Catharine Clark Gallery continues its Spring 2019 program with White House, a group exhibition featuring new and recent work by Chester Arnold, Sandow Birk, Al Farrow, Michael Hall, Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport, and Stephanie Syjuco. The expansive presentation – which encompasses the main galleries, as well as the media and viewing rooms – considers the impact of institutional power on our civic consciousness, while offering space to critically reflect upon the “iconic” structures and symbols associated with American democracy. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Al Farrow’s The White House (2018) – the artist’s first secular structure in his "Reliquary" series – which originally debuted at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco, as part of the traveling survey exhibition Al Farrow: Divine Ammunition. Farrow began plans for a structure based on the White House in 2001, during George W. Bush’s first term in office. The Bush administration’s responses to September 11th – armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and intrusion on citizens’ rights by legislation such as the Patriot Act – provoked Farrow to consider the impact of the Executive Office on American’s lives. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, Farrow decided to revisit plans to build a structure that reflected on the presidency itself and its relationship with violent interventions across history.
While the election of Donald Trump’s may have inspired Farrow to complete the structure, the artist implores viewers to think critically and broadly about how every administration since Roosevelt’s presidency has expanded the powers of the office without adequate oversight from other branches of government. The color and architecture of the White House in Washington, D.C. represent the idea of uncorrupted liberty, the white evoking associations with “purity” that is central to American identity. The irony is that the White House, like many of the major structures in the nation’s capital, was built by a labor force largely of slaves, a historical fact that reminds us, as viewers, that the freedoms of citizenship have not been extended to everyone. The exterior of Farrow's The White House appears rusted and worn, the façade of democratic ideals corrupted by abuses of power; while its materials – guns and gun parts, with shell casings – remind us that violence undercuts our truest freedoms.
The iconic facade of the White House reappears in new paintings by Sandow Birk and Chester Arnold, which depict the structure as a site of brutality and destruction. Birk’s painting Rally at Lafayette Square (August 12, 2018) (2019) reimagines formal elements from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of Innocents (1565) to depict a recent white supremacy rally in Washington, D.C., as part of larger series that examines how domestic terrorism has largely been perpetrated by white American males. By extension, Arnold’s A Natural History of Disaster II: The Excavation of the White House, 2152 A.C. (2019), imagines the White House as a crumbling ruin at the bottom of an archaeological site, its distressed and burnt façade a relic of a fallen empire. A new suite of paintings depicting crowds and motorcades evokes the power of assembly, as well as more unsettling associations with mob mentality.
Two photographs by Stephanie Syjuco further conversations around citizenship and access to civil liberties. Total Transparency (Portrait of N), (2017) depicts an undocumented student and immigrant to the United States who, because of shifting administration policies, is under threat of deportation. Covered with a printed cloth referencing a transparency background layer used in Photoshop editing software, the sitter’s identity is obscured through a gesture intended to protect his/her identity while signaling the political erasure of immigrants in American democracy. By comparison, Color Checker (Pileup) 2 (2019) depicts an outstretched arm holding a color calibration card – frequently used to “correct” color in photography – in front of a mound of American flags, a juxtaposition that challenges the idea of cultural and political “neutrality” in our American democracy.
Michael Hall’s video Confluence (All the Nations of the Earth) (2017), in contrast, explores how nation-states define sovereignty through their most iconic symbols: their flags. Hall’s animated video montage depicts the flags of the 241 countries and territories recognized by the United Nations as they dissolve and amalgamate with one another, forming a polychromatic, hybridized flag of “all nations.” Amidst increased isolationism and reactive nationalism, the abstracted design distorts any simplistic national ensigns, while suggesting the complexities inherent to globalism.
In the Media Room, Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport present 113… (2019), an ambitious and immersive 7-channel video installation that documents and commemorates every high school mass shooting in the United States between the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the end of last year. Employing aerial shots of football fields and surrounding neighborhoods of these schools, Oropallo and Rappaport evoke a different kind of American iconography — one that highlights, both visually and sonically, the contrast between the innocence and joy of youth and the horrors of gun violence. The exhibition is complemented by a Viewing Room presentation of the complete suite of Sandow Birk’s gravures from the Imaginary Monuments series, co-published by Catharine Clark Gallery and Mullowney Printing, San Francisco. White House opens with a reception on Saturday, May 18, 2019 from 4 – 6pm, with artist talks at 4:30pm.