The VCU Institute for Contemporary Art opened on April 21 with a block party following years of construction and a change in directors.
The ICA’s inaugural exhibition, “Declaration,” centers around art’s transformative political power. A conglomeration of works by renowned local, national and international artists, the exhibition attracted a large crowd to the three-floor Markel Center, the building housing the ICA.
Members of the Commonwealth Times creative staff provided their reactions to the exhibition’s highlights.
“WOMEN Words” by Betty Tompkins. Tompkins compiled words and phrases used to describe women superimposed over small paintings combined in a large grouping.
Jacque Chandler, Staff Illustrator: First thought, it seems to be kind of like labels and almost their antithesis to what they shouldn’t be. It’s seems like a collective amount of just phrases that someone might hear often that might be discriminatory — or even empowering. It seems like everything is in a pot.
Jacob Medley, Contributing Photographer: I love this work’s bluntness and how unapologetic it is to the viewer. There’s a clear sense of the artist’s hand as well as their emotional and physical labor in the work. I think the text in this work is a great access point for viewers and serves as a way in which the work can contextualize itself in the world and mind of the artist in a way that translates to viewers in a really thoughtful way.
Kim Peters, SMC Designer: That one says ‘light of my life,’ and the other one says ‘bitch from hell.’ I guess I don’t see the connection between the paintings and the actual words themselves. The execution, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s particularly great. I feel like it being on a small canvass and a helvetica or a sans serif font is kind very high school coffee shop art.
“Storm in the Time of Shelter,” by Paul Rucker. Rucker examines the Klu Klux Klan’s history and impact in this collection of robes designed with different patterns and colors, contextualized by a collection of the hate-group’s artifacts.
KP: I think it’s a good example of how artists are historians in a way. How they become interested in something and in order to have a powerful piece, you have to be invested in the history. I think it’s important to provide historical context behind these things. By framing it in this context, it provides interpretation to the work itself.
JC: We know what these people looked liked, let’s see what they do. It’s just tying the parts together, how they looked and what they did. Definitely at first glance you can get a strong misconception about what’s going on. Just looking at it now, it looks like they’re donning certain cultures. I wonder if that’s a link to taking control or destroying it.
JM: I love this work because of how provocative, political, thorough, and urgent this work is. I have a real appreciation for work like this because I think there’s always a need to make work that’s immediate, unavoidable and confrontational toward a viewer.
“Untitled” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Created decades ago by Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996, the work prompts viewers to choose between two messages printed on stacks of paper: “Nowhere better than this place.” and “Somewhere better than this place.”
JM: I’m a little biased here because Felix is one of my favorite artists of all time, so this had to be one of my favorite works in Declaration. The work is political, inviting, giving, honest and I think Felix had a real knack for shaking up a viewer’s understanding of what an artwork can be. This work is in the ICA right now, but it’s also with everyone who took a poster or two home with them, and I think that says a lot on how democratic and non-elitist exceptional art can be.
KP: I would pick the “Nowhere better than this place.” I feel like I try to make home wherever I am and home is the people around me. I like this piece because by taking it you’re voting. It makes you think and art is supposed to make you think. It did a successful job, it’s effective to start a conversation.
JC: Oh, man. There will always be somewhere better than where you are. You’re never going to be happy until you start appreciating where you are, assuming your place isn’t full of hostility. This thing is so psychological. It’s hard, it’s hard [to decide which one to pick]. It says so much about your character.
“The Mending Project” by Lee Mingwei. The piece invites viewers to bring in items of clothing in need of mending and have a conversation with a volunteer. Lee arranged approximately 1,200 spools of thread on the walls of the ICA’s third floor, which connect to mended items of clothing left on the table.
KP: It really just makes you think about the human connection, almost our inability to have conversations.
JC: This looks like going back to just the base of production. I have this sketchbook in my hand and normally I’m never thinking about how it was made, I’m never thinking about the binding and the stitching. I’m always just using it.
“Forced Out of Frame” by Titus Kaphar. Four oil and tar panels illustrate frames from a video showing the moment Sandra Bland was pulled from her car by a police officer during a traffic stop.
JC: It just seems straightforward. It’s about police brutality against Black people or just people of color not being cared about. The brutality against or just the interactions with police of people of color are more brutal than others. This is just a representation of how this person’s life was just ended after what was a really quick and for some people even unnoticeable cycle of events that just happen so often, particularly in America. This person was taken, dragged away from the camera itself. You can’t infer anything after the darkness, there’s nothing to be read and that’s exactly the point.
JC: I think it was really just a warm experience. Seeing a bunch of these artists come together, they had a lot of things to say. It was just a really good gathering spot. I’m interested to see what the ICA is going to do in the future, what events they’re going to host, what we’re going to do for the public.
JM: t’s so important to me that I can see contemporary, current work in person rather than in photographs.I think that the ICA has the potential to really reach out and to help every single part of our community grow through the arts and education. There was a wonderfully high standard of community and dialogue that I saw them set for themselves today at the opening
KP: I thought the space was really nice and light. I thought they did a good job with the architecture and having the ability to go in and out of it. I’m really looking forward to go to the coffee shop and sit there. I think this was a good start for them. I think it’s a good opening and hopefully they can bring more people here.
Staff Favorites: “Forced Out of Frame,” “Untitled” and “Storm in the Time of Shelter.”
Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor