The concept of “America” is hard to pin down. As a country made up of indigenous peoples and immigrants (a melting pot, as we’ve long understood it), the U.S. has an identity that transcends stereotypes in a way that’s wonderfully varied. On the other hand, “American” stereotypes exists. Caricatures often come from some shred of truth, and the gun-toting, God-fearing white person who’s frightened that “their” country is going to hell is no exception.
The way artists choose to deal with America’s identity has changed drastically over the past few years, particularly since November of 2016. Recently, artists have gotten more bite — they’ve begun to go for America’s throat in a way that they hadn’t in decades. Along with everyone else who opposes the current administration, artists feel that they’ve been backed into a corner, and they’ve come out swinging, making work that explicitly attacks our government in a way that I would call (certainly in my lifetime) unprecedented.
Even in tumultuous times, however, artists can and will draw on the aspects of America that they know and love. They’ll make work about road-trip food, their childhood in the suburbs, and pop culture that shaped their sensibilities. This work is political too, even if indirectly. Each artist has their own way of showing us what we look like, what is lost, and where we’re headed.
Here in Texas, we of course have artists drawing on both ways of dealing with American themes: we have those who are dedicated to directly tackling mounting political concerns, and we have those who show us snapshots of the daily lives of Americans. Here are, in no particular order, ten works created by those artists.
Growing up in the DFW area, Esther Pearl Watson’s childhood consisted of an obsessed father who was trying to invent a working flying saucer. Scrapping together parts, Mr. Watson was an American type (however quirky): he wanted to make it big by creating something out of nothing. While most of Watson’s paintings depict Texas suburbs, her settings can stand in for any American small town.
Installed in Dallas, Lauren Woods’ A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project takes back a previously “whites only” original drinking fountain in the city’s County Records Building. When a visitor presses the fountain button, a video screen embedded in the fountain shows them images of civil rights protests, forcing them to confront an ultra-charged part of America’s past.
America is about the kids. Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project is aimed at educating people about and combatting childhood lead poisoning: each $100 bill is individually decorated and marks a person’s contribution to the cause. Simultaneously, Chin is asking politicians to put their money where their mouth is — if this many people care about lead poisoning, isn’t it time we do something about it?
Recently, Marfa-based artist Camp Bosworth has been creating oversized wood carvings of Dairy Queen foodstuffs. The hallmark of a cross-country road trip, Dairy Queen is a cuisine that is undoubtedly American.
Margarita Cabrera is an artist who blurs borders. In her series Space in Between, she created cacti using the fabric from border control uniforms combined with sewing and embroidery techniques from Mexico, thereby making a nuanced statement about symbiotic relationships along the U.S.-Mexico border.
What’s more American that an eroticized, melodramatic drill sergeant portrayed by a WWE wrestler?
Loc Huynh’s large-scale paintings don’t pull punches and, often, don’t take sides. He exposes military conflict, political corruption, and American hypocrisy in a biting, caricature-inspired romp of a picture.
When Phillip Pyle II showed Caroline Plantation at the Houston Museum of African American Culture in 2013, it received mixed reviews. Using over 7000 Legos to recreate a slave plantation, the piece cleans up and abstracts the horrors of slavery — we see brown figures picking cotton and white figures on horseback overseeing them, but the piece has no lynchings, whippings, or other wrenching details of slavery. What it does do, however, is put familiar objects into an unfamiliar and very unexpected combination, forcing us to confront an uncomfortable history that we’d never think to see in Lego form. Everything is not awesome.
From 2004 to 2008, Dallas artist Thor Johnson photographed telling moments at the annual State Fair of Texas at Dallas’ Fair Park. It was hard to choose just one image from his series, because so many of his photos represent what America looks like, both in stereotype and in reality — like this one of three men, at least two of whom appear to be staring longingly at a bright yellow Hummer. Do yourself a favor and look at his other images too.
You probably don’t need me to tell you how this represents America.
Happy Fourth of July.