My Challenge challenge

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I was going to hold off writing about this year’s Challenge 3 exhibit at Fleisher.

Oh, I have a reason–it’s part of a discussion-group project that I didn’t want to weigh in on in advance of the discussion.

But I my enthusiasm has gotten the better of me.

As usual at Challenge shows, I find the three artists–portrait artist Phyllis Gellmin Laver, installation/performance artist Roxana Perez-Mendez and photographer Susan Bank–seem to be having a conversation with eachother although their work is wildly different.

Who are we as human beings and what is it that we are doing in this world? they ask. And is there something that we should be doing differently?

The questions apply to the artists themselves, and, to their subjects. Ultimately, the questions from these artists are being posed to all of humanity.

Phyllis Laver

Laver walks the line between Academy representation and something larger. The scale of the drawings is cinematic, and their fascination reminds me of the tender up-close eye of the camera on a movie-star face it loves. But this is so much more personal. And so it cuts both ways–contemporary and old-fashioned (top image, “Black Coat”; image above, “Untitled”).

Her subjects are heroic in their scale on large (43 1/4″ x 29 1/2″) sheets of paper, but they never lose their cross between vulnerability, imperfection and miraculous presence, by which I mean, Laver reminds us of how amazing and unique and varied from eachother and ourselves we are as creatures. The medium, graphite, is as anti high tech as it can get.

This heroic scale and basic medium reminds me of the large portraits of artist Qimin Liu, whose charcoal or painted portraits of homeless subjects reveal their dignity, individuality and humanity (see post).

In Laver’s portraits, the lack of background information, the occasional cut-off head-top is a declaration that people are the answer, the subject, the purpose of it all. And the mark-making–a response to the subject, the graphite, the rough paper–are a reassertion of that central human intelligence, unmediated by the impersonal camera.

Roxana Perez-Mendez

Perez-Mendez’s installation also expresses a vulnerability at the same time that she casts herself as the heroic space explorer of the Puerto Rican space program, PASA. The first piece on view entering the gallery is “Retrato,” a shrine for sending up a prayer for the safety of our heroine in space, with a candle, flowers and a stack of little photo portraits (I took one home) of Perez-Mendez in her space suit (image, detail of “Retrato”).

Our heroine is not in one of those sterile white or jaunty orange jump suits. She’s pretty in pink, with rhinestone epaulettes, which hark back to her space video in “Mixmaster Universe” at Temple Gallery, where she polished her nails and read women’s magazines during the boring, long hours alone in her imaginary space ship (see post).

She’s mock-heroic. The humor with which Perez-Mendez brings the Puerto Rican flag to space–pictured on a plastic, cheesy, low-tech stereoscope–is mixed with an earnestness, a genuine plea for attention on the world stage. (Nor does she stick to the low tech; videos and DVDs are also part of the installation). At the same time she’s questioning the hegemony of the dominant culture and its version of history and its version of values. She’s calling out, and her voice from deep space is being captured on the little radio telescope in the “Tierra Incognita (Llamada y Respuesta)”–Land Unknown (Call and Response)–part of the installation. Can you hear her now (image, one of the stereoscope images in the piece “Noche sin Estrellas”)?

Susan Bank

Perez-Mendez is not alone in questioning the hegemony of our culture. Bank, in her show “Campo Adentro (Deep within the country)” treats her subjects with acceptance and respect at the same time that she creates startling images of their hard lives in rural Cuba. Time and the dominant culture already have encroached–documented in the presence of black plastic trash bags used as tarps. But the black plastic delivers the suggestion of people making the most of what’s available. At the same time, it’s an artifact of the cheesy future to come (images above and below are untitled).

The photos are a pleasant reminder of what people really look like, with weather and hardship written in the lines on their faces and the strength of their hard-working bodies. They are mostly startling with their dramatic and velvety darks and light, attention to detail, and strong compositions, which startle as much as the people and their lifestyles.

The relationships of the people to their occupations and eachother come across dramatically in these black and white gelatin silverprints taken with a 35-mm camera.
The use of what’s old technology in this digital age serves to reassert the values of the subjects.

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