A place at the table9/6/2017
The Des Moines Art Center’s latest show in its print gallery is a reflection upon a short 1926 poem by Langston Hughes. “I, too, sing America” has 58 words. It also serves as the only published commentary on the exhibition, a refreshing concision in an era when a small academic show often offers a catalogue of 10,000 words or more. Letting art speak for itself is something the world could use a lot more of these days when icon hatred inspires murder in the world’s two largest religions.
The show, “I, too, am America,” is also a debut for the DMAC’s latest curator, Jared Ledesma, who comes here from the familiar nursing center of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Hughes’ poem is an exercise in wishful thinking about a wistful future day when servants no longer accept exile to the kitchen for dinner. This applies in the exhibition to blacks, gays, Hispanic Americans, Indians, feminists, abolitionists and people of unidentifiable sexual orientation. If anyone deserving is left out of that previous sentence, it’s the fault of my poor powers of observation rather than the DMAC’s commitment to inclusion.
The show includes images from artists of legendary notoriety as well as little-known Iowa artists, all created between Hughes’ heyday of 1939 and 2001. Tilly Woodward, of Grinnell, provides the biggest and brightest smack with three of her four pastel portrait series of AIDS victims from 1995. One portrait is titled “Nancy: There Is a Destiny Which Makes Us Brothers. None Goes His Way Alone. All That We Send Into the Lives of Others Comes Back Into Our Own. I am a Daughter, Sister, a Friend, a Lover, a Mother. I am You.” Any further comment upon that would be folly.
The most powerful image in the exhibition is Luis Alphonso Jimenez’s “Tan Lejos de Dios. Tan circa de Estados Unidos.” (So far from God, so close to the United States). It portrays desperados moving through hell in search of an unknown destiny. It’s a stunning, large lithograph from the museum’s permanent collection that has rarely been displayed before.
Other pieces of this statement are better known. Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Two Men Dancing” still evokes the bitter-sweetness of being proudly gay in the 1980s. Ben Shahn’s suite of photomechanical prints elevates the murdered civil rights workers of “Mississippi Burning” to the status of Frederick Douglas. Keith Haring’s “Double Man” still celebrates the agony of confused identity. Robert Colescott’s “Lock and Key” reminds us that Emmet Till was murdered for smiling at a white woman. Nancy Spero’s “We Are Pro Choice” includes images that include icons of both feminism and transgender identity. Glen Ligon’s “Narratives” recreates the dilemma of a gay black man in times of slavery. Jaune Quick to See Smith’s “Indian Heart” includes so many stereotypical symbols that they confuse each other. John Steuart Curry’s “John Brown” is still crazy enough to summon tornados.
While the exhibition is inspired by a waiter’s dream of eating in the dining room, the carryout message is the old adage “If you aren’t at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” This show plays through Nov. 26.
Opening recently were two other shows featuring Iowa stars. Yun Shin creates repeated tracings of the same shapes, employing carbon paper, pin points or oil paint stains. The simple grid-like forms and monotone colors lend the work a sense of complex minimalism. The calligraphy of her father’s signature and patterns of her mother’s knit work personalize the works. It plays through Dec. 3 at the Des Moines Art Center.
Artists emeriti Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen return to Moberg Gallery with their annual outpouring of reflections upon the flora and architecture of the Hawkeye state and Florida. This will play through Oct. 10. ♦