March 27, 2021
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This Week's Contents
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The MCA Blows It

Art in the Plague Year
Laura Hapka:
Primary Process
The MCA Blows It
by Robin Dluzen
Diane Christensen and Jeanne Dunning with Steve Dawson, “Birth Death Breath,”
2016, inflatable opera. Installation view, Elmhurst Art Museum, Elmhurst, Illinois
"The Long Dream"
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois, continuing through May 2, 2021

Wrapping the corner walls of the entrance to “The Long Dream” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago are the names of the more than 70 local artists exhibiting work in the exhibition. Some of these names belong to my friends and colleagues, and there are others I don’t personally know but greatly admire. Rather than feeling vicariously buoyed by reading these names, and appreciating the institutional recognition of a segment of Chicago’s arts community, I instinctively flinched. It should be noted that I did not come to the MCA on this day in possession of the optimistic curiosity with which I typically approach an exhibition. The MCA and “The Long Dream” are at the center of a labor crisis, as extensively reported by Kerry Cardoza in The Chicago Reader (March 3, 2021). With my facemask and timed-entry ticket, I came to find out what happens to a show, stockpiled with excellent and timely work, when site-specific ethical turmoil takes over as context.
My flinch at the threshold of the exhibition was the result of knowing that the artists whose names are on the wall must feel involuntarily complicit in the controversy. The curatorial statement of “The Long Dream” explains that the show, which borrows its title from the Richard Wright novel, highlights artists whose work “offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world” — an institutional attempt to acknowledge the revolutionary zeitgeist. That would be all well and good were it not for the fact that MCA staff (organized under the moniker MCAccountable) has been calling on the museum to address its own racism, ableism and poor labor practices, especially in the midst of operating during COVID, only to face layoffs twice — the latest round in January, coinciding with a sickly hypocritical article by MCA Director Madeleine Grynsztein in Art in America (January 22, 2021) bragging about diversity practices at the MCA and how “[w]hen most institutions were furloughing their front-facing employees, we went in the opposite direction.” Cardoza pointed out, however, that “[t]he day prior, the MCA laid off 41 employees.” MCAccountable’s open letters from July 16 and August 21, and one from the artists in “The Long Dream” presented to the Director on March 11 outline the museum’s offenses, and the demands made by the artists and staff. 

Some of the artists slated to exhibit in “The Long Dream” — Maria Gaspar, Aram Han Sifuentes, Folayemi Wilson and the For the People Artists Collective — withdrew in protest before the show even opened. Initially, I worried for the artists in “The Long Dream”: that the show’s context had been proven a sham, and subsequently, that powerful work about racial justice, disability activism and LGBTQ+ equity would be grievously undermined. Indeed, the pretense that the museum was in solidarity with these causes was shattered, and an atmosphere of irony, sadness and outrage over the current situation envelops the show. But the convictions within the works reverberate. 

