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Review: US IS THEM at the Pizzuti Collection

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Review: US IS THEM at the Pizzuti CollectionLeft: "Jacob and Esau" by Adi Ness. Right: "Magic Ladder Kid IV" by Yinka Shonibare.
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I liked US IS THEM when it opened in September.

I like it even more now.

They say context is everything. Given the recent national conversations on race, ethnicity, religion, culture, and security it strikes me as unlikely that the folks at the Pizzuti Collection could have timed this exhibition any better if they’d tried. I say that because this is a collection of work that thumbs its nose at sound bites and simple answers. It’s an exhibition that requires us to examine our world from a variety of perspectives. It demands that we recognize and acknowledge other points of view. In the end, it does what all art is really supposed to do; help us see the world differently. Perhaps more to the point, US IS THEM offers a hopeful and human counterweight to the recent months of nationally broadcast race-baiting, fear-mongering, and scapegoating.

"Tell Her its Over" by Mikalene Thomas.

“Tell Her its Over” by Mikalene Thomas.

More impressively, US IS THEM manages to refute those baser angels of our nature with art that is both visually striking and emotionally compelling. In fact, leading with the social and political implications of this show does something of a disservice to the aesthetic quality and personal nature of the work. US IS THEM is less an organized treatise on tolerance and more a collection of distinct voices reminding us that the dominant cultural experience is not the only cultural experience. It’s a collection of personal expressions asking for nothing more than to be listened to, to be understood, to be heard. That seems like a simple thing, and really, it should be. Unfortunately, as we are reminded all too often, listening and understanding can easily be short-circuited by fear and distrust.

"Testimony" by Kara Walker.

“Testimony” by Kara Walker.

Arranged geographically and including works by artists from around the world, US IS THEM explores personal experiences and personal narratives across cultures and borders. Not surprisingly the human form plays a central role in much of the art on view. Our bodies after all, represent the first impression we make. They are, fair or not, also the thing that most often defines us. They are also the thing that is most often exploited when power is out of balance and abused. And again, while the themes of justice and equality run through US IS THEM, they are presented not as abstract concepts but as forces that have real and personal consequences.

"Juan de Pareja" by Omar Victor Diop.

“Juan de Pareja” by Omar Victor Diop.

There’s also refreshing cross–pollination at work in this exhibition. References from art history abound, reminding us that the visual language translates across continents and cultures. Whether it’s the re-imagined Baroque portraiture of Omar Victor Diop or the quasi-Cubist deconstructions Wangechi Mutu, US IS THEM demonstrates again and again that it’s a show as much about art as it is about politics. If that were in doubt, there are some major names on view here; the kind of names that would compel anyone interested in contemporary to stop by. Included in the exhibition are works by Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Yinka Shonibare, and Adi Ness.

There is a near-constant debate about the role of private collections in the contemporary art world. This debate usually revolves around the role of wealthy collectors in establishing artists, picking winners and losers, and generally driving both the market and the conversation. I suppose those are valid concerns in their way. Given this year’s other high-profile exhibitions presented by wealthy collectors recently in Columbus though (Transfigurations and Open This End), I’m less inclined toward concern. Those exhibitions served to expand our understanding, challenge our preconceived notions, and ask that we consider the entire spectrum of visual creativity. They presented cultural conversation starters that encouraged us to consider new ways of seeing the world.

US IS THEM takes this dialog one step further, asking us to be empathetic, to be inclusive; to be human. In its provocative and challenging way, US IS THEM is an exhibition that has the capacity to help break down walls and bring out the best in us. Given the current tenor of our public discourse, that’s a very good thing.

US IS THEM is on view at the Pizzuti Collection through April 2, 2016.

For more information visit www.pizzuticollection.org.

Art Credits:

Yinka Shonibare
Magic Ladder Kid IV
Mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather, fiberglass, wooden ladder, steel baseplate, globe
115″ x 55″ x 32″

Adi Ness
Jacob and Esau
70″ x 90″

Mikalene Thomas
Tell Her its Over
Acrylic paint, oil and acrylic enamel, and rhinestones on wood panel
72″ x 72″

Omar Victor Diop
Juan de Pareja
Pigment inkjet print on Harman by Hahnemuhle Paper
47 1/4″ x 31 1/2″

Kara Walker
DVD video boxed with cut paper silhouette, beta master
8 minutes, 9 seconds


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