In Spite of Modernism:
Contemporary Art Abstract Legacies, and Identity

Exhibition Information:
January 29, 2022 - March 19, 2022

Arlington Arts Center
Arlington, VA

Click here for the exhibition catalog. Designed in collaboration with Emily Fussner.

Read the exhibition review in The Washington Post.

In Spite of Modernism: Contemporary Art, Abstract Legacies, and Identity
features contemporary artists who challenge abstract styles narrowly associated with Modernism in order to confront the movement’s exclusions of race, gender, and sexuality. Applying approaches stemming from global visual languages, such as geometric abstraction and flat, colorful compositions, artists including Paolo Arao, Julia Kwon, and Tariku Shiferaw, among others, offer a reframing and more inclusive reading to what Western Modern artists have conventionally received claim to fame.

Flat surfaces, geometric shapes, linear designs, as well as bold, vibrant colors are just some of the formalist, abstract principles held by Modern artists during the mid-twentieth century, such as Josef Albers, Sam Gilliam, and Alma Thomas. Although in many cases Modern artists’ conceptual trajectories and visual expressions were complementary or even reactionary to one another, each Modernist movement fostered social circles that were often distinct, segregated, and male-dominated, and espoused styles that were uncanny to those existing within communities of color. Ongoing racial and gender discrimination combined with entrenched, limited retellings of Modernism to this day also have caused a siloeing between Modern artists of various identities. This context nurtured an imbalance of acclaim to Euro-Western male artists, like Albers, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis on the one hand, and on the other hand, the under-recognition of women, queer, and Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), among them Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, George Morrison, Neil Parsons, and many others. In Spite of Modernism seeks to not only pay tribute to these diverse artists working throughout the historic mid-century movement - those of whom overcame adversity and set forth the stage for the contemporary exhibiting artists - but to also underscore the abundance of pre-existing abstract legacies despite Modernism’s monopolized authority over certain abstract designs.

Evident throughout the contemporary works of In Spite of Modernism are attributes stereotypically classified as “Modernist,” among them hard-edge abstraction and color field painting. The former is strict in its use of clean-cut lines and shapes, while the latter employs expansive applications of vivid color. The exhibiting artists, however, are keen to recognize the transcultural exchange of these abstract styles and reclaim their presence outside the hegemonic heteronormative, Euro-Western doctrine - either by incorporating references to culture, gender, and sexuality, or by drawing upon side-lined histories and influences of Modern art. Artists of In Spite of Modernism thus importantly shed light on the invisible stories, inspirations, and techniques derived from diverse communities that laid the foundation to principle styles of Modern art, while also identifying the existence of a pre-Modern artistic ancestry.

Paolo Arao’s Uncharted (What It Means To Be An Island), for instance, recalls the traditional color block graphics found on the sails of vinta boats in Southern Filipino fishing communities, emphasizing the global reach and atemporality of designs now reductively associated with mid-century Modernism. By comparison, his works Birds in Flight (No. 2) and Overtones resist the heteronormative connotations of Modern geometric abstraction and allude to its queer possibilities through their application of splattered paint against fixed, straight forms and the omnipresence of the triangle, a symbol of queer sexuality.

“I’m mending this lineage [of geometric abstraction] through my use of textiles, stitching patchworks that explore the elastic nature of queerness and reflects my Filipino heritage. I’m also questioning who is framing and for whom certain art histories are framed. There are many art histories and I’m invested in centering and giving visibility to perspectives that have existed on the margins or have been excluded or erased from the dominant art historical narrative.” - Paolo Arao

Julia Kwon’s Homage to the Square Bojagi represents the experience of othering by incorporating fabric perceived as “Korean” into the concentric squares of bojagi, a Korean tradition of object-wrapping-cloth performed by women since the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). By then reimagining the bojagi into the later work of Josef Albers’ 1950s painting series Homage to the Square, Kwon identifies the minimalistic bojagi style as precedent to Modernist abstraction, ultimately demonstrating abstraction’s long-lived practice across cultural and gender divides as well as the detrimental effects of whitewashed, androcentric histories. Her works from the series Like Any Other, which also apply bojagi and Modernist archetypes, are critical portrayals of her experience as a female Korean-American artist. Slashed or collapsing from their frames, these multimedia works embody the plight to fit within rigid molds of racial and gender identity and “authenticity” defined by the art world and beyond.

