Political exhibitions spotlight power of art

Jul. 24, 2014 @ 05:01 PM

“Cathy McLaurin:  The North Wind and the Sun,” Power Plant Gallery, through Aug. 15.

“Truth to Power; 2nd Annual Juried Show of Visual Art about Social Justice,”
Pleiades Gallery, through Aug. 2.

Art can be a powerful voice against evil, social injustice and corruption.  Witness the photographs by American Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940) of children working in factories which directly led to the reform of child labor laws. In the late 1930s modern art was so frightening to Hitler and his Nazis thousands of objects were confiscated from the German museums, labeled “Degenerate” and destroyed or sold. And in 2014 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei continues criticism of his government despite enduring a destroyed studio, jail time and constant persecution.
While the efforts of local artists may not have historic effects, using art to spotlight social wrongs takes courage and dedication, and can make a difference. This summer running concurrently in Durham are two political exhibitions: Cathy McLaurin has tackled her hometown Siler City and its changes in the last 25 years at the Power Plant Gallery on the American Tobacco campus, and at Pleiades Gallery, the second juried show, calling for art that deals with social justice, is in its second week.
McLaurin’s show is in a one-year-old space, sponsored by Duke’s MFA program.  The gallery is dedicated to the student MFA show in the spring, but the rest of the year includes national and international art and artists who are doing documentary and experimental art. McLaurin lives in New Hampshire and revisits her roots in Siler City from the distance of geography and time.  She writes this installation, which includes a video, a wall map and an artist book incorporating research materials, is a form of self-portraiture plus a history of immigration told through the poultry industry.  The wall drawing maps the complexities that make Siler City, using red ribbon to crisscross and connect pictures, notes letters and drawings.  Part of the story is how this small rural North Carolina town and a Ukrainian billionaire, who bought a bankrupt poultry business, came together for 10 months in 2011.   
In the video McLaurin incorporates interviews with her own comments and we hear how little has changed in Siler City over the past quarter century.  In the 1970s the Klan maintained check points to see if blacks were in the cars; today the police do the same thing only now they are looking for Latinos without proper documentation. Recently the town rebranded itself “Delightfully Unexpected,” connecting Siler City to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and its myth of a perfect place which is white, Anglo Saxon and protestant.  In fact the town is 50 percent Latino and more than 15 percent African-American. 
McLaurin mixes her own photographs with archival ones and begins her story in the 1980s when the town recruited people across the U.S./Mexico border to work at Townsends, the local large-scale poultry business. In 2011, the company went bankrupt and a Ukrainian billionaire bought it, operated it for 10 months and then abruptly closed it in 2012. Among the interviewees  is  one who discusses the reasons Latinos stay when there is no work and harassment at every turn, saying the parents still believe their children will have it better here than Mexico. The story is powerful, but when she lets the screen go black over and over to focus on the interviews she breaks the rhythm of the narrative. These black screens are an interruption and they weaken her potent story.
At Pleiades Gallery Kenneth G. Rodgers, professor of Art and Director of N.C. Central University, selected more than 30 objects including paintings, sculpture, drawings and photographs which focused on social and political concerns from local to international levels. In the call for artists, the parameters did not require a specific theme, but were left open-ended and the gallery is packed with objects, literally from floor to ceiling.  In fact, covering the ceiling is Sandra Elliott’s collaborative clothes line of children’s socks, tagged with the names of 160 children whose lives were lost through gun violence.
The exhibition covers the gamut from women’s rights, to legislative injustices to environmental concerns. I was especially drawn to Blake Elliott’s “Power of 1,” an abstract canvas of small slashes of paint that cover the surface; Kim Wheaton’s “Disclosure,” a thickly layered painting, covered with words in red, like methane, benzene, formic acid; and Sandra Elliott’s series “Waiting for the Trickle,” where spectral figures look up into a blue-black sky. Continuing around the gallery I stopped at Laura Berendsen Hughes’ small naïve painting “God is Calling Women to be Priests,”  Nan Nixon’s “Barefoot and Pregnant,” a small painting where shadowy images of pregnant women line up at the edge of the abyss,  and Julia Feldman’s embroidered piece of fabric “Admit One Elephant.”
According to Darius Quarles, one of the members of Pleiades who was minding the gallery, there were more photographers this year than last.  Two which come from the  “Moral Monday” days at the state’s capitol are Hayden Folger’s “Which Hood,” where a man, with a child on his shoulders holds a picture of a boy with a hoodie above another picture of Klan members, fully robed; and Jean-Christian Rostagni’s, “More Art, Less Pope.” There are also Jenny Warburg’s two photographs, one of Gloria Steinem receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama and a portrait of Nelson Mandela.
Pleiades is to be complimented on encouraging artists to use their art to spotlight evil. Individually the artists have made important statements about injustices, the necessity of speaking out and long-fought victories over society’s unforgivable immorality, but the objects compete with each other rather than work in concert and so an exhibit which should be loud and clear is muffled.  Pleiades has the energy and courage to show this work; the idea should not be abandoned.  All it needs is a little tweaking.