Seeing Purple / Seeing Red: An American Endeavor

When national turbulence and upheaval arise, art starts to presume a much more imperative function to democracy. From protest signs to memes, all the way to fine art in the top galleries, creative forces are organised to document and reply to that turmoil.  

Visual language becomes much more simplified and didactic as the issues inspiring the work arise from disastrous global events. There is less room for misinterpretation as there is an urgency to portray political, social, and cultural statements with real world implications. While at any given time there is political art to be found, during socio-political strife the artworld will become less esoteric and estranged, returning to the people.

Background

Based on the fact that the US is deeply seated in a period of such agitation, Seeing Purple/ Seeing Red—a virtual, experimental, collaborative exhibition—seeks to capture a small depiction of the US ahead of the 2020 elections. 

Embracing inclusion and interaction over quality and prestige, SP/SR takes advantage of the virtues of the virtual to engage a vast range of locations and art educations—from the casual art lover to the well-established artist—, and offers both artists and non-artists a space to showcase their work that discusses the current epoch. 

Based on a purely democratic approach, SP/SR aims to captivate a parallel audience of broad art experiences and geographies. To visit the gallery, download a scrap, learn about participants, and more, viewers can visit the project's official website. They can also find the exhibition on Instagram and Facebook.


Oil and cold wax mural by Ella Watson.

Fifteen years in the making, SP/SR is organised and curated by Ella Watson: an artist and emerging curator.

In 2005, Watson created a large-scale, oil and cold wax painting that was inspired by an article about Barack Obama. The Newsweek profile entitled Seeing Purple was Watson’s first introduction to Obama: a young senator and rising star who could cross the aisle of a divided Congress. After being lost, in 2019 the painting resurfaced.  Meanwhile, the optimistic, egalitarian Obama administration had miserably morphed into the daily scandals of the Trump White House.  

Watson tore the painting into dozens of scraps and gave them out to artists and non-artists to remake into new pieces about the past four years. The only requirement was that the final product had to include, or at least reference, the original painting scrap somewhere within the completed product. Six pieces were posted on October 5th, 2020. One or two new pieces will be posted every weekday through Election Day on November 3rd. 

This slow unveiling of the exhibition mimics the physical space given between pieces in a gallery, so that each piece may breathe. Visitors may contemplate one piece, one voice, and meet one participant daily, or visit occasionally and take a rapid scan through the work, focusing on only that which interests them. 

Blue Wave/Red Tide by Reni Gower. Mixed media 8 x 8 inches, 2020 (the night of first 2020 presidential debate).

Inclusivity

The ubiquitous nature of the current national trauma—between the BLM (Black Lives Matter) and the #metoo movement; the pandemic, mass unemployment, superstorms and wildfires, overt bipartisanship, and more—impacts all of America and its denizens. Believing that the story of the US could not be told by artists alone, Watson decided to post an open call on Facebook in addition to inviting specific artists to join her project.

Any person interested in participating was provided a scrap without hesitation. As a result, participants of the collaboration beyond artists included a speech pathologist, a chemical engineer, a diplomat, and a teacher amongst others. 

Though the delivery of the scraps is over, any interested parties can go to the SP/SR website and download a high-resolution scrap to manipulate and document this era. Watson will upload the completed work to the SP/SR social media for public viewing.

Movement Through Red and Blue by Chris Norris. Mixed media 12 x 9 inches, 2020.

The SP/SR exhibition is rooted in the belief that in times of such turbulence and strife, the experiences and perspectives of both artists and non-artists deserve to be observed and documented. The story of now must come from a diverse population, not just from cities but also small towns. SP/SR participants hail from major cities and from smaller hamlets such as Brevard, NC; Floyd, VA; Kirkland, WA; and Johnson City, TN. Communities rarely ventured by major urban galleries, but where remarkable artists reside though they are geographically isolated or lack the resources and connections to be noticed. 

In fact, this very website could be a case study in outreach to the geographically isolated and those with disabilities/chronic conditions, especially during the pandemic. 

Take the curator, Ella Watson: living in Bozeman, MT as a liver-transplant recipient who is high-risk in the age of COVID-19. The only way she can engage with the outside artworld is virtually for the foreseeable future. 

The recent popularity of online galleries is a boon for Watson, who lived in NYC before moving west. For the abstract artist, even before the pandemic her location has been a career challenge as the traditional western landscape is the popular norm for hundreds of miles around. For geographically isolated and/or disabled audiences like Watson, the increase of online galleries is a hopeful development out of this global tragedy.

The Work

The website will ultimately exhibit 33 works of art by artists and non-artists from across the country in a series of mediums including ceramic, jewelry, painting, drawing, poetry, and social practice. A range of topics are covered, including COVID-19, social protests, woman’s rights, and the recent honesty concerning America’s fraught history with racial discrimination. 

Works like John Hamilton III’s ceramic piece (first three images in the carousel above) speak to the fear and danger the American black populace is faced with when in the throes of the justice system. Disturbingly playful, Hamilton’s piece contains a short Mars black figure with a thin twine noose around its neck. The figure stands behind prison bars lined with the red, white, and blue painting scrap that is cut into the shape of an American flag. 

Though this small black figure with its rounded body, large eyes, and a side smile is common in Hamilton’s portfolio in relation to the prison bars and noose, the figure takes on a new context: the racist stereotypes of blackface minstrels and “darky” iconography of the 1800’s to mid-1900’s. Combined with the noose and the prison bars alluding to the institutional racism ingrained in the justice system, Hamilton’s tableaux is a visual timeline of the grotesque violence perpetrated against people of color for all of American history. 

Jason Baide, a jeweler from Bozeman, MT, created Code-Switcher, a silver and steel pin that the wearer can use to control how much of their true identity they reveal to the public (last three images in the carousel above). With the painting scrap installed behind a telescoping door, the wearer can open the aperture more or less to expose the hidden painting, symbolic of those characteristics that one chooses to ingratiate themselves or conceal in different environments. The wearer can disclose more of their identity when beneficial or hide it when they sense hostility—especially in light of sexual orientation, an issue personally important to Baide.

Antigone In America by Sara Rushing. Digital composition with painting scrap, dirt, and excerpt from Antigone by Sophocles, 2020.

While the responses to the SP/SR prompt are as eclectic as its collaborators, there are recurring themes. As would be expected, much of the work reflects sentiments of mass disenfranchisement, anger, loneliness, and anxiety. Political science theorist and participant, Dr. Sara Rushing, compiled a digital collage that insinuates hubristic parallels between Donald Trump and King Creon of Antigone by Sophocles. 

Rushing quotes a conversation between Creon and his son Haemon, layered over a US map cut from her scrap, with a handful of dust haphazardly pitched across the country. This gestural toss refers to the Antigone’s rapid burial of her brother, but also the scores of COVID-19 deaths that will not be properly observed, due in large part to mismanagement of the virus by the White House. In her statement, Rushing dismally reminds viewers of the quick fall of Grecian democracy and that no democracy has ever survived.

CHOP/CHAZ Seattle 2020 by Miguel Eduardo. Acrylic on painting scrap 8 x 12 inches, 2020.

Venezuelan American painter Miguel Eduardo, references Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in his piece CHOP/CHAZ Seattle 2020. By replacing French troops with police officers with pepper spray and Spanish rebels terrified protesters, Eduardo cites the violence against American protesters as a warning of creeping authoritarianism. These police-state depictions evoke a seeping paranoia—a portentous sign that the worst is yet to come. 

With more sanguine perspectives, other participants remind viewers of the camaraderie in the despair that unites the country. Their constructions convey hope, reinvention, patience, and the steadfast belief that by pursuing equality and justice, “We the People” will persevere. 

Hearts and Minds by Elena Augustine. Painting scrap, acrylic, and ink on paper 11 x 8 inches, 2020.

Diplomat Elena Augustine has illustrated a different experience informed by her lifetime of overseas travel.  Her collage, with the silhouettes of eagles cut from her scrap that are fighting over a human heart, though seemingly nationalistic, has a veiled reference to the predatory, scavenger nature of the American national bird. 

Augustine likens the ever-aggressive discourse between parties to the bloody dissection of prey being fought over between two animals. However, as her informative statement reveals, the polarisation of the Republican and Democratic parties often becomes a nonsensical, semantic issue surrounding what it means to be “patriotic.” Fortunately though, from an outside perspective, there is much more uniting Americans than tearing them apart.

Aven Tanner. Mixed media 36 x 48 inches, 2020.

Virginia artist and high school teacher Aven Tanner portrays a whimsical collage that likens anxious and depressed Americans to sailors on ships lost at sea, trying to find their way home. Her statement reveals that love and hope are the only way back to shore.

To the west, Kerry Hugins, a mother and artist living in Austin, TX, scraped and boiled her scrap of painting till it was returned to its original clean canvas state. She then burnt it to ashes and incorporated the remains into purple bee-balm seedballs.  

Seeding Purple in Hill Country by Kerry Hugins. Mixed media (dimensions are variable), 2020.

In the most optimistic piece of the exhibition, Hugins metaphorically breaks America down to its fabric in order to grow something fresh and new that is purple color: symbolic of America’s divided political parties amicably blending through bipartisanship. By pitching the seedballs into the Texas wilderness, Kerry optimistically likens the US to a phoenix from the ashes, returning to rebirth a brighter future.

From North Carolina, commercial photographer Liz Frias ironically found common ground between the Republican and Democratic election campaigns.

By framing her 2008 photograph of an Obama election advertisement from Brooklyn reading, “Make America Great Again! VOTE OBAMA!”, she states that the US has long been in a condition of nostalgia. The chips of paint in the bag below refer to the hope of both the original Seeing Purple painting and the election banner, now chipped away and gone.  

Scrapped Hope by Liz Frias. Photo by artist from 2008, painting scrap, and wood. 10 x 13 inches, 2020.

For its part, SR/SP has been successful. Participants have been excited to voice their views and have even found it therapeutic in a time of mass anxiety and apprehension.  Most importantly—and like so many galleries are now asking—SP/SR has questioned when used earnestly, what hidden art and art communities can be spotlighted via the internet? What new isolated audiences can it embrace and who can it serve as we brave through this era and enter a new one?

Ultimately, SP/SR is an intensely American endeavor when it is at its finest.

"When faced with hardship, we turn to our strengths: innovation, inclusion, and creativity. We are ingenious. We are persevering. We overcome. And with our eye on the future, we will succeed to be better than we were before." (Ella Watson)

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