The Frame: Textually Active

Gowri Sunder Apr 17, 2017

Artists around the country are reflecting the reverberating impact of the election and increasing social tensions, most recently reflected in the work and controversy that arose in the Whitney Biennale. This semester has brought us, here at Carnegie Mellon, a season of art at the Frame Gallery that shows the different ways that students have been responding to the political climate. This Sunday marks the close of senior art major Jarel Grant’s solo show Textually Active, the Frame’s 2017 Grant Show.

Grant describes Textually Active as an exploration of what it means to be in a “post-racial America,” diving into the contradiction of the era the Obama presidency was meant to create and the rising hostility towards minority groups in America since then. Walking through the space is a vibrant and precise visual experience. Upon entering, the viewer is greeted by a large American flag hanging from the ceiling made of black and white fabric. It backdrops a wooden desk on which a collection of objects is placed around a poem printed in the center. The text describes a sense of history and family, establishing a tension between personal history and political circumstance. This installation ties together the entire show, with the repetition of the American flag motif and symbolic nature of the colors established within this scene. “I voted” sticker patterns are printed on posters and the wall and a patriotic color palette is used in large-scale, layered text pieces.

I went to this show twice: once during the opening, once the weekend after. The energy each time was drastically different, but in combination both experiences reveal the tone of the exhibition. The opening had an energy of exuberance and celebration, with lively music and people dancing as they wandered through the space and interacted with the artist. The second weekend was quieter, and the soft, reflective quality of the work became more pronounced. The brightly colored pedestals displaying zines and the larger text pieces are not like the easy, political messaging of graphic artists in the '80s. Despite the political context the installations establish, the poems and text are told through personal narratives of boyhood and blackness, contrasting the idealism and adventure of growing up that sit with more somber realities of race in America.

The impact of Grant’s work comes from influences of both graphic works and poetry. Grant described this as his favorite challenge, “finding the balance between being simple but also having another element of complexity” through language. Simplicity with precision of play with language and cultural codes drives works such as “The Boys in #0047ab and The Boys In Blue Collars.” This piece involves layering of colored letters that combine the imagery of celebration and boyhood with references to the police. The blocks of red, white, and blue and layering of letters requires the viewer to work to decode the meaning. The effort that goes into understanding the work is important because the show is about building a cultural language through color idioms and cultural references.

The importance of color in the language of the exhibition comes from several sources. Two of the most influential are the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. Grant says “The book "Blue Streaks in Black Matter” is based on the vandalization of a Black Lives Matter sign (which was changed to Blue Lives Matter) outside the Unitarian Church on Morewood.” From there, he began to play with the expressions involving color and to pull new meaning from them. Certainly, it is easy to see the attention and thought that was put into connecting color to language to visuals — nothing in this show feels accidental. “Blue Streaks in Black Matter” includes few words. The poems are short but rich and the colors of text and paper interact to expand the meaning of the words.

For the viewer who does not identify with the narrator of the story, the fact that every part of the work and curation is carefully considered is important. Not all viewers will understand each reference or experience abstracted through poetry. Foreign language learners will tell you that idioms can be the hardest thing to pick up, and much of the audience of Textually Active are a kind of foreign language learner within the show, thrust into a perspective they were not born into. The show works because the care with which each visual and verbal decision was made applies a sense of value which the viewer is obligated to reciprocate. The viewer who does not share these experiences must unpack their own cultural language and, most importantly, slow down and listen.

Grant describes his process in part being a massive research effort. Processing the idea of “post-racial America” by reading works from black writers such as James Baldwin, Gil Scott Heron, and Countee Cullen, he searched to understand what it meant to be a black creator and writer. To do so, he had to look at his own past. The color symbolism reflects this, yellows and blues refer to cultural icons as well as personal associations with street lights and water respectively. The olive green refers to a “nourishing sheen spray” for natural hair, and the white to racial majority but also baptism and vans. The language and color symbolism moves between memories of growing up and the larger context that the artist grew up in.

“The personal is the political” is a phrase coined by second wave feminist Carol Hanisch, which was followed by much debate surrounding the idea of identity politics. The concerns with identity politics are often about the issue of reducing someone’s whole experiences to a political prop or label. Artists often talk about their experiences to relate to broader ideas, but artists of marginalized groups often experience this issue when their work is reduced to just their identity label without nuance. For artists of color, a challenge is then to preserve personal nuance when presenting to an audience that is likely to be mostly white. This is the twofold challenge of art activism; fighting an unjust society and also working with a visual language that was built by and for the dominant group.

The intelligent and culturally aware use of language in Textually Active is able to navigate this problem by separating personal narrative and abstract societal issues, while also pointing to the ways they are connected. The audience reads the work from the perspective of the artist first, sees the person behind the words, and then works outward to the society he is placed in. The poems, text, and visuals do indeed work with activism and serious issues in our society, but the exhibition is also a celebration of beauty and self through precision of language. Textually Active is the strong beginning of Grant’s work of activism through empathy as he continues to explore storytelling and works to honor the experiences of African-American communities.