Artworks that hinge upon elements of vulnerability thrive in the exhibition’s shifted context. “Birth, Death, Breath,” an installation by Diane Christiansen and Jeanne Dunning with Steve Dawson, features a collection of seasonal, inflatable lawn ornaments: snowmen, ducks dressed in hunting gear, and parts of various animals frankenstein-ed together. All rise and fall as their air supply fluctuates in cadence with original songs. The artists take advantage of how these colorful, smiling forms bob, almost lifelike when filled with air; and the ominous way that they collapse when their supply is cut. Lyrics like “I will not survive / Where am I going / Where will I be” underscore threads of fear and uncertainty — feelings that have become all too familiar, especially during the pandemic when crucial lifelines and livelihoods suddenly became tenuous.
Jesse Howard, “The Bewitching Hour,” 2015,
mixed media, 30 × 29 1/2”. Courtesy of the artist
Edra Soto, “Tropicalamerican,” 2014, inkjet print on silk 5 pieces,
each: 67 × 43”. Photo: James Prinz. Courtesy of the artist
While Christiansen and Dunning keep us at a conceptual arms length as we watch a narrative play out, Derrick Woods-Morrow closes the distance between the audience and the work. In “How much does this moment weigh for you?”, the mangled mass of a compressed police car is suspended from a steel frame by chains. The rusted heap no longer bears any resemblance to a Crown Victoria, but the police spotlight, aimed head-height, is unmistakable. In the darkened room, the sudden, blinding light stuns and disarms. Stepping away from the spotlight, it’s easier to focus on the disembodied voices in the room: two men tentatively discussing race, queerness, law enforcement and their shared memories of childhood. Woods-Morrow doesn’t simply tell a story here, he puts us right in the middle of it, both physically and emotionally. The sensation of being in someone else’s shoes takes us one step beyond mere awareness, and closer to understanding. 
Amanda Williams, “What black is this you say?—‘You thought getting Obama elected meant you could take a break from blackness’—black (study for 08.09.20),” 2020, watercolor on paper, 7 x 10”
But the piece in “The Long Dream” that resonates the most, in light of the collapse of the exhibition’s original intention, is Amanda Williams’ “What black is this you say?” series of watercolors on paper. Her series began in response to “Blackout Tuesday,” the social media event of June 2, 2020, in which Instagram feeds were flooded with blank, black squares by individuals, institutions and corporations alike, in what everyone thought was solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Quickly, it was realized that these posts stifled the crucial communication that was taking place online with the #blm hashtag, and people everywhere seethed at the superficiality of the gesture. Williams, known for her mastery of color in form and concept, began her own Instagram project that day, coupling abstractions of varying tones and palettes of black with captions that added humanity and individuality to a trend that was otherwise populated with flatness and sameness. The artist translated her posts into the small, intimate paintings seen here. And, with the addition of handwritten inscriptions, such as “I cain’t go swimming today, I just got my hair done black”; “Obama break from blackness black,” they capture the best aspect of social media — the window into someone else’s everyday — while infusing it with the slow-paced contemplation of abstract painting.

A portion of what Williams so adeptly addresses in this work is in close parallel to what is playing out at the MCA and beyond: jumping on the chance to show public solidarity in theory, while continuing to actively harm individuals and disregard their experiences. There have been other major exhibitions in recent years in which artists have withdrawn work in protest of morality issues at the institution. The 2019 Whitney Biennial is one example. But the hypocrisy of “The Long Dream” is particularly explicit. The museum fails on the precise grounds by which the exhibition was conceived. In bringing together 70 artists with the most concrete of convictions, how could this NOT have happened? In hindsight, it seems inevitable that the museum would try, and fail.
I checked my Twitter feed on my walk back to the El on the Friday afternoon of my MCA visit. The algorithm brought me Kerry Cardoza’s Tweet from several hours prior: a link to the open letter from the artists, with the announcement that 57 of them would be withdrawing their work from the exhibition. This story is not yet complete. But hopefully what started as an exhibition will be remembered as a sea change, with artists and workers serving as the catalyst.
Robin Dluzen is a Chicago-based artist and writer. Her writing has appeared in Visual Art Source, Art Ltd., Chicago Art Magazine, Art F City and others. Her artwork has been featured in venues throughout the country including the Dorchester Art Project in Boston, MA; Indiana University Northwest in Gary, IN; Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago; Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Chicago; the Union League Club of Chicago; Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago; and the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. For more information,
Art in the Plague Year: With Artwork from Everywhere, Attracting Viewers from Anywhere
by Liz Goldner
Sara Jane Boyers, "From the Ghostlight Theatre Project: Stage Roycew Hall." © Sara Jane Boyers
California Museum of Photography, Riversdie, California, online exhibition,

How will the current pandemic affect the arts in the future? This question was posed to Douglas McCulloh, Senior Curator, California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside. He responded that the pandemic presents a portal to the future, that there is another world emerging from this one, and that the future is already here. He added that plagues bring about dynamic societal and cultural changes, just as the Black Plague of the Middle Ages preceded and foretold the advent of the Renaissance.

