Brattleboro Museum & Art Center
May I I – November 3, 1996
Who we are as people is shaped by our relatives. Their world views and experiences affect us, even though we may never have met them. The word “culture” describes the characteristic way we and our community express ourselves — socially, intellectually, and artistically.
Every artist undertakes a quest for identity, searching out the styles, subjects, and materials that best reflect who he or she is. The exhibition Excavating Culture comprises the work of four artists who reach into their cultural backgrounds to explore a rich vein of expression. Using the tools of contemporary awareness, they may unearth the painful impact of racism or trace feminist footsteps back to earlier signs of women’s empowerment. Some create a new context for established images, and others revitalize traditional materials.
Although JOSE MORALES was born in New York City, his parents came from Puerto Rico. Periodic trips to visit relatives who remained on the Caribbean island heightened his sense of disjuncture between a densely populated, grey, urban world and the lush vegetation and intense colors of Puerto Rico’s rural communities.
He titled the monumentally scaled painting of chickens El Vivero, which is Spanish for “the vivarium,” a place for keeping and raising living animals. His memories of going with his grandmother to a poultry market in the south Bronx inspired this image. When I look at his depiction of the frenzied vitality of the fowl confined within cramped cages, I think of the vigor of life in Manhattan’s crowded tenement buildings. Morales — a masterful painter who seems to dance his images into being with quick, sure, animated gestures — conveys the frantic, pulsing energy of the chickens with active brushwork that encourages quavery threads of paint to drizzle down the flat surface of the canvas. The fiery glow of the interior of the cages seems to hint at the sealed fate of the unfortunate creatures.
Morales lives in Spanish Harlem, home to an ethnically diverse community. In The Kiosk the painter describes such familiar neighborhood sights as a taco stand, a Korean grocery, and a fire escape. He favors a dreamlike space in this painting, in which an impassive cat stares directly at us and a body stretches out ambiguously on the sidewalk.
Like that of many young people born and raised in the People’s Republic of China, HUNG LIU’s life was disrupted during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). After the death of Mao Zedong, she finally was able to study art and was schooled in the realist style that was sanctioned by the authoritarian government. After leaving China in 1984 to do graduate work in the United States, she decided to settle permanently in California.
While Liu’s American work reflects her earlier training in representational art, it reveals a new freedom of paint application, an unfettered range of subjects, and novel treatments of established images. In Black Hand, for example, she presents her variation of a centuries-old Chinese acupuncture diagram depicting the human form.
The canvas itself takes the shape of a venerable gold-leafed wooden sculpture of Buddha’s head in A Third Eye. On his forehead, where in Indian art a “third eye” is sometimes shown, the artist depicts herself looking directly forward, as in a passport photo. By contrast, the Buddha has an inward expression, with downcast eyes. In traditional Chinese art, the spot on the forehead likely would be marked by a crystal, indicating Buddha’s special mental abilities. To me, Liu’s startling mix of images suggests that she has personalized the ancient religious heritage, officially disparaged during the Cultural Revolution, and here partakes of Buddha’s great knowledge by embodying it.
Liu addresses the history of Sino-American relations in Wasp, which paraphrases an old racist cartoon. When Chinese laborers flocked to California during the boom years of the last century, their presence sparked fears of unemployment and unfair competition. On the left side of the original cartoon, the “Chinese trade monopoly” is personified by an oriental demon with hands in every trade, shown usurping the place of American-born workers. On the right side, the cartoonist illustrated the consequences of unemployment with a group of out-of-work Californians watching as one of their fellows is taken into custody for delivery to San Quentin. Liu brings the subject of cheap Chinese labor into the present by adding to her depiction of the cartoon Garfield the Cat, whose image currently adorns countless consumer goods made in China for sale in the U.S.
MAUREEN McCABE grew up in an intergenerational family in Quincy, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials. Her grandmother had been a toddler when she left Ireland in the 1870s, so it was Maureen’s great aunts and great uncles who helped teach Maureen about their Irish cultural legacy. Her great grandfather had been a stone mason in the old country, and her great uncle’s made many of the stone walls in and around Boston.
Stone is a favored material and source of inspiration in McCabe’s own work. She assembles images and objects against a background of slate, a rock that traditionally was used for blackboards and roofing tiles. Her interest in ancient Irish art and cosmology took her to her ancestral island. There she photographed the huge prehistoric stones, or megaliths, that are found in Ireland’s ancient burial sites and made rubbings of their mysterious markings, then translated these images into her Irish Series assemblages.
In most of the works in this series, she miniaturizes an individual megalith and inserts its shape at a slight angle into a sheet of slate. Decorative markings relate to the meaning of the ancient stones. In Newgrange K18, for example, a ladder leads our eyes from the tiny version of the megalith to its actual location on a map of ancient graves. A reliquary-like glass crystal houses a sample of dirt from the site.
When McCabe discovered that designs such as spirals, sun discs, and chevrons were present in both Irish and Native American Hopi art, she created a group of works that celebrate this coincidence. Macha 9 with Horses was completed after a recent two-month residency in Ireland. It was her feminist interest in legendary women that prompted her to address Macha, a Celtic goddess who could run as fast as the wind. According to legend, Macha was pregnant with twins when her husband compelled her to race against the king’s horse. After she won, she gave birth and then perished, cursing the men of Ulster to suffer as she had. McCabe inscribes the slate with the phrase ces noindhen, or “the difficulty of nine,” the words of Macha’s malediction. To the artist this queen of Northern Ireland and mother of twins can serve as a metaphor for “the troubles”–the fratricidal conflicts that continue to beset Ireland.
Although MARIE WATT was raised in the Northwest, on the outskirts of Seattle, her family is Native American Seneca. Her mother was brought up on the Cattaragus reservation in upstate New York, where many of her relatives still live. She developed a great appreciation for the hand-crafted Iroquois objects that were passed down through her family. Following a university education and work at several museums, Watt entered graduate school in painting to focus on her own work.
Regarding her approach to art, she has said, “I do not separate art-making from other life activities. Sometimes I think this has a lot to do with the fact that creativity is a tradition in our communities and that there is no word for ‘art’ in our native languages. My paintings do not have sacred-turned-popular-culture emblems which allow them to be associated with stereotypical American Indian art. The result of this choice means confronting and challenging perimeters of interpretation, especially those which tend to authenticate what an Indian artist is or should be.”
With such role models as the artist Eva Hesse, who pioneered the use of uncustomary materials for sculpture, Watt began working with corn husks, remembering the traditional Seneca corn husk dolls and masks of her childhood. Handling the natural fiber, she developed an awareness of the husk’s delicate and fragile yet strong and resilient nature. To Watt the corn husk is a skin, a protective shelter, and a robelike cover. Her work reflects these insights in multiple ways. Descend, for example, takes inspiration from the actual cell structure of corn, in which a modular brick shape forms the basis of a landscape image.
In several small, hand-sized objects that resemble pounders, pods, and wands, she wrapped actual husks around a wire or cloth armature to create evocative and diminutive sculptures. The large piece Waterfall also employs husks, here pressed into service as the painting surface. In this image of passage and transition from the sky to the ground, the artist sees an allusion to the traditional Seneca creation story. According to this tale, Sky Woman fell through a hole in the sky, bringing seeds and civilization to an earth surrounded by water.
Although their cultural identities are distinct, each of the artists in Excavating Culture daily faces the challenge of determining how to tap the rich expressive sources that are his or her birthright.