Jacqueline Loss reviews Iconomania at Merton D. Simpson Gallery
The pleasure of Merton D. Simpson Gallery's Iconomania resides in its bold, yet precise ability to concede to the unlikely connections among different art objects with vastly distinct aesthetic impulses and histories - paintings, photographs, sculptures, mixed media - creating an occasion to celebrate what is "out of context." Yet, we are led to believe, escorted by the curatorial expertise of the gallery's director, Alaina Simone, that this apparent mishmash is, in fact, inherent to humans' long and temperamental relationship to reverence and religiosity.
Tribal art, through which the Merton D. Simpson Gallery became what it has been known for, by definition, possesses many attributes that make it comparable to the much-contested testimonio in Latin America in the sense that art-viewers desire to appreciate it solely for its authenticity, often blinding them to the "art" of such "useful" visual texts. Even today, to envision "indigenous" peoples as capable of embracing multiple realms including the spiritual, the ceremonial, the social, the utilitarian, and last but not least, to do so using artistic expression, can be threatening to long-held paradigms about the evolution of art. Tribal art can trigger our attachment to purity, to civilization, and to our necessity to execute empathy without any burden.
This exhibit resists these urges at every turn. For instance, it rejoices in the geometrically patterned compositions made out of rolled paper and canvas that visually riff upon Kuba textiles from the Congo created by Russian-born, self-proclaimed "modern nomad" Liliya Lifanova. In so doing, it tells its own story about never-ending processes of appropriation. The colored sheets of plastic by American Jill Nathanson speak directly to such cultural recycling. There are even a few instants when the art leaves us wondering if it is part of the permanent collection on exhibit or is in dialogue with it. That might be the case with "Coltrane's Horse," by American Tyrone Mitchell, but upon slower observation, a global homage to talent and artistry emerges through Walt Whitman's verses that Mitchell carves into a piece of an ancient Chinese temple.
Cuban Francis Acea, known for his bombastic reckoning with late capitalism and late socialism through his inversions of socialist and capitalist iconography, renders haunting masks, entitled "Nobody 2" and "Nobody 3," made out of acrylic and paper. Their placement in this context beg them to be read as witnesses to the decomposition of identity, the violence, that is inherent in all-encompassing systems. In this way, anonymity and exemplarity are themes that linger in tension with one another in this display. It is as if Aaron Philip's mixed media "Palmolive," peaking out from one of the exhibit's corners, nearly provides an explanation for the processes that diminish our individual and collective subjectivities. The exhibit's composition obliges spectators to recognize how tribal art serves to cultivate belonging and congeal group identity, thereby shedding light onto our interpretation of Palmolive and even Mickey Mouse.
In Iconomania, Cuban-born Noel León's "Mickey Mouse Receiving Stigmata" and "Minnie Monroe" dialogue as closely with Acea and Philip as they do with the Mossi Mask with Antelope from Burkina Faso or the Bete Mask from the Ivory Coast, showcasing the wounds of Disneyfication and Hollywoodization, calling spectators' attention to the mirage that we inhabit, questioning the strategies that are employed to elicit our loyalties, and reflecting upon the legacies of diverse "African" forms in so-called Western iconography. We can't help to imagine the fate of these named individual artists in the far future after seeing them beside tribal art - will they too become anonymous representations of our present-day tribe? Alaina Simone does not help us out of that mirage of dehistoricization and fanaticism with Iconomania, but this exhibit sure insists on our critical acumen with regard to such categories as authenticity and commodification, spirituality, and iconography.
Jacqueline Loss, Associate Professor of Latin American and Comparative Literacy and Cultural Studies, University of Connecticut