The role of culture in times like the present can be a room-splitting subject. Should art be loud and clear to reflect our turbulent climate, or should it provide relief, representing our world through the subtleties so alien to politics?
Former LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, for one, is interested in art that embodies political potential, but that delivers its message in a more nuanced form. Gregory helms the Focus section at this year’s Armory Show, marking the first time that the section is not centered on a specific geographic region but rather on a curatorial conceit.
“People are so preoccupied with how we can impact the world and what role the art world has in politics,” Gregory says. However, she wanted to curate a show where politics form the backdrop but “won’t hit you over the head.”
The show takes its title, “What Is to Be Done?,” and theme from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 19th-century Russian novel of the same name and is comprised of 12 solo presentations from artists representing 10 different countries and four continents. Those include sculptures from the 1970s by American artist Senga Nengudi, in a joint presentation by New York galleries Lévy Gorvy and Thomas Erben; a video work and a gouache painting at Germany’s Kadel Willborn that French artist Mathilde Rosier created while on a residency in Kenya; and works by Russian artist Anya Titova, presented by Moscow’s Artwin Gallery.
Chernyshevsky penned the novel in 1863, while imprisoned for his radical political activities. It went on to be read voraciously by the Russian public, including by Vladimir Lenin, and established the ideological foundations of Russia’s socialist revolution.
“He’s faintly veiled his political program within the form of a novel, which is the only reason he was allowed to write in prison,” says Gregory. “But when you read it, it’s clear that the characters are motivated in a very political way. At the time, it was almost a blueprint for how you could change the world and change your life.”
The curator has sought out artists whose work captures a similar cocktail of subtlety and political force. And though Gregory says The Armory Show gave her freedom to curate a section not driven by the market, many of her selections deal nonetheless with the economy and systems of value exchange in some way.
Some works are more overt in their relationship to the economy and politics than others. For example, Johan Grimonprez’s | blue orchids | (2017) follows two individuals engaged in opposing sides of the global arms trade—a former New York Times war correspondent and a former arms and equipment dealer, both scarred from the experience.
“It is incredibly powerful. It stuck with me, and I think it will always have an impact on the way that I think and the way that I look at the world,” Gregory says of the work.
Other bodies of work look at more deeply entrenched social relations. Deana Lawson, an American artist who has traveled all over the world to trace the African diaspora through photography, stages portraits of strangers that are as confrontational as they are ambiguous. Her gallerist Rhona Hoffman says Lawson’s work reveals “the African-American gaze, the black gaze.”
“All her people, no matter where or how she’s photographing them, are looking directly out of that frame, directly at you,” Hoffman says. “When someone stares at you, and you stare back—for the African person in America, that’s fairly new.”
Zürich gallery Peter Kilchmann is showing photographs by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles shot in the border city of El Paso, including a portrait of a transsexual sex worker named Karla, who was beaten to death in December 2015. Ciudad Juarez, as the portion of the city across the Rio Grande is called, has long been known for attracting American tourists in search of medicine, prostitutes, and narcotics—and has more recently been the epicenter of cartel activities.
“She’s addressing the issue of justice for female workers, not just sex workers,” who are powerless, says Kilchmann. He notes the recent escalation in the number of young female workers who have moved from Mexico’s interior to Juarez.
Kilchmann notes that hundreds of women have been raped and killed in the city, a phenomenon so vast it has its own name—feminicidio or feminicide. “No one is punished for it. She’s giving something back to these nameless individuals.”
The series is strikingly emblematic of Gregory’s intent to select pieces that “demonstrate a real awareness of their local conditions.” Gregory says that by placing these many local snapshots in conversation she hopes to draw out the interconnectedness of the many small struggles and failures playing out each day across the globe.
“It’s really a great reminder that art is powerful in and of itself,” she says.