Anderson Ranch artists responding to school shootings, the border wall, refugee crisis, racism in new work
IF YOU GO …
What: Spring Open House
Where: Anderson Ranch Arts Center
When: April 10, 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: The open house includes open studio tours with visiting artists, kids’ crafts and live screenprintings from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.; photographer Derek Johnston will give a talk at 6 p.m.; dinner at the Ranch Café is available for $25 at 7 p.m.
More info: http://www.andersonranch.org
Walking through the studios at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, where visiting artists from around the world and across the spectrum of media come to make work for 10 weeks each fall and spring, you can put your finger on the pulse of the art world and take a crash course on the concerns of today’s working artists.
The topical, politically charged work underway by this spring’s class of residents at the Ranch reflects a movement toward making a real-world social impact through art.
In sculpture, printmaking, video, painting and photographic works, residents are responding to school shootings and to the global refugee crisis, to immigration and the debate over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, to racism and colorism and some of the most vexing issues of our historical moment.
“For me, it’s this question of ‘How do we make connections between different communities and how do we get outside the niche of the art world and actually create change, create connection and have catharsis with other people?’” Brooklyn-based, cross-disciplinary artist Amy Khoshbin said.
A few days after Khoshbin arrived here last month, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting shook the country. She has responded rapidly in the past six weeks by undertaking a body of work about gun culture. Koshbin began by surveying people with the question “What is the opposite of a weapon?” Based on the answers — a blanket or a hug, for example — she’s making large prints and a series of small, ceramic action figures and plush toys aimed at children to offer alternatives to violence.
“The idea behind it is to think about, what is the antithesis of a culture of violence and what could we start thinking about in terms of disarmament?” she explained.
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In a work of performance art, Khoshbin went to Denver’s Tanner Gun Show last weekend and posed as a frightened high school teacher. With a hidden camera filming from her purse, she recorded gun dealers’ responses when she told them she was nervous about school shootings.
“Some people, off the bat, were like, ‘Definitely concealed-carry, bring a gun to school, we need more guns in schools,’” she said. “Other people were like, ‘You need to be trained and think about safety.’ But the bottom line was that gun culture serves as all these vectors in what it means to be an American right now.”
The phrase she heard repeatedly, she said, was “You never know.” She’s making an art film based on the experience.
While at the Ranch, Khoshbin also made a 12-minute audio work she’s calling a “guided media relaxation meditation,” a subversive guided meditation tape aiming to counter fear-based messaging in mass media. It’s part of a larger project: her 2021 campaign for New York City Council. In a soothing voice, she guides the listener through an actual meditation while mixing in political rhetoric and sly social commentary: “Imagine a terrorist. What does it look like in your mind? Where are they from? Think about those symbols of hate and think about the light within you.”
In the sculpture studio, Coby Kennedy — who also is based in Brooklyn and also works across disciplines including painting, video and photography — is digging into the intricacies of dog-whistle racism and subtle colorism. In Tyler Perry films and on cable news programs alike, he has identified ways that media perpetuates a culture, as he put it, “where black is wack and white is right, or light is right.”
The African-American son of a light-skinned mid-Atlantic mother and a dark-skinned Southern father, Kennedy said he’s spent his whole life observing the prejudices and stereotypes that people develop toward those with different skin colors and tones.
At the Ranch, Kennedy is painting sculptures, crafted from bulletproof Kevlar, of a one-eyed monster character he’s dubbed “Thuggernaut,” offering a jarring visual rebuke to the racist use of words like “thug” to describe black men.
“It all began when I was watching CNN or Fox News or something — I think it was O’Reilly, good old Bill — where he was going off about the rapper Common getting invited to the White House,” Kennedy recalled. “Commentators were like, ‘How can the president invite this thug, this gangster rapper to the White House?’”
Common, of course, is anything but a gangster rapper or thug. Two summers ago, for example, the Grammy and Oscar winner was onstage here at an Aspen Institute event discussing corporate responsibility with Walter Isaacson and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
In the “Thuggernaut,” Kennedy found a visual representation of the mythical black “thug” who the cable news crowd was projecting onto Common.
