past success seems deeply entangled with the exhibition as a whole. Many of the featured artists are reflecting explicitly on lives spent in the arts—on what they feel they’ve accomplished, and what they still have left to do. In his artist statement Rogers explains why he’s chosen to display self-portraits: “I find it most easy,” he writes, “to cast myself in the role of the fool or the tragic hero because I can most clearly see my own mishaps and foibles, especially as they parallel many of our greater societal issues.” Read in this light, Rogers’ uncanny fixation on childhood, and on the figure of the “man-baby,” speaks to a certain crisis of time: how can we produce a future that doesn’t simply reiterate the mistakes and futilities of our past?

Nathaniel Rogers, Portrait of the Ego of the Artist

At the gallery opening, Van Bork referenced the relationship between her collages and the contemporary political scene. A number of works, including How to Hold November (2016) and How to Stand Up (2016), evoke the crisis-point of the 2016 election. The role of the artist feels particularly uncertain in a time of such uncertainty. Van Bork works by creating beautiful prints and then cutting them to shreds, rearranging until she arrives at a new and unexpected configuration. “What emerges,” she writes, “is a symbolic narrative with an allusive title”: all of the works bear “How To” titles, which she connects to “our society’s love of bootstrap independence.” But I get the feeling that the work here isn’t quite satirical—“bootstrap independence” may be silly as a neoconservative cliche, but there’s an overwhelming sense, right now, that something must be done. And it’s precisely the questions this urgency inspires, like “How do I stand up?” or “How do I hold the past while working for a new future?” that Van Bork confronts in her titles. The works themselves are difficult to categorize, and often dark and dreamlike: How to Bridge an Ocean (2015) makes the titular act feel simultaneously attractive and elusive, an incongruous, dark chunk positioned at awkward angles between an aqueous blue and a stormy, graphite gray. 

Sleeper lets his works wear their politics even more on their sleeve: not only are his titles politically inflected (the main photography series, yet unfinished, is called Teaching Capitalism to Nature), but the works enact what he calls “the humorous/tragic end of capitalism.” In each photograph the artist stands in stunning natural landscapes, reading aloud from works of classical economic and political theory. Here, again, is the sense of an ending: the present moment is stuck between past theory and future destruction, but it’s hard to articulate either. 

Sleeper says the “final iteration of his work” will negotiate a “punchline of futility,” a phrase which certainly combines the tragic and the comic, but which still remains undone. Directly in front of Sleeper’s photographs are Freeman’s sculptures, another display which consciously engages with humor. Using technologies of the “future”—cutting-edge techniques like 3D modeling and printing—coupled with resin and bronze casting, Freeman creates what he calls “strange figurations”: eerily organic, slick, bodily forms that seem both mostrous and funny. He connects the bodily disruptions to “hybridity and identity,” and particularly to “the historical monsterization and exoticization of black bodies.” Looking to futuristic models and “specimens” of creatures that don’t exist, Freeman explores another problematic of the future—namely the question of the post-human, and of what our art and our bodies might look like when definitions of humanity change.

Nathaniel Rogers, 2017

Freeman’s work should be read in conversation with the work of Darren Douglas Floyd (b. 1972), displayed across the hall in the Smith gallery. Floyd’s work responds to his diagnosis and struggle with stage four prostate cancer—he uses 3D modeling and animation to examine forms both bodily and abstract, a process that reminds me of Freeman’s, although Floyd’s animations remain digital. At the close of his artist statement, Floyd writes, “Cancer always comes back. The bigger trick is surviving the return.” In a more morbid world, Surviving the Return might have been a title for the exhibition as a whole. In ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes mordant, sometimes explicit, sometimes vague, and always distinct and jarring, these artists consider what, in their later years, returns from the past, and how it might shape their imagination of a potential future. 

Alongside Floyd’s work in the Smith gallery are the paintings of Ray Kleinlein (b. 1969) and the works of Tonya Clay (b. 1975). Kleinlein relates himself to the past in a proud evocation of the “longstanding tradition” of representational still life, which he takes up with the intention of “transcending the sense of nostalgia” attributed to the form. In his largest and most striking piece, Lemons (for Ingress) (2018), it’s unclear where we ought to locate the transcendence of nostalgia—perhaps in the pop-art-like coverage of the canvas with a single type of brightly-colored form, or in the rejection of classical staging. Clay’s work drives deep into the past in a kind of spiritual primitivism: a solution to the “seeming disorder of shifting space” she locates in “the changeless, the universal, God.” It’s certainly a more positive vision than some of the more cynical approaches in the exhibition.

The artists I haven’t yet mentioned take their own unique approaches—from Musco’s beautiful sculptures, which combine architectural precision with natural color; to Fisher’s defiantly chaotic drawings and woodcuts, which navigate her own relation to sickness and mortality as well as the histories of her family and the innocence of childhood; to Liss LaFleur’s multimedia performances of gender and trauma, especially through the tantalizingly fragile form of glasswork. These works add rich layers to the exhibition’s general discourse: a discourse of loss and hope, sober reflection and radical imagination. It’s certainly an exhibit worth visiting, and more than once if you can—if only to fit the theme.

Lucas Weals ‘19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD. He can be reached for comment at luweals@davidson.edu.

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