The latest exhibit to open at Opalka Gallery refuses to remain inside the gallery walls, sticking with viewers long after they’ve left the Russell Sage College campus.
Combining works from 26 internationally recognized artists, “Shifting Gaze: A Reconstruction of the Black & Hispanic Body in Contemporary Art” takes a deep dive into a broad range of concepts surrounding identity, beauty and religion. The traveling exhibit features works from the Dr. Robert B. Feldman collection and originated at the Mennello Museum in Orlando, Florida.
It’s a layered exhibit with mostly figurative paintings, mixed media pieces, photography and sculpture. Upon entering, the sparkle of Mickalene Thomas’ rhinestone portrait, called “I’m Not the Woman You Think I Am,” draws the eye. The Black figure is reclining on a lavish, pattern-packed couch and looks directly at the viewer.
It’s an ideal starting point for an exhibit that explores the notion of “the gaze” in visual arts. Historically, Western art has mainly been made for and by white males. The artists included in “Shifting Gaze,” challenge that power structure and propose a new visual language.
Kyle Meyer’s work, “Unidentified,” which features a print of a portrait handwoven with wax print paper, certainly speaks to that. It creates an optical illusion, obstructing the viewer from getting a clear image of the figure’s face. As self-identified gay men living in Southern Africa, Meyer’s subjects in this piece and others are marginalized. Intertwining fragments of their portrait with the wax print creates a new identity for each subject.
Not too far away is Nathaniel Donnett’s “Reflect 6,” with a portrait of a Black woman, depicted on sheets of brown paper, looking at her reflection and finding a featureless red face. It’s alarming, perhaps a reference to anger or to a blurred identity.
A haunting sculpture of a spine, made from steel and handcuffs by Cuban artist Yoan Capote, is on view nearby. Each vertebra is depicted using closed handcuffs and the piece, called “New Man,” brings to mind police violence and brutality. As the label copy notes “Here, a tool of arrest is establishing the backbone of humanity. What might be a source of comfort and protection for some might be a source of pain, again, grinding and prosecution for others.”
Another remarkable work that deals with violence, particularly at the hands of those in power, is Hank Willis Thomas’ “Turbulence (White Strokes). At first glance, the work is a gray and white screen-printed abstract. However, when viewers take a flash photograph of the canvas, the piece transforms into a painful, blurred scene of white police officers confronting a Black protestor. The piece is part of a larger body of work from Thomas called “What We Ask Is Simple,” which used vintage photographs to spread awareness of the violence faced by protest movements around the world. By interacting with “Turbulence” viewers are literally bringing the issue to light, which speaks to the role that protestors and bystanders can play in documenting the fight for justice via their cell phones.
Even with all the weighty works, there are some ebullient pieces as well, like Ebony G. Patterson’s highly embellished circular tapestry, filled with butterflies, a teddy bear, a turtle, and other creatures. Strings of brightly-colored beads hang from the work, which is accompanied by an intricately decorated pair of sneakers positioned on the ground just below the tapestry.
In Nate Lewis’ “Axe,” we see a lone Black person dancing, with an arm stretched out above them and a knee raised. Made from ink and cut paper, the piece looks three-dimensional, adding to the impact of the figure’s movement.
“Shifting Gaze” is a timely and contemplative survey, presenting images and ideas that are well worth returning to. It will be on view at Opalka Gallery through February 5, 2022. The gallery is located at 140 New Scotland Ave., Albany. For more information visit opalka.sage.edu.