“It was obvious they were creating this myth, this catch-all for black youth,” Kennedy recalled. “So I was like, if they’re going to make this myth, I need to make the ‘Thuggernaut.’ This is what you’re talking about: this six-armed pacadermic beast that roams the urban landscape dishing out genocide and self-defeating behavior.”
TONY de los REYES
Steps away in the painting studio, Los Angeles artist Tony de los Reyes is making his way through a series he has dubbed “Border Theory” depicting the politically charged landscape of the Mexican-American border.
“It documents the nature of the border as I perceive it, both personally and historically,” de los Reyes said.
The artist is of Mexican descent — his great-grandmother, he noted, crossed the border to give birth to his grandfather — and has been making art about the border for five years. He began with abstract line drawings based on satellite imagery.
The paintings in progress in Snowmass depict the high desert landscape as seen through the border wall in Jacumba, California. His canvases all have fuzzy rectangular blocks of color lining their vertical edges, so the viewer is made to look through the bars of the wall. The paintings are based on photos that de los Reyes shot from that perspective.
He also is depicting film stills from the 1982 Jack Nicholson film “The Border,” which he placed in the dirt on the border, photographed there and is now painting. And he has amassed a fascinating collection of antique postcards from border towns. They depict a wide range of visions of the area: from idyllic nature scenes to militaristic portraits of border agents to a postcard of refugees crossing the Rio Grande River into America on July 4, 1913. De los Reyes is making paintings based on the postcards.
“What happens with most border art is that it focuses on what we already know, which is the division of space,” de los Reyes explained. “What I’m trying to focus on is the psychology of the space. It’s so absolutely loaded, even when there’s nobody there.”
In the Ranch’s printmaking studio, Kristina Paabus is making works reflecting upon her Estonian heritage and the ways governments in Soviet nations used architecture to intimidate and control the citizenry.
“All of my work deals with these systems of control, or how we control the world around us, all these systems we put in place to understand the world,” she explained. “But lately I’ve been specifically interested in government control through architecture.”
Paabus is on a yearlong sabbatical from teaching at Oberlin College in Ohio. She recently traveled through Russia and Eastern Europe looking for relics of oppressive Soviet architecture. She’s now making prints based on what she saw, including abstracted works based on a design often used in steel fences that was dubbed “Lenin’s Sun.”
“It’s a decorative element but it’s purpose is not decorative,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder of this heaviness and this watchfulness.”
Another print is based on the massive curtains in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, which she described with a chuckle as “massive, oppressive reminders of politeness.”
CARA FAYE EARL
Paabus is sharing the studio space with printmaker Cara Faye Earl, who is deep into a project based on a recent research trip to Greece, where she interviewed desperate refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek Isles.
After more than five weeks photographing and talking with refugees in camps on Lesbos and elsewhere early this year, Earl came to the Ranch to make a body of work about the crisis that’s forced some 22 million refugees from their homes in recent years. On the wall of the studio, she’s pinned photos, drawings and bright pieces of life vests with rocks and seashells and beach detritus in corresponding colors.
Earl also has made a series of clay works, based on the linked arms of Sudanese children who she saw join together to sing for Syrian kids in one of the refugee camps.
“I was working through a lot emotionally,” she said of arriving in Snowmass soon after her research trip. “But also I was figuring out how this would make its way into my work.”
She’s now in the midst of a 10-part series of prints, made in the shape of the ancient Greek two-handled amphora wine jugs. Each print will use images to tell the story of a refugee Earl met in Europe. Her subjects include Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and West Africans.
“The refugee crisis is so personal that I felt I had to be there,” she said. “Every single one of these people has an individual story — none is alike.”
She hopes these prints will offer a way for viewers to engage with a humanitarian crisis that they might otherwise ignore.
“My goal is to create a dialogue,” she said. “It would be great if I’m able to create an impact on a few people who say, ‘Wow, what can we do to help?’”
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The octogenarian debutante’s 14 paintings were hung in March but went unseen until last month when the Aspen Art Museum opened to visitors following a closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The works date from the 1990s to 2019.