The M Blog

The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.

The American Art Puzzle

By Christopher E. Harrison, a guest curator for the exhibition We the People

Whether I watch the news, read the paper or surf the internet, it seems like the definition of “America” is in constant flux. Who is American, what is American, when is it American, why is it American? A solid, functioning society is only as strong as its constituent parts. And no matter how different those pieces are, we only get the complete picture when they’re seen together, as a whole. That’s the strength of the American culture in my eyes. And how we, as Americans, choose to fit together going forward is what will determine our country’s progression or decline.

When approached to co-curate We The People for the Minnesota Museum of American Art (the M), I saw an exciting opportunity to use art to give a voice to some of the many lived experiences represented by various “pieces” of the American puzzle. Art can offer insight that sparks a conversation to challenge easy preconceptions. And when we pay attention to those voices, art can move the needle toward an America we all can believe in.

Steve Ozone (b.1957, Rochester, NY), Joanna and Alex, 2016. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

In works I selected for the exhibition, I focused on the themes of immigration, place, and identity. In the current political climate, these themes resonate with issues that crop up on our info feeds all the time. They prompt us continually to question who we are as a nation, the histories and identities we carry, and whose voices matter in the national conversation.

The reward of great art is its ability speak to the here and now, but also to resound in our hearts and minds through time. Makers must continue making, to be the chroniclers of this space we exist in together, good or bad.

Pedram Baldari’s sculpture Shall Be Wielded By A True President speaks to the challenge of determining what counts as leadership fit to represent the image of our country. Slap, by Tia-Simone Gardner, is a multimedia piece that whispers of a bygone era, with the old wooden screen door signaling home as a place of comfort and some nostalgic American past. Steve Ozone’s Joanna and Alex captures the complexity of the American Dream via an immigrant couple’s portrait with their prized possessions—the things that serve to solidify and affirm their status and “Americanness.”

Nooshin Hakim Javadi (b.1983, Qazvin, Iran), 11000 KM of Hope, 2017. Mixed media sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

With the specter of immigration restrictions becoming more and more evident, Nooshin Hakim Javadi’s 11000 KM of Hope provides a flash of optimism for those who still believe in the promise of America as a place of refuge. Hakim Javadi is an Iranian artist living in the States, using her art to comment on the experiences of a transplanted citizen. Her crystal-encrusted shoes at the center of Hope serve as a metaphor for the complicated, arduous journey involved in making it to our nation’s hallowed shores. The desire for freedom that drives such journeys is captured in Nike’s Wings, by Vesna Kittelson. Her piece is a nod to the ancient Hellenistic sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace, pared down to its majestic wings. Aspirational yet tangible in its textured gravity, this work asks us to soar tirelessly above our differences, to be the best we can be—together.

Both America and the wider world are at a crossroads. Now’s the time to decide what kind of legacy we’ll leave to history. The reward of great art is its ability speak to the here and now, but also to resound in our hearts and minds through time. Makers must continue making, to be the chroniclers of this space we exist in together, good or bad. Artists shine a light on the darkness. My highest hopes for the show are that these artists’ works might entertain and inform, educate and enlighten. In so doing, maybe we can begin to bring our many pieces together to make an America we can be truly be proud of.

Noted exhibition:

We the People is now on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. The exhibition’s run has been extended through November 12, 2017. Four guest curators have selected work by artists from Minnesota and around the country, in response to the question: Who are “we the people?”

This exhibition and its accompanying programs are made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant and an Arts Access grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Thanks also to Target and the ACLU of Minnesota for their additional support.

Image (top): Vesna Kittelson (b. 1947, Split, Croatia, lives in Minneapolis), Nike’s Wings (detail), 2016. Acrylic and oil paint, metal, and encaustic on mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Christopher E. Harrison is a fine artist, graphic designer, museum educator, and independent curator based in the Twin Cities. His politically and socially engaged paintings are made with natural materials, and focus on creating greater curiosity and respect for the physical world. Harrison received his BFA in 1987 from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, OH, and he is an MFA candidate at Art Academy University, San Francisco.