The artist Chakaia Booker & the artist Jessica Brown

Thought experiment:  Imagine if in every single movie made today, not a single white person was seen.  It wouldn’t seem right.  

What does it mean to be left out, excluded?  

Those of us who live in the Midwest are not very fond of the term “flyover country”; it’s dismissive.  

Consider this much more subtle but sweeping cultural dismissal, the former use of the pronoun “he” to refer to men and women.  It may not seem like much, but like an unwritten law, women were dismissed from language and writing.  Seen but not heard. 

A similar cultural dismissal was the denial for women to be taught subjects like science or engineering.    

Women, gays, and blacks, all minorities, have been historically dismissed and continue to be so.  Consider too, the dismissals of all working class folks living anywhere, but especially in today’s Appalachia or the South.  

These personal and social dismissals have ranged historically from violent mass murders to the slightest of social indignities.  

The art world is very familiar with these issues.  The next four artists have dealt with some of these issues and are found in the Cedarhurst permanent collection.  

Mary Cassatt painted a lifelong theme of mother and child.  Though well aware of avant-garde modern art, Cassatt was a promoter of modern art, she purposely choose to paint women and their children as they were in real life.  Cassatt opposed the way men painters represented women in art as a fictive goddess.  

Robert Henri was well known for his paintings of everyday people, those not often represented in the fine art world.  

Paul Strand was also known for his photographs of everyday people, those people in society often overlooked or ignored.  

The artist Chakaia Booker in front of her creation, Wrench Wench, 1999, automobile rubber tires, steel, wood; Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jitendra Trivedi, 2004.1, Collection of Cedarhurst Center for the Arts; all photos courtesy of Steve Modert 

Chakaia Booker frames social issues using the subtle language of abstraction.  In her Cedarhurst sculpture, Wrench Wench, Booker has carefully cut automobile tires into small pieces and arranged them into a curvy feathery boa.  The now graceful boa stands in for the torso of a woman with open-ended wrench heads as the head and feet of a person standing contrapposto.  

In Wrench Wench, Booker compares a common, functional object to the virtues of woman: a valuable tool that shapes, grips, turns, twists, and disassembles other objects.  

Booker has said that the black tires represent the black skin of people and the tire treads represent the scarifications slaves suffered at the abuse of slave-owners.

Standing with their smiling students are, to Chakaia’s right, artist and teacher, DeSande R, John A. Logan College, Carterville; to Chakaia’s left, Peter Cuong Nguyen, Museum Director, Crisp Museum, Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, MO; and Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, artist and professor, Southern Illinois University Carbondale; September 14, 2014, Cedarhurst 

Dismissals occur in the art world as well, it is no different from society.  In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote what became a landmark essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”  Later in 1985, The Guerrilla Girls formed to become a famous coalition of unidentified women artists seeking to bring gender and racial equity to the art world.  

The artist Jessica Brown examines the utter absence of African Americans from the movies and TV shows of her youth.  

The art of Jessica Brown probes these issues with subtly and a sense of humor.  Among her many topics, here she emphasizes that black actors were denied lead roles in TV or film. In her counter-proposal, Brown playfully inserts herself into these cultural realms, for example, teaming up with the Get Smart actor Don Adams, or appropriating the 1950s cool style of James Dean on a motorcycle in a black leather jacket.   Above all is Brown’s high-functioning aesthetic sensibility which embraces semiotics, music, academic scholarship, cultural commentary, and performance art.  

Jessica Brown is an assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design by way of Paducah, and a former classmate of Carrie Gibbs at Murray State University.  

Throughout history, certain castes of society were excluded from full representation, and remain so today.  Progress has been made, with much more yet to be done.  

This blog introduces some of the topics for Jessica Brown’s upcoming exhibition at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Reel 2 Real: The Art of Jessica Brown, also opening DeSande R: Printmaking, Power & Heritage, May 15 – July 25, 2021.