American Twist

Presented by The Sculptors Guild

In this unprecedented presidential election year, the Sculptors Guild collective chose the theme “American Twist.” The works reflect the thoughts and visions of 37 member artists on the subject of America now. This work was exhibited at the Guild’s 9th annual exhibition at Governors Island, NYC, and traveled as an artist exchange with Antenna Gallery in New Orleans. Many of the works were created expressly for “American Twist” and contain a subtle or powerful punch. Symbols of America are transformed into meaningful comments on current events, often evoking the contentious presidential race. One theme that reverberates throughout the entire show is the repetition of symbols that have been twisted, altered, and refashioned to make salient points. The range of work in the exhibition reflects the diversity of Sculptors Guild membership, revealing remarkable combinations of materials and techniques, from traditional wood and metals to neon and 3D prints. Guild members designed their work to be travel-sized—fitting specific parameters—in preparation for this exhibition in Louisiana.

Exhibition on View: March 10 – April 2, 2017 at Antenna Gallery, New Orleans | 3718 St Claude Ave, New Orleans, LA

Exhibition on View: May 28 - July 25, 2016 at Governors Island, New York | Building 15, Nolan Park, Governors Island

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 Catalog essay

“American Twist” combines the voices of 37 artists, all working in a variety of visual languages, yet the exhibition is incredibly cohesive. Symbols of America are transformed into meaningful comments on current events, many evoking the contentious 2016 presidential election. Ideas about identity, immigration, and the environment emerge throughout. Two small figurative works in the exhibition’s first room set the tone for the show. One is STOP! by Gay Malin, a bronze figure standing with arms raised, emotion written across his face. Although made shortly before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it cannot be separated from the violence against African Americans through systemic racism in the police system. Across the room sits a work that is a strong call to action. The Answer by Lannie Hart is a small portrait bust in polymer clay that appears to be cut into three pieces and reassembled with protruding brass wires and surmounted by a clay handgun where the top half of the brain should be. In this case, “the twist” has become twisted and warped, the figure’s mind disturbed. Both works by Malin and Hart humanize the pain of current questions the United States faces, and beg the viewer to contemplate the answers. 

The intensity of many of the works contrasts with the peaceful setting of 15 Nolan Park, a historic home on Governors Island shaded by trees. Spilling into the front and side yards is a bright, effervescent installation of flags titled Locating by Elizabeth Knowles and William Thielen. “American Twist” fills over half of the rooms in the house. Smaller works are in conversation at the entrance on the first floor, with installations and artists in residence taking over rooms on the first and second floor. Works from Antenna Gallery in New Orleans are sited in the other rooms, marking an important collaboration for the Sculptors Guild. Governors Island is the ideal setting for a show on contemporary visions of the United States. The island served as an important military outpost going back to the Revolutionary War and was used by the Coast Guard until 1996. Additionally, it forms one point in a triangle of important islands in New York Harbor, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, that have become symbolic of immigration and the American Dream.

One theme that reverberates throughout the entire show is the repetition of symbols that have been twisted, altered, and refashioned to make salient points. In Conrad Levenson’s Miss Liberty and in Elizabeth McCue’s Lady Liberty, a new set of materials and visions upends the symbol of the Statue of Liberty. In the case of the work by Levenson, she is built from mechanical agricultural parts, giving her a humorous, inelegant look. In contrast, McCue’s delicate leaves growing from the disembodied torch extend the meaning from welcoming into the idea of growth and transformation as an immigrant in the United States. The most site-specific of the works by the artists working in residence is American Storm Tide by Lisa E. Nanni. Utilizing neon light that pulses through sheets of acrylic and glass, Nanni has created a visualization of the events of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. The flow of light appears to seep under the west door of the room, reflecting the direction of the storm surge that flooded Governors Island. She describes the work as showing the “waves of energy” and the unlikely confluence of the tidal peak caused by the full moon occurring at the same time the storm hit. Nanni’s American Storm Tide is especially significant in conversation with artists from New Orleans, many of whom were impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

Tucked into the back of the house, but heard echoing throughout, is Ginger Andro and Chuck Glicksman’s Astro-Turf USA. Chubby Checker’s songs “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again” play as a video projection of rapidly rotating images, both historical and contemporary, become a visual melting pot. Faces are largely indistinguishable, but the ideas of immigration and inclusion are still easily captured. Mirrored states swing, suspended from the ceiling, and garlands of restaurant menus drape to the floor. The menus cover an international cuisine - Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Greek, Italian, Chinese - and echo the Jackson Heights neighborhood they were collected from. Spices scent the air as it wafts through the mirrored silhouettes of the states, everything in motion above as a solid green map of the US rests below, the whole amalgamated from all the turning and twisting imagery above. 

In a contrasting room installation, Janet Goldner slices the room in half with barbed wire. In Fences and Neighbors, Goldner projects video of interviews with immigrants through the fence and onto the opposite wall. The speakers are shaded by the lines of wire fencing. The viewer can see them, hear their disillusioned personal stories as the reality of the US contradicted their ideal vision. Despite their intimate tales, the border separates, divides, and cages both sides of the fence. Photos and text panels fill the rest of the space. In one panel, Goldner explains, “In September, 2014, I spent a week in and around Tucson learning about many aspects of the complex web of issues around the US-Mexican border.” The web and the tangle are recurring themes throughout the exhibition. They are metaphors for the diversity of the US population, but also the range of current issues in discussion this election cycle.

Another common symbol that has resurfaced across the work of many artists is that of the American flag. In many of the pieces, it has been altered heavily to convey meaning. In Michael Wolf’s Amerika, a beautifully modeled, but unusually weighty lead flag is draped over a gilded, house-shaped wooden box, obscuring the illustrious American Dream. In Untitled (e pluribus unum 24), Colin Chase renders a portion of the flag in alternating blue blocks punctuated by small mirrors for each star, making the reflected image disconcerting and confusing when viewed at eye level. Taking from the the phrase “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one), Chase fractures a single identity down into many and turns the phrase upside down.

Elaine Lorenz’s Sacred Spaces is just one of many works in the exhibition that comment on environmental issues. Ceramic, undulating forms that echo the water-carved Badlands or Grand Canyon symbolize the need to protect these places and the National Park Service. Across the gallery is Mark Attebery’s Atmosphere, an obsidian and painted steel organic tangle of exactly one cubic foot that slyly references the measure of carbon dioxide emissions. Where the Deer and the Antelope Played…, an assemblage of concrete, pipes, and a single antler by Lucy Hodgson, plays on the traditional mounted taxidermy trophy and comments on the degradation of the wilderness due to industrialization.

The rest of 15 Nolan Park is inhabited by Antenna Gallery, an art collective based in New Orleans. The Sculptors Guild invited Antenna Gallery to partner with them, which is an important first for the Sculptors Guild as works are lent between the two organizations. In Spring 2017 “American Twist” will travel to New Orleans as the second half of the exchange. It is appropriate that this incredible exchange occurs across two distinctive areas of the US, allowing both regions to engage in conversation with each other. The issues developed by artists from the Sculptors Guild are powerful, timely, and relevant in every corner of America.

Sasha Davis

Curator of Collections

The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation