Blog / My Weird America


By Wendy

For me, Independence Day is a low-key affair.
A few sparklers, a hot dog and I’m good. Flag waving makes me slightly queasy.
Recently, however, I saw three exhibitions that nudged me toward thinking about my country’s birthday with a more open mind.

Shepard Fairey‘s famous portrait of Barack Obama, part of his retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, had me feeling pretty good about red, white and blue. The Nasher Museum’s upcoming exhibition of photographs, “Beyond Beauty: Photographs from the Duke University Special Collections Library,” opening July 2, includes wonderful images that show the quirky, the funky and, sometimes, the dark side of America. But it was “The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art” that really got me thinking.

I continue to sift through images in my mind from that exhibition at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, outside Boston. The show brings up stories from America’s past–some new to me, others reimagined by the artists and still others held up under a magnefying glass to reveal new parts.

I jumped a foot when the four square dance dresses, suspended from something like an old-fashioned umbrella clothes line, suddenly whirred to life in Cynthia Norton’s “Dancing Squared” (above). I wondered at Greta Pratt’s “Nineteen Lincolns”–they all look like Lincoln even though they are different people.

I spent most of my time in one gallery devoted to four works by Texas-based artist Dario Robleto.  His work suggests that music and dancing are as healing to the soul as medicine. The list of materials in his sculpture, “The Pause Became Permanence,” includes hair flowers braided by war widows, widows’ mourning dresses, hair lockets made of stretched and curled audio tape recordings of the last known Confederate and Union Civil War soldiers’ voices and excavated and melted shrapnel from various wars.

If Robleto lived 100 years from now, what symbols of mourning from 2009 would he use in his work? Websites? Sidewalk shrines?

Another of Robleto’s works in the show, “Shaker Apothecary,” contains 28 drawers that hold hand-ground vinyl 45-rpm records of dance craze music mixed with various medicinal botanicals. The genius is in the pairings: “The Hustle” with Devil’s Claw Root, “Do the Hand Jive” with Rose of Jericho and “Peppermint Twist” with Dandelion Root.

Later it struck me: Maybe my ambivalence over Independence Day is because of the commercial push to celebrate. Maybe this holiday is an opportunity to mourn and process parts of our country’s recent history. Talk about history rather than just paper over it with a red-white-and-blue Fourth of July bunting.

And then I might light a sparkler and dance around.

“The Old, Weird America” was organized by curator Toby Kamps at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. If you go to the show at the DeCordova, check out the “Process Gallery,” which displays actual items from the studios of several artists in the exhibition. Robleto’s three-part work,  “Lamb of Man/ Atom and Eve/ Americana Materia Medica,” was originally part of this exhibition. The Nasher Museum purchased the work, which is on view here in Durham.

IMAGE (top):Greta Pratt, “Nineteen Lincolns,” 2005. 18 archival inkjet prints: 28 x 24 inches each. Courtesy the artist.

IMAGE (middle): Cynthia Norton, “Dancing Squared,” 2004. Aluminum, hardware, electric motors, dresses, wire, 90x180x180 inches. Collection Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, Louisville, Kentucky.

IMAGE (bottom): Dario Robleto, “Shaker Apothecary” (with “A Rosary for Rhythm” and “Salvation Cocktails”), 2007. Pine, hand-ground vinyl 45 rpm dance-craze records, various medicinial botanicals, carved bone calcium, typeset, 40x160x15 inches. Private collection, courtesy the artist and D’Amelio Terras, NY.

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