“Although my work can be reminiscent of modernist abstraction, I am recreating and reframing traditional Korean patchwork textile designs to comment on the objectification of Asiatic female bodies and to resist the notion of reductive, easily legible identities. Most of my paintings in this exhibition are direct representations of existing, historical Korean textiles. Bojagi precedes Modernism: the western audience's inability to see and acknowledge the minimalist Korean patchwork design as authentic (and not derivative of Modernism) is what led me to overload the Korean textile designs with ornate patterns that are perceived as "Korean" or "other enough" to expose people's preconceptions on what it means to be Korean.” - Julia Kwon

Tariku Shiferaw cites hip-hop, blues, and jazz for his series One of These Black Boys in order to honor the ways in which Black musical genres have informed visual expressions across time. Forgive Them Father (Ms. Lauryn Hill), a work complementary to Albers’ paintings as well as Sam Gilliam’s draped wall-paintings of the 1970s, identifies Modernism’s selective embrace of Black musical forms like jazz for inspiration, whilst excluding Black visual art and artists from its canon. Shiferaw’s distinct color choices are also critical, as they range from gradients of various skin tones to the pairing of black and blue - a layered reference to the writing of Ralph Ellison, to the songs of Louis Armstrong, and more. These subtle, visualized tributes further account for the role of Black communities and their visual, sonic, and literary expressions in the genesis of Modernism.

Asa Jackson collects fabrics and trimmings from his fellow artist community to create the colorblock, patchwork collage, Urban Planning. The various colors and arrangements within Urban Planning abstractly reflect the US Census Bureau’s representation or misrepresentation of different people and resources, revealing the discrepancies between “representational statistics versus the diversity one might experience in everyday life.” In creating a geometric abstract design out of textiles that personify different individuals, Jackson also makes reference to the underrecognized identities that often define larger art movements - an observation applicable to the people and histories of abstraction and Modernism.

“The audience, critics, and social mores of different times determine whose voice is heard, whose work is seen, and ultimately how it is thought about and recorded in history. There is no way to determine all of the artists working in what style when and why, only who is recognized for it. So it becomes a question of who has access and who is doing the critiquing.” -Asa Jackson

Each artist also goes beyond surface level analysis of Modernism’s co-optation of cultural visual languages, and pinpoints deeper issues including its elitism. As art historian Briony Fer notes, Modern discourses perpetuated a hierarchy of media and disciplines - or art versus craft - resulting in the championing of paintings and sculpture over, for instance, woodworking and textiles. Case in point, the Gee’s Bend Quilters, a collective of female descendants of formerly enslaved African Americans, who continue to collaborate today to create corduroy and denim patchwork quilts in the rural town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. While their quilts embody and even predate Modern abstraction, the women were marginalized from Modernist discourses due to their socio-cultural identities, lower economic status, and practice in craft. The quilts of Gee’s Bend, however, importantly evince that “...abstraction was not exclusive or ‘medium-specific’ to painting, as US high modernist critics like Clement Greenberg would later rigidly codify. On the contrary, the resilience of abstraction lay in its remarkable ability to adapt, transfer, and translate.”

Artists in In Spite of Modernism subversively use craft materials to demonstrate both abstraction’s translatability as well as its legacies in the collaborative, craft traditions of diverse communities, particularly from the hands of working individuals. For his textile paintings and installation, Arao laboriously employs stitching patterns emblematic of Pacific Islander styles upon purchased and secondhand textiles, like silk and denim - most of which originate from working fabric markets in the Philippines and abroad. Kwon, although using a sewing machine for Too Much Not Enough, replicates the labor-intensive, hand-sewn traditions of bojagi on textiles that are perceived as “Korean” yet manufactured in the United States, including silky satin and bright, ornately patterned brocade. In Black Friday (Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole), Shiferaw uniquely uses a stratified wooden shipping pallet, an object of commerce and trade, to not only refer to the Black Diaspora and how Black bodies have been historically commodified, but to represent painted rectangular forms found across time from cave drawings to Modernist abstraction. In one fell swoop, the artist identifies via craft materials the histories of labor, Black contributions to visual expressions, and abstract legacies existent around the world.

