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Defining the art of a region in the twenty-first century is a thorny and onerous task. Like many professionals in the age of telecommuting, gig work, and academic precarity, artists relocate often. Similarly, influences stem from far and wide, making the old art historical distinctions of style as defined by geographical proximity difficult to apply in this day and age.
The Regional, an exhibition jointly organized by Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, attempts to provide a snapshot of the art of today in the American Midwest. The museum directors’ foreword to the show’s catalog directly evokes Regionalism, that much-derided movement from almost a century ago that sought to reject the global art world’s then dominant language of abstraction and l’art pour l’art to return to figural representation and social themes while developing a visual language and iconography unique to the American heartland. Where Regionalism sought to produce a coherent vision of the Midwest, however, The Regional seeks to disrupt it.
Though often cast as homogenous and conservative, the Midwest is itself a contested and fluid area made up of multiple states, ethnic and migrant communities, urban centers, exurbs, small towns, rural areas, unique ecosystems, and tribal lands. The twenty-three artists in The Regional each have some connection—via birthplace or residence (current or prior, however brief)—to fourteen midwestern cities in nine states (including the border cities of Covington, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). That most quintessential of midwestern states—Indiana—is conspicuously absent.
The geographical displacement of the show’s fourteen cities forms its visual brand: clusters of red dots that, with the underlying map removed, appear abstract, a bit random, and full of gaps. This visual identity in some ways unwittingly stands in for the show’s muddled, ambivalent, and ultimately scattered take on the region. Nevertheless, The Regional showcases some exciting works by a younger generation of artists that point to how we must understand even this neglected “fly-over country” through what geographer Doreen Massey famously referred to in 1991 as an “extroverted” and “global sense of place.”
Curators Amara Antilla of the CAC and Jade Powers of the Kemper Museum break the show into six loosely-defined themes: landscape and abstraction, immigrant experience and labor, architecture and notions of home, healing from ethnic and racial traumas, Americana and pop culture, and portraiture and identity. Within each theme artists question assumptions of homogeneity, often working within some of our moment’s urgent questions of climate change and racial justice.
In a show that largely eschews the contemporary art world’s current dominant forms of video and digital media, materiality emerges as another theme. Matthew Angelo Harrison’s sculptures merge industrial materials, car parts, and West African masks to explore the links between Detroit’s industrial past and the racial trauma produced by global capitalism in objects that evoke both Afrofuturism and dystopian science fiction. In the same gallery (in CAC’s iteration) Lyndon Barrios Jr.’s more conceptual Brown Paper Flag Test (2017) features a wavy, distorted flag laser-printed onto brown paper with CMYK color test lines, referencing both the embedded racism in our consumption of mass-produced images and the colorist practice of comparing skin to a brown paper bag.
Multiple artists also employ textiles, at times incorporating mass-produced imagery (as in the large pieces by Yvonne Osei printed with images of racial struggle and violence that drape pillars in the gallery) or meditative processes (as in Hellen Ascoli’s text-based weavings made on a traditional Guatemalan backstrap loom). Jonathan Christensen Caballero merges ceramic figures recalling Mesoamerican deities with bundles of reclaimed fabric to examine Latinx labor and diasporic family ties. Detroit-based artist Margo Wolowicz’s hand-woven, abstract tapestries feature wefts of printed digital imagery of climate catastrophe. In Breaking News (2018) this process creates a translucent scrim over barely legible images of fires and floods that recall the paintings of Gerhard Richter, punctuated by banners that read “Breaking News” and “Storm Watch.” With 11 Cities (2019), closeups of waterways in cities threatened by flooding blend with shiny mylar from emergency preparedness kits to produce a disturbing, shimmery surface stretched across a folding screen.
Painting also features prominently in this group of younger artists, particularly portrait painting that employs multimedia surfaces to depict hybrid identities. Echoing established painters like Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, and Kerry James Marshall (who himself has spent much of his career in Chicago), paintings by Gisela McDaniel, Devan Shimoyama, and Conrad Egyir place stately and self-possessed figures in dense environments rich with iconography and surface embellishments. Shimoyama’s Black male figures, with faces constructed of bedazzled eyes and photographs of lips, sit isolated in domestic settings surrounded by books on queer identity and belonging. Three portraits by McDaniel, a Detroit-based artist originally from Guam, feature maternal figures in the artist’s life encrusted with found objects and thick layers of paint. Motion sensors activate an audio recording of testimony from the three seated women, quotes from which are etched onto plexiglass that hang a few paces in front of the paintings.
