The realities of the external world are again filtered through a poetic lens in Paul Stephen Benjamin’s standout work, God Bless America (2016), in which piles of television monitors display pulsating red and blue lights—evoking the flashing lights of police sirens—accompanied by a rhythmic thump akin to the beating of a heart, and footage of Aretha Franklin singing “God Bless America.”
The active monitors give off heat, and that combined with a heartbeat is powerfully moving in its evocation of a live body. Fused with Franklin’s tender, warbling tribute to America, it conjures a complex, bittersweet emotion toward a country whose history and present are so deeply shaped by racism.
“‘Fictions’ is about alternative narratives, but it’s also about the way these artists are preventing their narratives from becoming fictionalized,” says Assistant Curator Hallie Ringle. And indeed, Texas Isaiah’s photographs, which depict himself along with other queer or non-binary black sitters, cast off stereotypes, insisting on the interiority of their subjects. In several of the elegantly composed portraits, subjects are shown in intimate settings or vulnerable moments, their faces partially obscured or cast in shadow in a way that seems to refuse viewers’ expectations; they hold agency, challenging onlookers’ ability to fully know them.