Contributed by Jason Stopa / An international survey at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University explores how contemporary artists use abstraction to encode otherwise invisible realities: climate change, political strife, and inequalities of all stripes. Some are household names, others still emerging. Titled “So it appears,” the show is anything but timid. It boasts some 19 artists occupying three floors, each one grappling with the limits of abstraction and its history and pressing beyond the frame of the canvas. Western abstraction has tackled social and political issues before – there was deconstruction in the 1960s, Neo-Geo in the eighties, and most recently the palpable Trump-era uptick. “So it appears” looks to the Global South for perspective.
Any mid-century abstract artist understood that form creates space. Modernists, by and large, aimed to control the picture plane by denying illusion. The utilization of that very space is now encouraged and can spill beyond the frame, as artists different as Lygia Pape and Lynda Benglis discovered some 50 years ago. And now that space is politicized, or so it appears. But while abstraction that refers to the social or political is a cultural advance, it is not necessarily an aesthetic one. The trick is to achieve both.
Navine G. Dossos gets it right. Her printed vinyl installation McLean graces the facade of the ICA building like a mosaic. This massive public work is a variation on the artist’s earlier work No Such Organization, a series of 100 gouache paintings of patterns, icons, and symbols made in response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who lived in McLean, Virginia. The bright, graphic palette belies its horrific content. From outside the museum the installation appears opaque, but sunlight entering passes through it as through stained glass and makes it sparkle. In the basement, Dossos has set up a computer archive of the crime, allowing visitors to click on individual paintings from the installation that link to research about Khashoggi. Sticky notes, a computer chair, and other office accessories disguise this setting as just another workspace, apparently to signify the blasé way the murder itself was concealed and then, once exposed, denied. The artist’s sophisticated use of dualities is compelling.
Other works in the show combine abstract painting’s history and political history. Alexander Apostól’s pieces read like flags or banners that look like paintings but are actually prints. His Partidos Políticos Desaparecidos is a selection of 13 digital prints contemplating Venezuela’s democratic period. The artist sources color and patterns that were used to distinguish different political parties. There is a painterly materiality to the surfaces, which are almost lush, while Apostól’s formal geometry recalls hard-edge painting. Photographing the paintings turns them into political relics of a bygone era. Thus, the works function as a dual-purpose memento mori, referencing the death of both painting and democracy. They recall Jasper Johns’s flag paintings, in which the nature of the work is in flux between the image of the flag and the painting as material reality.
On the top floor hang two photographs and one sculpture by Trevor Paglen, who once stated that secrecy “nourishes the worst excesses of power.” So what could be more appropriate than a photograph of a remote state prison? The artist captures a hazy black-and-orange field that dwarfs the prison on the horizon, rendering Color Study (Calipatria State Prison, Calipatria, CA) into a sublime color field. The grimness of such gimlet-eyed depictions of contemporary light pollution and mass incarceration is a far cry from the grandeur of Turner’s landscapes some 200 years ago.
In the early 2000s, a pretentious form of cultural anthropology was fashionable. Curators drafted lengthy wall texts and captions to explain socially and politically engaged work. The idea was to prod viewers into examining the presumptively politicized nature of the visible world, a hangover from the 1990s culture wars. Viewers were often mystified until they read the press release; the general approach was preachy. Seeing art merely as a literary object that can be linguistically decoded is misguided, as it assumes that all visual experience is nameable and qualifiable. No reasonable critic would claim that the import of a work is reducible to the language used to describe it. Its merit also rests on its visual capacity to deliver something more.
Abstraction still has ground to cover. There are always gaps between what is being expressed by the artist, what is received as a viewer, and ultimate interpretation. We should not shun this ambiguity. Rather, we should embrace it as part of the challenge of expressing anything at all. The most successful works in “So it appears” recognize the poignant dissonance of works that illuminate unseen material realities while making space for thoughts and feelings.
“So it appears,” Institute of Contemporary Art, Virginia Commonwealth University, 601 W Broad Sreet, Richmond, VA. Through July 16, 2023. Featuring work by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Monira Al Qadiri, Alexander Apóstol, Navine G. Dossos, Torkwase Dyson, Basmah Felemban, Žilvinas Kempinas, Agnieszka Kurant, Dinh Q. Lê, Jeewi Lee, John Menick, Novo (Reynier Leyva Novo), Trevor Paglen, Walid Raad, Tomás Saraceno, Pak Sheung-Chuen, and Levester Williams. Sharon Mashihi and Tricky Walsh. Organized by ICA Senior Curator and Director of Programs Sarah Rifky and ICA Curatorial Fellow Yomna Osman.
About the author: Jason Stopa (USA, b. 1983) is a painter and writer living in Brooklyn. He received his BFA from Indiana University Bloomington and his MFA from Pratt Institute in NYC. Recent solo exhibitions include Garden of Music at Diane Rosenstein Gallery, (LA 2023) Joy Labyrinth at Morgan Lehman, NYC (2021). Stopa teaches at Pratt Institute and works for an academic journal at Columbia University. He is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Momus, and artcritical, among other art journals.