In: America

Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.

The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”

Entrance to Your Body Is a Battleground, with installation by Carmen Winant, titled ‘What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? (Women in the News Before November 8, 2016)’. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.

This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”

Melissa Vandenberg, ‘The Roof Is On Fire’, 2016. Match burn on Arches paper, 29.5 x 40 in.

With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”

Nona Faustine, ‘Lobbying The Gods For A Miracle’, Image Courtesy of Baxter St.

In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.

Works by Kent Monkman. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.

Joiri Minaya performing ‘Siboney’.

The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.

Installation (detail view) of Joiri Minaya’s #dominicanwomengooglesearch, 2016-17. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.

Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.


Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.

A week ago, I found it nearly impossibly to look away from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. The rowdy fanfare of the RNC appears more like a circus than a political conference. No matter how one aligns themselves politically, most people can agree that the upcoming election has been prime material for art and entertainment. Throughout history, politics have seeped their way into the art world. Often artists sneak subtle political statements into their work, or will directly address contentious political issues in very explicit ways. In the world of contemporary art, Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom is continuing this tradition of politically themed artwork with his harrowing and provocative acrylic and ink paintings. Although Wahlstrom started out as a musician, he always painted as a hobby and after touring with a rock band for many years, he moved from Stockholm to a small village in France to pursue painting full time.

Johan Wahlstrom, Heil Trump

Johan Wahlstrom, Heil Trump

Today, Wahlstrom is based in Spain and continues to paint pieces that explore the dark underbelly of modern society and politics. Wahlstrom paints in a neo-expressionist style and cites a diverse range of artists that include Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Jackson Pollack as his influences. His dark inky colors and thick brushwork create portraits of modern life that are simultaneously hazy and abstract and frighteningly realistic. As a former rock musician, Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. Upon viewing his painting “Heil Trump,” I was reminded of a similar politically themed work by the German Dadaist John Heartfield, entitled “Adolf the Super Man: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin,” which is an explicit critique of Adolf Hitler. Wahlstrom’s “Vote for Me,” another portrait of Donald Trump, features the presidential candidate’s head surrounded by terrifying abstract figures, representing his loyal followers. “Punch them Hard,” an acrylic work by Wahlstrom is equally disturbing and shows Trump giving a thumbs up while chaos ensues in the background. This is a visual representation of Trump’s verbal encouragement of his followers to attack protesters. This series of Trump portraits evokes the mob mentality and frenzy of Trump’s rallies. Wahlstrom attacks other issues such as immigration in his “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” series, which poignantly captures the plight of immigrants and refugees.

Johan Wahlstrom, Punch Them Hard

Johan Wahlstrom, Punch Them Hard

As a former rock musician, Johan Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. His piece “Too Much Trump” in particular is an apt depiction of Trump’s pervasive presence in the media, his angry scowl taunting the viewer. Wahlstrom’s favorite piece from his body of work is “You Can’t Trust” from 2011, which he refuses to sell and hangs in his living room. Wahlstrom was so satisfied with the piece, that he took a 2 month hiatus from painting. This particular painting is his favorite because he associates it with the catharsis and satisfaction he experienced while working on it. The experience was “magical” for Wahlstrom, he felt like he was inside of his own work and not slaving away in a studio.

Johan Wahlstrom, Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities Part 6

Johan Wahlstrom, Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities Part 6

Despite Wahlstrom’s sinister aesthetic and disturbing subject matter, he paints with a profound passion and love for his craft. His favorite part of the creative process is conceiving the title or theme behind his work, which eventually determines what will end up on the canvas. For Wahlstrom technique is not the most crucial aspect of great art, but rather “the feeling and messages” behind the work in question.

Wahlstrom’s artist’s’ statement reads:

“I paint to keep myself insane.

I paint anxiety to be calm.

I paint war to have peace.

I paint sadness to be happy.

I paint the dark to be in the light.

I paint death to be alive.

I paint a story so that I don’t have to tell a story.”

In the future, Wahlstrom hopes “to be able to do stronger paintings with political statements, social criticism, to be part of making the world a better place for future generations.”

“To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability” – Alec Soth

I recently had the incredible experience of viewing three rooms full of Alec Soth’s photography at the Science Museum in London. It was essentially my first connection with Soth’s work, but it was forged strong as I made my way through the beautiful retrospective. The show, Gathered Leaves, is a convergence of ten years and four books of work. It reminded me of home, which is to say, it was distinctly American… but it was also so much more.

USA, 2008. From Broken Manual.

After the exhibition, I read up on Soth and understood (with a little embarrassment) that he is actually one of the leading documentary photographers of today, following in the visual tradition of my own professor at Bard, Stephen Shore, and other American photographers such as Joel Sternfeld and Robert Frank (who, although Swiss-born, had great impact on the American photographic cannon). All three of these masters, along with Soth, took on the great American road trip as their subject matter, their foil through which to examine the country and its infinite landscapes and complexities. Soth’s work in particular exposes the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of people and their environments. He portrays these without overt celebration or criticism (maybe a bit of both) but with a sense of being palpably present to his subjects. In this way, viewers can also feel his presence behind the camera.

Misty, 2005.

His work, for me, is everything that modern photography should be – technically, it pays homage to the medium’s history by using large format film and printing digitally, and ontologically, it is utterly perceptive, lending a world of thought to one instance. When people ask me why photography is a form of art, this is what I imagine in response; the ability to perceive art in a split second out in the world, and capture that precise combination of emotion and thought-process with a camera.

Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002.

The show itself is arranged around four photobooks: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014). Within these are captured an abandoned bed frame in the process of being devoured by surrounding leaves, a portrait of a red haired woman gazing into the distance with a cross painted on her forehead, reclusive men who have taken to nature and appear to be surviving in the wild, a fully naked couple whose skin is shown in gritty detail, a plaintive love note, and a hotel bed with the towels folded into the shape of swans, “beaks” met in a kiss and many more. All of these images build a comprehensive portrait of America, the place where people may be whatever, whoever, and however they wish.

Two Towels, 2004.

The detail of the prints is just one reason why these photographs are so fascinating. Many are also life-sized, with colors that are not overly saturated but very real, allowing the viewer to step right into the image. But for me, the reason I could not tear myself away from this exhibit was because I was swept along with Soth’s rabid curiosity, the apparent driving force behind his work. Each of his subjects, whether they are object or human, is lent mystery and complexity through his lens, and viewers may sense that he understands them. The beauty of his aesthetic sometimes creates a romantic atmosphere, it appears that he is in love with his subject, but more likely, he is in love with photography itself.
On view at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London until March 28, 2016.