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At first glance, Lauren Gohara’s painting at Touchstone Gallery looks almost like a Mondrian: Three rows of rectangles in bright colors fill up a white canvas. A read of the painting’s plaque, however, reveals a deeper meaning. The painting, titled “What the Bottom 40% Really Have,” is actually a representation of data collected by researchers about how people think wealth is distributed between each quintile of the population in the United States. The bottom row represents what participants thought would be a fair distribution. The middle row represents what they thought the actual wealth distribution was. And the top row shows how wealth is actually distributed. With just a brief explanation, Gohara’s pretty painting becomes a startling picture of wealth inequality in this country.
The painting is on display at America Is…, the new Touchstone exhibition showcasing art that asks and attempts to answer one question: What is America today?
A panel of four jurors selected each of the 51 pieces filling the gallery from more than 2,000 entries. The jurors chose them as the submissions that best contribute to the ever-evolving conversation about our national identity. The number 51 is just a coincidence, not a reference to the number of American states plus the District—gallery director Ksenia Grishkova says the gallery “would never try to meet a specific quota or number for this kind of thing.”
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The jurors are each art experts located in different areas of the U.S., which Grishkova says was meant to encourage submissions that capture “viewpoints from each region.” Even though entries came from across the nation, none of the jurors are from the DMV, and there was no indication of where a particular artist was from during the judging process, Gishkova proudly shares that 20 of the 48 selected artists are from the D.C. area.
One of the most captivating pieces on display is a Robert Arbogast sculpture. Looming almost as tall as the gallery’s ceiling, the piece is a near-replica of a Robert E. Lee monument with “added context,” as Arbogast puts it. The monument’s body is shrouded in a white confederate flag, which symbolizes the surrender of Lee’s Confederate Army in the Civil War. A rope wrapping around the flag over his body symbolizes the enslavement of millions of African Americans, a practice Lee’s army fought to preserve.
Right next to one of the gallery’s large windows is another sculpture, “Concealed Carryland” by Ann Stoddard. The piece resembles a pillow fort made of children’s blankets, but stitched into them are silhouettes of assault weapons. The title of the piece is a reference to Disneyland—Stoddard’s piece suggests that gun culture, and having guns near children, is just as American as the iconic amusement park.
Walls and stands covered in art of all media surround these and other sculptures. On one wall hangs “Torn V” by Laura Sussman-Randall, a beautifully detailed charcoal drawing of a tattered American flag which begs to be read as an interpretation of the state of the nation. On a nearby table, “Great! Great!! Great!!!” by Jenny Wu—a video compilation of President Donald Trump saying one of his most defining words—plays repeatedly on a tablet.
For all the pieces in America Is… that imply the country is in absolute disaster, there are others that highlight contrary examples. D.C.-based photographer Lloyd Foster’s vibrant picture shows the profile of a young man from Ghana, posing in front of a traditional Ghanaian tapestry with an American flag print durag around his head. The image is delightfully colorful, and portrays the blending of Foster’s own background as an American from a Ghanaian family. A few feet away hangs “Woke” by Beryl Jazvic—a nearly life-size painting of a boy eating an apple under a blue sky, with the word “Woke” largely printed on his sweatshirt in the style of the Coke logo.
This is Touchstone Gallery’s third annual national juried show exhibiting political art. Grishkova says she didn’t pay much attention to art with political messages until after the 2016 presidential election, when her own introspection about the country’s politics led her to notice how others were reacting. “Art is such a universal language,” she says. “Anything visual can reach across faster than language. There’s an immediate reaction.”
The title for this year’s showcase is a question that Grishkova has been asking herself over the past few years. “I was wondering to myself what I want to see,” she says. “And I thought, if I’m curious to ask this question, I’m sure there are other people and artists out there who are curious to answer it.”
One of those people is New York-based artist Seol Park, who says the question of what America is today is something that “seeps into every aspect of our lives, including what goes on in artists’ studios.” The piece she has on display at Touchstone is a four-panel mixed media landscape that juxtaposes famous paintings from American history with headlines about and images of people migrating to the country via the Southern border.
Despite Park’s hunger to explore American identity through her art, not everyone thinks it’s her place as a Korean immigrant, she says. Recently, Park shares, an American collector suggested she try telling her own story—“where you come from, your culture, your people, your past”—rather than continue the work she’s doing now.
“He meant well, but I thought, ‘Woah, I’m seeing racial profiling in action in artistic terms,’” Park says. “In my mind, labeling things ‘their concern,’ ‘my people’s matter,’ ‘your business,’ is counter intuitive because, aren’t we trying to make all of these our shared concerns, unless you’re a Martian? I prefer discussing whether an artist strives to bring to one’s chosen subjects sincerity, empathy, dimensions and artistry, not who’s licensed to tell which story.”
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