Recession, architecture and Dope: A tale of two art shows

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Two notable — and maybe the best attended — art shows that opened this month are (1) the Art by Architects show, a collaboration between AIA Charlotte and Hodges Taylor Gallery; and (2) the Art of Dope – Vol. 1: Coke by five artists from the God City collective, held at the Art House. And they present a perfect study in contrasts, if there was ever one.

There are the more obvious differences: one is in one of the oldest galleries, right in the middle of the glossy corporate heart of the town, the other in an area full of rundown mill buildings and empty warehouses. The artists and the attendees at the opening in one event were predominantly (if not all) white — and the other, black. But it is the contrast in the nature of the work that is even more fascinating, and perhaps more revelatory.

The Art of Dope series attempts to explore the effect of drugs on the individual, society and popular culture. This premier installment focuses on cocaine (both the blow and crack varieties, in case you have a preference). It was also a play on the popular usage of the term “dope” — as something so good it is addictive — art as dope. Some of the work is literal, some more subtle and layered; some dark and complex, some not much more than slicker versions of editorial cartoons … yet taken as a whole, they blur the boundaries between various media, and question the role of the artist in the society — as it has become characteristic of God City’s work. They boldly tackle the complex and highly sensitive politics and culture of drug use in the community, while offering up art, music and creativity as a possible way out of the trap.

Murray Whisnant: "Fuller's Earth." Image courtesy of AIAC/Hodges Taylor Gallery
  • Murray Whisnant: "Fuller's Earth." Image courtesy of AIAC/Hodges Taylor Gallery

Marcus Kiser: "Coke is it." Image courtesy of the artist.
  • Marcus Kiser: "Coke is it." Image courtesy of the artist.

Whereas the architects show was notable due to the total absence of any reference to social/political/community issues. Other than the usual travel sketches/paintings, the majority of the works comprised of abstract compositions drawing from the various early 20th Century styles in very traditional media, like painting and sculpture. (That is not to imply that the Architects’ show did not have some exceptional pieces: Murray Whisnant’s “Fuller’s Earth” showcases his characteristic skill and levity, Ron Morgan’s marble and wood abstract “Figure” displays a high refinement of craft and aesthetic, and Carrie Gault’s small and seemingly quick watercolors captures a unique emotional intensity. And that is just to name a few — in fact most of the 30-odd pieces display notable talent.)

I also don’t believe that art should be judged by the strength of its message (or the lack thereof), or the (un)conventionality of the medium; however, how a group/community acts at a time of crisis often reveals a lot about its true nature. The “safe and detached” nature of the architects’ work would not have been so ironic if not for the fact that the show is taking place after two years of the worst recession in anyone’s memory (and because of which, most people who were at the opening were probably facing the biggest professional crisis of their lives). When one’s work is out of touch with one’s own reality — let alone that of the larger society — something is fundamentally wrong.

Of course these problems are not unique to Charlotte. (Even though our city, being middle of the road on most things, seems to illustrate them perfectly.) Also analyzing what is wrong with architecture is a whole ’nother discussion. Yet it is not hard to conclude that if the current conditions teaches anything, it is the need to redefine architecture (both academics and practice) to be more responsive to the times, make itself more inclusive, and be relevant to the larger community, well beyond the tiny percentage of the populace it currently serves.

Crises force one to be inventive, to redefine one’s role and to be creative beyond the confines of one’s medium. Maybe the ailing Uptown architects can start by learning something from the sick work of the young artists at the edge of the city. Hip-hop architecture, anyone?

– Manoj P Kesavan

Show details:

Art by Architects at Hodges Taylor Gallery: June 4 – July 31, 2010

Art of Dope – Vol.1: Coke at the Art House: June 4 – June 30, 2010.

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