The image is this: a gender-ambiguous figure stands in the desert facing the camera. They hold binoculars to their face, looking to some horizon over our shoulder. There’s a placelessness to the setting, which is made up of no more than sand, clouds and sky. No details or ornament in the figure’s dress bind it to any particular time period. It’s universal.
Diminishing conceptions of cultural and interpersonal difference seemed to be the larger aspiration of Taking a Stand, a group exhibition at the Stamps Gallery organized around the theme of solidarity-building. The show opened last Friday night with a crowd of about 50 navigating the gallery’s spaces as a DJ spun eclectic beats. This desert figure, seen on the event poster, was one of several photographs by Meryl McMaster, one of the evening’s more successful acts.
Artist Syrus Marcus Ware drew in gallery-goers with works like Activist Love Letters: personal letters to activists that highlight a certain individuality and humanity that’s overlooked in their arduous work. Ware gives them the pedestal they deserve in this gallery space.
Leaving the “letters to” format, McMaster’s photos painted more vivid landscapes than just about any other media on display. Think Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” aesthetic. The introspective side of her characters was foregrounded by concealing physical appearance with body paint and sculptural attire.
Another exhibition feature: a TV showing surveillance from some other space in the gallery. Simulated atop the footage were several digitized female avatars, each speaking in poem about feeling frozen. It definitely generated sympathy, made us consider the differences between ourselves and the avatars. The footage was actually generated from the other side of the wall. The exhibition had an iPad that was supposed to factor into a fully simulated AR sequence, but instead it stayed frozen on these women and their existential dread.
Artist Oliver Husain dominated the back portion of the gallery with his fantastical combinations of historical objects and events. It started with various drawings of a pirate ship docked inside of a contemporary mall space, and led to a short film, Isla Santa Maria 3D, that played on loop in front of 12 sets of 3D glasses. The glasses didn’t actually work, though, and this didn’t seem intentional given the subject matter — a complex commentary on the legacy of colonialism via Victorian-era beach dwellers, visitors from another planet and a holographic oracle. Such an uncanny combination of characters and visual effects made several hundred years of history seem like a miniscule drop in the bucket of time. It displaced us from the arbitrary rules of everyday life, making us look inward in much the same way as McMaster’s photographs do.
Yet again, though, the technical delivery fell short. The whole point of the event was to position the gallery as a space of potentially vital conversations about political injustice, but the gallery was hardly vital. Friday night’s gallery-goers were hardly inclined to talk to one another any more than they would have on the street. The art on display did some work to dissolve our notions of national boundaries, but lacked new takes on what the gallery space can be.
The idea of an interactive video game sequence is good, but the reality is that only one person could use the iPad at once. Each work engaged the audience in a different way, but why not force people out of their comfort zones? If the aim was to persuade through solidarity, why not actually position people as the minority for once? Or have a gallery of team-building exercises?
Each artist was acting from their inner self, and by no means followed a prompt. Their work happened to be featured with others’ under a unifying theme, but it just didn’t collectively convince. The Stamps Gallery is an important space, and has more potential than this.