If the exhibition Us is Them at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids seems at times to have an excessively broad focus, I can happily forgive this on the grounds that it had so much to offer. This is a muscular show that assembles a diverse international ensemble of artists whose work, broadly speaking, addresses social justice and current affairs.
Occasioned by the UICA’s 40th anniversary, Us is Them brings together work by 42 artists from America, the Caribbean, China, and the Middle East, and addresses issues such as race, poverty, immigration, and colonialism— issues which certainly transcend geographical boarders. Some of the artists are early or mid-career, but the show also certainly has its share of established names. There’s work by Kehinde Wiley, who famously inserts contemporary black figures in paintings from the European cannon (here, his Wild Man derives from a Hans Holbein of the same name). There’s a Soundsuit by Nick Cave, whose wearable sculptural ensembles have appeared in Vogue photospreads. There are even several drawings and a film by Kara Walker.
Many works in the show address the commodification of culture. A garish robe, for example, fabricated out of cheap-looking clear polyvinyl chloride (pvc) and which has the appearance of being mass-produced hangs suspended at eye-level. Sinuous dragons are embroidered into it with fishing line, and the robe is vaguely reminiscent of court attire from the Qing Dynasty. Artist Wang Jin calls his series of pvc robes “high-tech rubbish,” and they humorously comment on the cheapening and trivializing effect of consumerism and industrialization on culture.
Also addressing commodification, ceramic artist Simone Leigh creates anthropomorphic, head-sized cowrie shells; they seem menacing and sinister, their ridges having the appearance of jaws. The cowrie shell was used in some African and Asian cultures as a form of currency and were thus once a form of commodity exchange. Leigh’s cowrie shells speak obliquely to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which the African body itself was commoditized.
Most of the works in Us is Them are two dimensional, although there’s frequently ambiguity between genres, as in Jeff Sonhouse’s painting Meeting at the Crossroads, portraying two men, their afros comprised of hundreds of matchsticks that have been ignited, literally making this an “inflammatory” work. And Afro-Cuban artist Roberto Diago obliquely addresses poverty in his Rauchenberg-like assemblages of found objects, creating art out of the urban detritus from the street. They may technically be considered paintings, but they’re visceral and textured.
Some emotionally-laden works in the exhibition possess the sticking power to remain in one’s mind days afterword. A cycle of ambitiously large photographs by Israeli photographer Adi Nes movingly addresses immigration, poverty, and homelessness in his contemporary reimaginings of biblical stories; his images evocatively depict the destitute and dispossessed. And addressing China’s former one-child policy is a haunting painting by Tianbing Li, whose Portrait of a Boy is a photographic, black and white portrayal of an anonymous child. Tianbing’s body of work poignantly addresses the fact that there exists in China an entire generation for whom the notion of a brother or sister is only an abstract concept.
The multi-story exhibition spaces of the UICA are formidably large and, on occasion, can sometimes make good exhibitions feel sparse, but this certainly isn’t the case with Us is Them which manages to snugly fill the space. In addressing so many issues (and with work from so many countries), the show’s focus is admittedly broad. But It’s quite unfair to fault an exhibition for having so much on view; after all, who’s ever complained about too much food at the buffet? And the show certainly offers food for thought. In fact, through May 14, the $5 ticket for Us is Them is the best bargain in Grand Rapids.
More information on the exhibition can be found on the UICA’s website. The Pizzuti Collection (which loaned all the works in the show) has an excellent website with biographical information and images of all the artists and works on view in Us is Them.