Utopian Imagination: Silly Clichés in a Beautiful Space

Sky Lark, 2017, by Zak Ové (Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels)
The show dabbles in social justice and preens. The Ford Foundation can do better.

Utopian Imagination, the new show at the Ford Foundation Gallery, is cheap science fiction melded with greeting-card pablum. It has some good points. The Ford Foundation’s gallery space is beautiful. It’s got a place of pride by the front door of its building. There’s some good art in the show, too. I knew few of the artists, so it was educational to me.

The space is part of the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice and features “artists committed to exploring issues of justice and injustice.” I’ve seen all three of the Center’s inaugural shows. I’m always happy to see new art spaces, and the stupendously rich Ford Foundation is focused on this project, which itself needs focus.

I thought the first gallery of Utopian Imagination was enchanting. It’s a chapel setting. Entering the show, one sees the Japanese Mariko Mori’s 1996 video on Shinto prayer head-on. It’s impressive. It’s big and cartoony, so I felt I was at the movies, seeing the screen straight ahead. I know nothing about Shinto prayer but, having been a faithful Methodist for 60 years, I got the vibe.

Miko No Inori, 1996, by Mariko Mori (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Firelei Báez’s two big paintings of female figures from Dominican folklore flank it. The figures, called “ciguapas,” are traditional folk guardians. Her art is lush, complex, and ambiguous. Báez lives in New York and is well known. I liked the juxtaposition of Dominican folklore — Báez’s work is strong and bold — and the big video by Mori. The palettes of Báez’s work in the painting, mostly red, orange, gray, and blue, were great. The visual impression was so powerful, I didn’t bother much with the labels. I read them because that’s my job. I think everyone else can ignore them and enjoy the art.

Installation view of Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities), 2019, by Firelei Báez.
Mirrored walls, two paintings in oil and acrylic on panel. (Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York Photo: Christopher Burke Studios)

Mikael Owunna’s Sam and Emen photographs, from 2018, are in the next space and are visually stunning. Owunna, a young American artist, adjusts his camera flash to capture UV light, which would otherwise be invisible to the eye. He covers the bodies of his subjects in fluorescent paint and then photographs them in total darkness. He’s an original, clever artist.

Undermining the art was a quote from Owunna describing his work as his “response to pervasive media images of black people dead and dying.” I’m unsure what he’s talking about, and when the Ford Foundation slaps a quote so vague, and so incendiary, on a label in its show, it needs contextual information. What are these “pervasive media images?”

Owunna said his technique transformed them to “cosmic, ethereal beings.” Thus we are launched into outer space. There’s a lot of spaceship and astronaut art in the show. Yinka Shonibare’s life-size and mediocre sculpture, Cloud 9, is from 1999. “It imagines the survival of black people as pioneers in space . . . the work explores themes of colonialism, post-colonialism, and black aspiration,” the interpretation tells us. It’s one big cliché. The American Lola Flash’s Syzygy, from 2019, a one-dimensional self-portrait wearing an astronaut’s helmet, “aims to draw a direct line between slavery, incarceration, and freedom for her people.” It’s trite. Trinidadian, Somalian, and Pakistani artists play variations of “Fly Me to the Moon” in sculpture, photography, paint, wood, push button, and acrylic beads.

Infinite Essence: James, 2018, by Mikael Owunna. (Courtesy of the artist)

The moon’s not where real people live, and the Ford Foundation is supposed to help people, here and now.

The clichés flow like a mighty river. “The artists in Utopian imagination are creating worlds ahead of our time by imagining societies built upon justice and inclusion that hold the key to our survival,” Lisa Kim, the gallery director, said in the press release opening the show. “While our future may be uncertain, the works by these artists offer us a momentary space of respite and joy, a vision of a just world transformed by love, imagination, perseverance, and solidarity.”

This is impressionistic, but unlike French Impressionism, it’s a stream of loose doodies. I think the problem with the show is its lazy, opportunistic use of “justice and inclusion” to wander into a Manhattan moment of hors d’oeuvres. A little of this and that, raising awareness and a yawn but not making a difference. “Momentary” was the mood of the show. It’s big philanthropy-dabbling. You see the show and then go to the next event. It’s low Episcopal cant, sans the smoke and not even the salve of after-church martinis.

I won’t tell a curator how I would have done his or her show. I’m an art critic. I would suggest that the Ford Foundation explore one focused, concrete theme at a time, using its beautiful space and its smart, inspiring people. These might include, if it wants shows with a bite:

  • Slavery exists in the world today — what do artists think?
  • There’s a Christian genocide in the Middle East — where’s their justice?
  • Artists where Hezbollah and Hamas rule — what are they making?
  • Gay people in Iran — where’s their justice? Who are the artists?
  • Black-on-black violence in the U.S. — is there art treating this terrible problem?
  • Art about anti-Semitism?
  • Caricature art about Putin? I bet there’s a lot.
  • Who’s making art in Detroit, the Ford Foundation’s first home?
  • The concentration camps in western China — who’s making art there?
  • Avant-garde art in North Korea — the good artists there have fled, but what are they depicting?
  • Graffiti artists from the Bronx — why not turn your luxe space over to them?

It’s a nice gallery but a silly show. The Ford Foundation has enormous power. If it wants to do art shows about justice, “Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon” doesn’t do the foundation justice.


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