One of the primary concerns of art of the modern era is the vanguard role that art can play in social change. Many artists of the 20th and 21st centuries have sought to alter the social or political order through their use of their artistic media.
Two concurrent exhibits at York College show differing visions of remaking the world through artistic endeavors.
Zimbabwe-born Chaz Maviyane-Davies brings a bold graphic style to his exhibition “Creative Defiance.” Drawing upon a collection of posters on a range of contemporary topics, Maviyane-Davies brings his defiant take on issues of racial injustice and social inequity in order to foster a vision of a more just, peaceful world through his vocation as a questioning, probing artist.
Maviyane-Davies’s work includes a limited but vibrant color palette, clean and simple design with powerful, direct statements. His piece, “Life Jacket,” uses only three colors to make an impassioned plea for African refugees. In a similar statement in “Flight,” a flock of birds in the outline of a human face move gracefully against an idyllic, cloud-filled sky.
In “Game Over,” a clear plastic water pistol is loaded with toxins creating a metaphor for degradation of the water supply. “Still Loading” takes the familiar image of a loading computer program and combines it with an American flag, placing the image within a hooded sweatshirt to create a commentary on the still evolving race relations within the country.
Maviyane-Davies is indeed questioning the social order and all its discontent. He is making a case to change it. “After all, is it not a designer’s duty to offer a new vitality, energy and greater appreciation of the diversity of the world, to the world, through the defiance of creativity?” he asked.
A more aggressive and controversial approach to socially transformative art can be found in “Common Denominator” by Kate Kretz. The works are an examination of dominance, entitlement and “bully culture,” and its results upon those who suffer from its effects.
Kretz makes use of a variety of media: painting, drawing, photography, embroidery and found objects. Indeed, the breadth of the materials used further enhances the show.
In “Indoctrination,” found child’s blocks are separated into two stacks of “us” and “them.” The blackened “them” make the separation even starker. This simple work powerfully shows how past prejudices can infect the next generation.
The use of embroidery features prominently in many of the works. “One Day in America” features an angel holding an assault weapon on a kitschy black velvet background. The juxtaposition of innocence and potential malevolence creates a tension within the work. In a similar way, “Good/Evil Monster Battle” embroidered on a pair of man’s black pants displays the conflict of man’s nobler and baser natures in a way that is dark and surreal.
Two unfortunately timely pieces examine the crisis of mass shootings. “Portrait of A Mass Shooter” superimposes mug shots of 20 mass shooters into one image. The resulting image is anonymously generic, belying the dark nature of their activities. “Perpetual Platitudes for Endless Innocents” has an LED news scroll on loop, carrying the same typical news cycle pieces in perpetuity, like the reaction and response that seems to offer limited concrete results.
The often visceral reaction that objects can cause the viewer is deliberate. “I often experience news stories of inhumanity as a literal blow to my body and carry the negative energy around with me until I process a way to remove it from my person through transformative creation,” Kretz said. “My work functions as a meditation, a healing prayer, a potent incantation to embed the finished object with as much power as possible, to rival the impact of that original negative impetus for making it. I am aiming for a beautiful, exquisitely-crafted gut punch.”
While one could label these works as harsh, it is their powerful nature that forces one to confront these issues. Kretz believes that “art has the power to give a significant nudge in the right direction towards change.”
It is in this manner that the works of Kretz and Maviyane-Davies aim to create a dialogue between art and the viewer to push forward change. Kretz herself says that “the very best artists are visionaries, paving the way for the rest of society.” York College is to be commended in its commitment to creating discourse in its examination of the role of art and society.
“Creative Defiance – The Graphic Design of Chaz Maviyane-Davies” and “Common Denominator – An exhibition on #bullyculture by Kate Kretz” are on display at York College Galleries, 441 Country Club Road in York until March 24. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission to the galleries is free and open to the public. For more information visit the gallery website at galleries.ycp.edu.