Durham County

Standing up to power. Artists’ works focus on social injustice.

Bruce Mitchell’s “Red State/Blue State,” a painting of the deteriorating cornice of a weather-beaten building, with a bit of blue in the predominantly red area and vice versa, both having been left to the elements. The artist says that if this house will ever get fixed it will need a lot of scraping and serious carpentry.
Bruce Mitchell’s “Red State/Blue State,” a painting of the deteriorating cornice of a weather-beaten building, with a bit of blue in the predominantly red area and vice versa, both having been left to the elements. The artist says that if this house will ever get fixed it will need a lot of scraping and serious carpentry. Submitted photo

If paintings of tranquil landscapes or flowers in a garden are your criteria for art, I cannot imagine what you might think of Renee Leverty’s American flag made of wood with a gash down the middle, or Tom Burhman’s North Carolina flag cut and attached to part of the rainbow flag.

Both are part of the exhibition, “Truth to Power” at Durham’s Pleiades Arts Inc. through Aug. 6, which demonstrates how the visual arts can not only represent the beauty of flowers, but can also stand up to social injustice.

An extraordinary example of the power of art is Ai Weiwei’s (b. 1957) prolonged battle with his government over the lack of freedoms in China. In 2011, Weiwei did a series of photographs of famous symbols of power around the world, especially Chinese sites like Tiananmen Square and the giant portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs there. In each photograph Weiwei gives the finger. For this he was beaten, imprisoned and lost his passport. Three years later he was given back his passport and today lives in Germany. When asked why his government is so frightened of art, he answered, “Because they are afraid of freedom. Art is about freedom.”

The exhibit title comes from a 1955 Quaker pamphlet and illustrates a commitment to voicing truths about the individuals who shape the society in which we live. Donald Trump and his administration are not pictured or verbalized, but the weight of his presidency hovers over the show and permeates every object.

At the entrance to the exhibit is Carin Walsh’s “#givehimachancetheysaid,” a graphic of a thought balloon that hangs just above average head height. It is a phrase repeated daily by those who voted for Trump and many, who did not, but hope for the best. In the window is Marnie Blum’s “Dogma.” It is a three-dimensional bust portrait of an androgynous person, decorated with gold insignias on a thick cord hanging around the neck. Among the symbols are the cross, the six-pointed star and the crescent moon. The artist defines dogma as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” and wonders how so many can accept those pronouncements without question, especially when it results in oppression, bigotry, cruelty, and hatred because they fall under the umbrella of religious principles.

Leverty, one of the founders of Pleiades, met me at the gallery and gave me some of the exhibition’s back story. There are 36 artists, 27 who were juried in by Pedro Lasch, associate professor in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. The nine others are members of the Pleiades group. Accompanying each object is the artist’s statement about the work and its meaning. Entry was limited to North Carolina artists. Leverty said the work reflects national, global, local and personal issues and addresses such themes as identity, blackness against the system’s racism, activism, opulence vs. poverty, climate change and refugees.

Lasch juried the work from on-line submissions and Leverty added, “The artists have become much more sophisticated about how to take pictures of their art; in the beginning, many would just hang a piece on the wall and take a picture and sometimes stuff lying around would also be in the photograph.” Lasch, a writer and artist, has been on the Duke faculty since 2002. He also spends part of the year in New York where he leads ongoing projects with immigrant communities and art collectives. In his juror statement he wrote “the idea of speech through art has put an extra focus on works with a clear artistic voice” and added, “they all have something important to say and have found powerful ways of saying it.”

“Fragments” by Jenny Blazing is about distortion and reality, about misrepresentation. The artist wrote she made an imaginary construction in a box, took one photograph and then divided that photograph into multiple panes. Each segment is muddled and contorted; a metaphor, perhaps, for information which gets distorted and taken out of context and leads to the atmosphere of misrepresentation that we live in today.

With a spotlight on Durham, Delvecchio Faison pictures our city and its renaissance.

He shows us the new glitzy downtown which has left no room for affordable housing for the working poor. Faison’s canvas is a composite of downtown Durham with a background of the American Tobacco complex and the Bulls stadium and a middle ground with a new high-rise on the left, a bull-dozer in the center and small houses on the right; here, people exercising on the left balance a bewildered family of four standing on the right. In the foreground a latte and a macchiato frame a $100 bill. Progress comes with questions and a price: who benefits and who gets swept away in the dust? Dawn Hummer addresses the same issue in his collaged photographs of Trump Tower in Chicago juxtaposed with poor, demolished neighborhoods.

Using a Bingo machine and a Bingo card, Kim Wheaton focuses on climate change and writes about her frustration with people who do not believe that climate change is caused by human beings. Her machine spills out balls with messages rather than numbers like “Only 97% of scientists agree.” or “It’s in God’s plan.”

Perhaps Bruce Mitchell’s “Red State/Blue State,” a painting of the deteriorating cornice of a weather-beaten building, says it best. In Mitchell’s statement he writes there is a bit of blue in the predominantly red area and vice versa and both have been left to the elements. He continues if this house will ever get fixed it will need a lot of scraping away and some serious carpentry to put it back in shape.

Pleiades Arts Inc. is one of very few art venues in the Triangle that encourages artists to use their art to fight for social justice. It is now a 501c organization which will allow it to expand its community outreach, arts education and social justice initiatives.

Truth to Power

What: ‘Truth to Power’ art exhibit

Where: Pleiades Arts Inc., 109 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham

When: Now through Aug. 6. Open Thursdays noon to 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays noon to 8 p.m., Sundays noon to 3 p.m.

Contact: pleiadesartdurham.com, 919-797-2706

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