McCulloh discussed the growing display of art online, of virtual viewing of exhibitions on websites, videos, Zoom and Facebook. But he acknowledged that these virtual shows will never replicate the experience of seeing art in person. The curator also talked about his previous show, mounted early last year. “Facing Fire: Art, Wildfire, and the End of Nature in the New West” was closed to the public soon after it opened, due to the lockdown.

“Museums are meant to be experienced, the exhibitions to be seen,” he said. “We have just had a remarkable moment with museums mostly closed for a year. So, what to do? Create an exhibition that operates in the online world. Not a pale imitation of a gallery experience, but an entirely digital exhibition, imagined, curated and shown online. Covid-19 has swept the globe and it makes sense that an art exhibition should follow the same global trajectory.”

He resolved to create a show based on this model and to call it “Art in the Plague Year.” The title and theme are inspired by the book, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” about the great Bubonic Plague in London, published in 1722 by Daniel Defoe, best known for the novel “Robinson Crusoe.” "Art in the Plague Year,” opened in January and received about 20,000 visits in its first week, more eyeballs than the UCR ARTS California Museum of Photography had for all of its other shows over the previous six months.

“This exhibition is built on a viral model,” McCulloh said. “It comes from everywhere and spreads anywhere. Theorist David Levi Strauss wrote, ‘Photographic images used to be about the trace. Digital images are about the flow.’ Pandemics are seeds of new and unknown futures,” he continued. “We therefore need more than art of isolation, confinement, tragedy, tedium, views from the window, colored curves of disease and death. We need art that surveys, even tries to define the territory beyond the hills of this virus. Artists as keen observers and virtuosic dreamers help humankind navigate into the unknown.”

To create “Art in the Plague Year,” McCulloh was joined by two other curators, Nikolay Maslov, Curator of Film & Media Projects, and Rita Sobreiro Souther, Exhibitions Manager, both at UC Riverside. The curatorial team reached out to 664 artists from all over the world, asking for submissions in photography, video, drawing, painting, sculpture, audio pieces, performance, multi-media art, text art and zines. They received thousands of artworks, and then proceeded, mostly through Zoom, to cull them down to 273 pieces by 55 artists from 12 countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, the UK and the United States. “We did a lot of arguing on Zoom,” McCulloh said. But the team did their work well, producing an insightful exhibition divided into eight categories: Body, Nature, Absence, Presence, Ritual, Encounters, Dystopia and Justice.
Mikael Owunna, "Nommo Semi, Guardian of Space." © Michael Owunna
Mikael Owunna‘s “Infinite Essence” in the “Body” category features nude African American models that he painted with fluorescent paint, then photographed in the dark with a strobe transmitting ultraviolet light. The results are transcendent photos with 3-D sculptural aspects, particularly when shown on the web.

John Divola, known for seeking run-down environments for photos, contributed two images in the “Nature” category, both shot at the abandoned George Air Force Base in California’s high desert. For these, he hung blurred photos of 19th century landscape paintings, including Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” on base walls. The resulting photos contrast sublime scenes from memories with our pandemic-induced malaise.
John Divola, "George Air Force ase 6_28_2018, 6:46AM-7:01AM." © John Divola
Wayne Swanson, from "Personal Inventory." © Wayne Swanson
Wayne Swanson’s “Personal Inventory” photos appear in the “Ritual” category. They humorously document the type of objects that many of us collect, and perhaps discard when they seem to own us. One photo includes a collection of remotes. Another is of books, many of them old paperbacks, stacked to the ceiling. A third contains a variety of ephemera, including a classic old iMac and an empty box of Wheaties. 

The “Dystopia” category consists of photos and videos that depict a surreal world. These include Jeff Frost’s “Ghosts of the Future” landscapes, in which construction has gone berserk; Andrew K. Thompson’s “Chemical Landscapes – Scarring Land & Time,” featuring punctured, stained and stitched photographs of outdoor SoCal scenes; and Caity Fares’ dreamlike “Imagined Landscapes,” photographed with an analog camera, which contain abstract painterly images with vibrant colors and ethereal shapes.