“I like how abstraction is not as easy to enter, it requires a little effort on the viewer’s end. It demands the viewer to understand the visual language and intentions of the artist, at least in part. It’s about noticing the subtleties - both in the visual and description of the work or series…I use abstraction to provoke critical thoughts around social structures and race. I interrogate all sorts of spaces - political, private and social. Who is allowed to freely exist in these spaces? For these critical reasons, I don’t think abstraction is done with us yet.” - Tariku Shiferaw

Comparatively, Esteban Ramón Pérez’s DNA (Bad Blood) utilizes scrap leather and other materials which recall his upbringing working within his father’s upholstery shop. The patchwork ‘leather painting,’ as he calls them, blurs Mexican, Xicano, and American codices, like Mexican boxing and tattoo-needling, with traits of the Modern color field style, thereby reclaiming the cultural multiplicity present in the history of abstraction. Additionally, the work’s use of leather - a material with histories of labor, connections to Pérez’s family and work, and derivation from and orientation to the body and skin - emphasizes the vast human and labor elements behind abstract designs stereotypically classified to Euro-American artists.

“I’ve been interested in the intersection between Mexico’s and USA’s modern and contemporary art movements… There’s a lot of crossover that doesn’t get covered in art history. I don’t remember learning of any Mexican, Xicano, or Latin American artists…But there’s Jackson Pollock’s relationship to David Alfaro Siqueiros and his drip gestures, the Albers and their influence from an infatuation with Mexican indigenous art… When I was looking at [Abstract Expressionism], 60’s pop, or minimalism, it felt familiar somehow, and I think that was part of my attraction to those movements.” -Esteban Ramón Pérez

Jackson, inspired by fabric’s embedded record of labor and lived experiences, calls upon his local community to produce textile collages with personal meaning, as with the work produced for In Spite of Modernism. Assembling together these once-disparate, yet symbolic materials into large abstract designs, the artists acknowledge the multicultural legacy and collective work involved in styles now problematically associated with individual Euro-Western Modern artists. As so beautifully exemplified by the exhibiting artists, the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and others, abstraction has and continues to manifest in various media and across all demographics despite Modernists’ sanctimonious claims that it inhabits the realm of painting or in the genius of a particular caste.

In Spite of Modernism therefore functions dually; first, as a visualized response to exclusionary Modernist histories, and second, as a proclamation emphasizing the ongoing legacy of abstract styles and its creators despite the limited classifications connoted and perpetuated by “Modernism.” While paying tribute to the remarkable resilience and creative drive of the people behind these iconic abstract designs, In Spite of Modernism also brings to the forefront the all-too-common occurrence of how “raced, gendered, classed, and geographic identities have precluded artists’ entrances into the art world as artistic, although their [art] has been accepted in some circles as art.” Continuing her observation, art historian Bridget R. Cooks links the cause of this preclusion to the ongoing rift between artist and artwork - or the imbalance in value of the artist compared to their artistic productions. Cooks voices that “until the poor, Black, rural, isolated women [of the Gee’s Bend] are considered valuable,” and arguably all who are oppressed by systemic injustices, “there will be no significant or long-term change in the way they or their work will be regarded by the art world.” It is therefore critical that we not merely ensure more inclusive readings of history and its art and artists, but to also more importantly support and empower the living beings behind these visual legacies - a call to motion each artist poignantly prompts us to practice.

And so in the words of the inimitable abstract artist Jack Whitten, be reminded and reflect: “Beneath every surface lies an identity.”

The exhibition programming included an artist talk with Paolo Arao and Tariku Shiferaw, as well as a discusison between IAIA Curator Maneula Well-Off-Man and Esteban Ramón Pérez

Website last updated 6/2/2024.