The story of art has almost always walked hand-in-hand with the story of money. Wealthy patrons have commissioned the most intrepid artists throughout the centuries, making celebrities of painters, sculptors and their subjects. Artists' life works have been immortalized in private collections and museums, some appreciating in value beyond comprehension. The current exhibition on view at Memorial Art Gallery is drawn from the RBC Wealth Management Art Collection, and showcases works that speak to the human condition across age, race, and other measurements of identity and experience.
Though there is a logical link between this show and the gallery's new director, Jonathan Binstock, whose most recent job was senior vice president and senior advisor for Citi Private Bank's Art Advisory & Finance Group, this show was being negotiated by MAG staff in early 2013, long before Binstock was chosen, and before Holcomb had even decided on a retirement date. Through the past two decades, RBC Wealth Management — the international arm of the Royal Bank of Canada — has collected more than 400 works of contemporary art, in celebration the diversity of our society. In the words of Donald McNeil, RBC Wealth Management's current collections curator, "The human figure makes the collection accessible, yet thought-provoking; entertaining, yet challenging; timeless, yet relevant. It shows who we are and how we live."
"All the work in the RBC Wealth Management Collection focuses on the human face, body, condition," says Marie Via, MAG director of exhibitions. Pieces not traveling in the show at a given time are kept on the walls, mostly in public spaces, at the corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, where employees and visitors alike can see them, Via says. "It's my impression that they are encouraging people to recognize and celebrate differences, intersections, and overlaps in our lives." This sliver of the collection includes works by many impressive names: Elizabeth Peyton, Roy Lichtenstein, Carrie Mae Weems, Alec Soth, Kehinde Wiley, Chuck Close. Even this section, little more than 10 percent of the collection, reveals a great diversity of artists and subjects and styles. And this is quite possibly the most photography I've seen showcased at once at the Memorial Art Gallery.
Close to the entrance of the Grand Gallery is a triptych Polaroid print by Dawoud Bey. In "Sharmaine, Vincente, Joseph, Andre, and Charlie," five pensive-looking young adults pose together, two of them split over different frames. Nearby, John Ahearn's "Two Girls" is the only true sculpture in the show, the acrylic-on-plaster busts of two giggling young girls, cheek to cheek and popping out from the wall with infectious mirth in their expressions.
The everlasting struggle of trying to navigate this world is depicted in several works, including Kerry James Marshall's "Blind Ambition," a work in acrylic and collage on canvas. A black-as-pitch man -- an element the artist uses to comment on the invisibility of blacks in American -- stands next to a ladder with the words "ambition" at the bottom and "success" at the top, with the words "courage" and "industry" barely legible on the rungs, indicating there is extra effort required for this man to reach his goals.
The large, vibrant and kinetic diptych, "The New Red Carpet," by Michael Vasquez, echoes this theme of maplessly navigating a dangerous world. Provided info states that the artist was drawn to a neighborhood street gang in search of a strong father-figure. In one panel, the subject proudly flashes gang signs, in the other he is caught in a moment of reflection. "I position the viewer below the subject," the artist says, "forcing them to look up to the person in the painting the same way I did in my younger years."
John Sosini's "Fernando" is a large oil on canvas work in a series in tribute to day laborers. His subject is seated and impassive, an invisible immortalized with identity protected through the lack of a last name, and the obscuring use of impasto. The artist pays his models their normal daily wage for their trouble.
Some of the most engaging works are by artists who comment on the slippery boundaries of identities thrust upon or adopted by them. Lezley Saar's mixed media "Between a Mulatto and a Quadroon" refers to archaic categories of racial identification, and is composed of old book covers, photos, and paintings, the portrait refusing to be pigeon-holed while acknowledging a tangled mass of sources.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's "Indian Head" is an oil and mixed media work of a silhoutted profile of a red face with an exaggeratedly bulging nose, surrounded by articles on the status of treaties and newspaper ads selling products with appropriated names like "Big Chief Tomatoes" and "Jeep Grand Cherokee."
Iona Rozeal Brown's "Untitled (Female)" and "Untitled (Male)" screen prints are part of her ongoing project that she calls "afro-asiatic allegory." The images of a geisha and samurai wearing blackface, with braided hair and gold teeth, is inspired by Japanese teens who adopt extreme fake tans, bling, and other "urban" accoutrements. Looks like American youth aren't the only ones appropriating black culture without the hardship. In the provided statement, Brown says she is "still grappling" with her feelings about this appropriation of hip-hop culture, "where it is separated from its original social and economic context and reduced to mere style."
On Thursday, June 4, at 7 p.m., MAG will host a lecture by Hung Liu, whose work is featured in "The Human Touch." For more information and related events, visit mag.rocheter.edu.