In one of the few other works to include time-based media, Diné artist Dakota Mace includes oral stories from her elders of the Long Walk in Dahodiyinii (Sacred Places) (2021), a case displaying a grid of 200 small cyanotypes dyed with the insect-based pigment cochineal. The deep red and brown textures both form an indexical link to land and evoke the violence of colonialism and extraction. Along with Wolowicz’s tapestries, Mace’s bloody but beautiful abstractions provide some of the show’s most direct, powerful, and complex examinations of place.
Many other artists point explicitly to places other than the Midwest. Lorena Molina’s Reconciliation Garden (2021), the only example of interactive social practice in the show, features plants found in the forests of El Salvador along with educational materials and a discussion space exploring US-backed violence in the coffee-producing region and the artist’s Coffee Farmer Reconciliation Fund. Pao Houa Her and Hương Ngô mined their own autobiographies to explore diasporic communities formed by fleeing the Vietnam War and surrounding conflicts. Her’s intimate, large format photographic portraits document members of Hmong American communities like her own in Minnesota while Ngô’s installation And the State of Emergency is Also Always a State of Emergence (2017) uses found objects, sculpture, and prints to evoke the artist’s childhood stay in a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
Only a handful of artists tackle the Midwest’s cookie-cutter public image head-on. Rachel Cox’s cyanotypes of simplified abstract models of suburban homes provide haunting if somewhat predictable indictments of such communities’ sameness and conformity. Dan Gunn’s weird, illuminated frog sculptures, scattered about the galleries, are a welcome and humorous reprieve from the show’s gravity and recall the vernacular practice of lawn ornaments—a direct nod to Midwestern material culture otherwise lacking in the show overall. His larger painted wood reliefs Bittersweet Scenery (2020) and Wetland Scenery (2021) mimic quilt designs and folk art aesthetics at mural scale. Small abstract paintings by Alice Tippit and Natalie Petrosky, though somewhat out of place in a show that mostly features representational work, provide a visual restraint that could be understood as a certain Midwestern sensibility.
The exhibition’s catalog, available as a free PDF online, mostly reprints content from wall texts, grouped according to The Regional’s themes, followed by two-page artist profiles. The catalog does little to provide the thematic and conceptual intertwining it could have. The text also mentions how the curators’ studio visits were conducted remotely over Zoom, a limitation produced by the pandemic. Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder how curatorial trips to the region’s different ecosystems, conversations with locals in a variety of accents, and long drives through the countryside between towns might have afforded a richer understanding of such a vast region in the preparation for the show. What other visual traditions and artists might have been discovered? What understudied visual and environmental influences unearthed? What ignored topics and problems uncovered? Perhaps engaging more directly with the legacy of Regionalism–which is still experienced daily in Midwestern civic spaces adorned with New Deal-era public art–could provide a richer backdrop for the show’s many attempts to disrupt a coherent Midwestern identity.
While The Regional succeeds in showcasing some exciting work of the moment and contesting coastal assumptions of the Midwest’s supposed monolithic, conservative whiteness—indeed a worthy goal in our times of a rising ultra-right politics—it does so by staying largely within the relatively safe practices of MFA-holding millennial artists working in cities and university settings (all but three were born in the 1980s or early 1990s, and all but four hold MFAs). Lacking any generational consideration of themes, techniques, or outlooks passed down within the region, or any serious consideration of artists based in rural settings, the show leaves me to wonder: Who is this for? If the goal is to turn the heads of critics on the coasts, prompting them to remark, “This isn’t your grandfather’s Midwest anymore,” (as Peter Plagens did in The Wall Street Journal) then, mission accomplished. But for many audiences based here, the diversity of experience in the Midwest is less of a surprise. While lower-case “regionalism” is perhaps first concerned with contesting labels from without, it also requires storytelling and narratives about place and communities woven together over time. In this respect, the exhibition is hopefully a launchpad for a richer and more nuanced examination of place in the future, exploring this region’s multiple continuities and lineages as well as ruptures from its stereotypical image.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Miami University of Ohio