How does an ecosystem of artists, artwork, museums and galleries preserve yet challenge our understanding of history, and ultimately ourselves? How can art be a catalyst for narrative change in our public consciousness and reshape our civic identity?
Viewers are invited to reflect on questions relating to how we think about the past in “Who Says, What Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection,” an exhibition that highlights over eighty recent acquisitions by Northwestern University’s contemporary collection at the Block Museum of Art. The show presents a selection of work that questions canonical visual interpretations of history by showcasing prominent contemporary artists such as Dawoud Bey, LaToya Ruby Frazier, the Guerilla Girls, Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kerry James Marshall, Ming Smith, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas and Fred Wilson, among others. “Who Says, What Shows, What Counts” is the culmination of a major museum initiative that began in 2018, in celebration of the Block’s fortieth anniversary, to acquire works of art that encourage critical thinking about aesthetic traditions in visual art and museum collection practices.
The title draws from photographer Louise Lawler’s sculpture of three wine glasses engraved with phrases that draw attention to the glass ceiling often experienced by women artists in the art world, in addition to the exclusionary practices of gatekeeping that can leave artists, art workers and alternate perspectives of history on the margins. The piece became the crux with which co-curators Essi Rönkkö and Kate Hadley Toftness developed the concept of the exhibition, in addition to the book, “Thinking About History,” by Northwestern professor Sara Maza, which explores who gets to write history and how this affects what stories get canonized. With this in mind, the co-curators chose to decenter their voices and instead invite students, alumni and faculty to write wall labels for each piece.
The exhibition opens with key questions that focus on storytelling and the construction of narrative in art: Reframing the Past, Institutions Critiqued, Critical Portraits, and Place and Memory. These four curatorial themes serve as a framework to investigate the way different artists challenge representations of history.
Upon entering, the viewer is introduced to a cluster of objects, including screenprints, sculptures and collage. “Log Cabin II” by Paul Ramirez Jonas and “Anti-Retro” by Andrea Carlson immerse audience members in a kaleidoscope of colonial signifiers of log cabins, cowboys, seascapes and mountains that reference concepts such as manifest destiny and westward expansion—theories that have been central to American foundation myths. Carlson’s impressionistic strokes depict a familiar historical scene of armed warfare in American art portraying a military encounter in action. With a horse falling backward and abstracted legs and arms in positions of conflict, the composition characterizes the narrative as chaotic, instead of heroic or triumphant. It is hard to tell who is the victor of the fight which causes the viewer to question the validity of the story and characters represented.
Under the section Critical Portraits, the exhibition showcases an impressively diverse array of portraiture by artists such as Ming Smith and Cindy Sherman that challenge the male gaze in the western canon. Smith’s black-and-white self-portrait “Untitled (Self-Portrait with Camera)” depicts the artist looking directly at the viewer, with her back turned against a floral backdrop as she assertively holds her camera. Her mouth opens slightly as if the image was taken while in motion. It is clear that Smith has full agency over her pose and is unafraid to engage the viewer in a visual dialogue.
In this same section, Kerry James Marshall’s lithograph “Brownie” uses several canonical techniques traditionally used in art historical portraits from the Renaissance era. His portrait depicts an African American man with an averted gaze in three-quarter view as an angelic halo surrounds his face. The figure represented, however, is in contemporary wear, with a backwards baseball cap and a collared shirt that reads “Brownie.” Through these compositional choices, Marshall challenges representations of subjects traditionally celebrated in the Western canon by depicting everyday African American subjects in regal poses that amplify their character, drawing attention to the absence of Black figures from historical and cultural narratives.
In the final section of the exhibition, under the theme of Place and Memory, Chicago-based artist Tonika Johnson (known for her Folded Map Project), Dawoud Bey, LaToya Ruby Frasier, Leonard Suryajaya and others take a closer look at how landscape, geography and environments—natural and constructed—contain rich narratives and histories that are inherently inscribed within them.
The work on display here successfully exhibits artists that use visual tropes in a way that decenters the Western canon to instead showcase voices and perspectives that have historically been left out. It urges the viewer to think about the role of the museum in contemporary culture and how it functions as a public institution that archives a narrative vision of our past and present. It acknowledges that as the world changes, the museums and art world that surround it inherently evolve along with it. “Who Says, What Shows” reminds us that museums can thus serve as a laboratory for the next generation to rewrite history. (Sabrina Greig)
“Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection” is on view at the Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, through December 5.