Sara Jane Boyers created “The Ghostlight Theatre Project” for the “Absence” category. She visited several vacant SoCal theaters and shot images from the stages looking out at empty seats, with each stage illuminated by a single lightbulb. While emptiness is evident, the artist also draws attention to the potential for change and transformation of the stage itself as we emerge from this pandemic. 
“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity,” said Albert Einstein. McCulloh, along with his two curatorsm has employed this dictum with skill and artistry, resulting in an inspiring exhibition that portends a better world now and in the future. 
Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
  Laura Hapka
by DeWitt Cheng
Laura Hapka, “Primary Report,” 2020, (6) hand-painted acrylic sheets applied
 directly to the wall and (1) oil and encaustic on linen panel, 60 x 144”
Themes+Projects, San Francisco, California, continuing through April 24, 2021

The “Primary Process” abstract paintings of Laura Hapka, consisting of pairs of red, blue and yellow rectangles (supplemented by other palettes), hark back to the nonobjective, non-representational paintings of modernism’s golden age. Form was reduced to geometry, and color down to pure primaries, as in the mature works of Piet Mondrian, and Barnett Newman’s response to them in his four “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” paintings of 1966-70. But if Hapka adopts (at least partially) the pure triadic colors in “Primary Process,” her use of materials, painterly touch and sense of humor (in her allusive, punning titles) counteract the ivory-tower formalism and pomposity satirized by Tom Wolfe in his book “The Painted Word.”
Hapka works on panels covered with linen, which she coats, irregularly, with clear encaustic beeswax, which both emphasizes the weave of the linen and obscures and occludes it where the wax is laid on thicker. On top of this matrix, which suggests fixed manuscripts or scrolls, or linseed oil halations on unprimed canvas, the artist trowels heavy-bodied acrylic paint in parallel stripes, suggestive of writing and icing. The resulting irregularly-shaped Rothkoesque rectangles, framed by the exposed linen, suggest diptychs, or open books, and, more metaphorically, portraits of couples, or the passage of time. When the painted elements are mounted to the wall, as in “The Yellow Press,” or painted directly on it, as in “The Primary Report,” hand-made paper sheets also come to mind. If post-minimalism with its covert anthropomorphism humanized the severe geometry of minimalism, these materials-focused abstractions humanize the impersonal, superflat, machine-look geometric abstractions of the 1960s. Hapka’s color blocks floating in space owe something to Hans Hofmann’s push and pull aesthetic as well.
Laura Hapka, “Two Blues,” 2020,
acrylic and encaustic on linen panel, 36 x 36”
But if Hapka adopts certain formal limitations and historic antecedents, she also offers resistance to them, if playfully. The nine-diptych, “Red States, Blues States, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” with its 3x3 array of panels, evinces both her aesthetic rootedness and independence. Hapka moves beyond the primaries into a darker palette of the four “Tone Down” paintings. The color blocks are mismatched -- in size, as in “Red Before Red,” and in color, as in “Nostalgic Purple Void.” These are painter’s paintings that embrace art history without being constrained by it. As Ben Shahn once said, “the ancestors are looking benignly over your shoulder; they’re not your enemy.”
Laura Happy, “Red States, Blue States, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” 2020, acrylic and encaustic on linen panels, 24 x 24” each of 9 panels
DeWitt Cheng is an art writer/critic based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written for twenty years for regional and national publications, in print and online, including:, Artweek, Art Ltd., Artillery, East Bay Express, East Bay Monthly, Sculpture, Modo, Artomity, and his blog,, with articles archived at He has written dozens of catalogue essays for artists, galleries and museums, and is the author of “Inside Out: The Paintings of William Harsh.” In addition, he served as the curator at Stanford Art Spaces from 2013 to 2016, and later Peninsula Museum of Art, from 2017 to 2020.
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