Art Review: An American Sunrise at The Vanderelli Room
“We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves”– Joy Harjo “An American Sunrise”
An American Sunrise presents the first exhibition inside The Vanderelli Room since March of 2020. While this alone would be cause for celebration, the show itself (as well as its impeccable timing), is what will likely be lauded and remembered. In An American Sunrise, curator AJ Vanderelli has compiled a thoughtful, timely, and cohesive collection of works by local artists all united around the themes presented in Joy Harjo’s poem “An American Sunrise.” It’s a show that shines light on a wide variety of American experiences and invites us to celebrate them all.
Functioning as a reboot to one of Columbus’ most celebrated arts venues, the exhibition also comes at a time when our country is embarking on a recalibration of its own. We are emerging from a long night of divineness and violence and moving forward with hope for better days ahead. For a clear majority of Americans, there exists at least a tentative optimism about the future.
Of course, as Amanda Moore rightly points out in her commentary on Harjo’s poem, “there is no single American sunrise.” In the literal sense, the American sunrise spans a continent. It stretches across multiple time zones; rising for some sooner than others. Metaphorically, the same holds true. The light of an American sunrise has not reached everyone at the same time. In fact, many in America are still waiting for their sunrise.
While Harjo’s poem is grounded most specifically in the experience of Native Americans, her observations offer a window into the experience of all marginalized people struggling to find a place in America. It is these groups that are particularly well-represented in the exhibition An American Sunrise.
Harjo’s poem opens with a line, “We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves.” It’s a line that could just as well serve as an introduction to this exhibition. Yes, we are tired, yes we are out of breath, but here, in this space and among these works, we have a chance to rest and reflect. We have a chance to meet ourselves, and just as importantly, to see ourselves.
Richard Duarte Brown’s When Rocks Cry Out presents a kaleidoscopic assemblage of human emotions and experiences. (See feature image.) Pieced together like a collage, these individual representations connect and meld to create a swirling, cosmic universe. Brown’s powerful work recognizes both our connection to one another, and the understanding that together we are part of something much larger.
Lisa McLymont’s mixed media piece An American Sunrise Natives and Immigrants in Cages, Oh My juxtaposes the promise of an American sunrise against the stark reality of American policies. Searching eyes peer out from the red and white bars of the flag, while the stars on the flag’s blue field are replaced by barbed wire. Taking the flag as a starting point, McLymont joins a celebrated list of artists (including David Hammer, Barbara Kruger and Aaron Fowler) who’ve altered our nation’s most enduring symbol of freedom to illustrate a darker reality.
Liv Barney and Stephanie Rond collaborated on the wall-sized installation, The Sunrise Generation. Playing off our propensity to segment groups by generation (Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials, etc.), their work seeks to acknowledges the history and traditions of Native Americans while recognizing the critical role each new generation plays in honoring those traditions while also facing the future.
Other works carry the message of diverse traditions and inter-connectedness further. Sister Thoma Swanson’s Homage to May Angelou incorporates the words of the late poet into a spare landscape reminiscent of Japanese landscape paintings. The glazed stoneware of Paisha Thomas invoke the power of Oya, a traditional spirit of the Yoruba religion. Linda McClanahan’s Romulus and Remus presents a pop-culture allegory of early 21st century America.
In Harjo’s poem, the voice she employs is one of inclusion. Whether observing that “we were running” or wryly suggesting that “we were heathens,” Harjo makes sure that the reader feels part of the events. In that spirit, and near the end of the poem, Harjo calls us in and calls us to action, affirming that whether 40 years ago or 400 years ago, “We still want justice.” It’s a powerful reminder that our American sunrise springs from the light of justice shining on all.
Group shows are tricky thing; unwieldy and often disparate. In An American Sunrise, AJ Vanderelli has curated a selection of works that find a common thread running through vastly different experiences. Further, these are works that speak to the pivotal time we’re living in, and with clarity and confidence, point to a shared path forward for all of us.
An American Sunrise is on view at The Vanderelli Room, 218 McDowell St. in Franklinton, January 1, 2021 – March 19, 2021. Click here to book an appointment to view the exhibition.
For more information, visit thevanderelliroom.com.
All photos by Jeff Regensburger