Suchitra Mattai & Su Su: Sarasota Art Museum exhibit provides images of the nation

Marty Fugate, Herald Tribune, June 29, 2022



“State of the Art 2020: Constructs” encompasses 33 artworks from 21 working artists from across the nation. Their work is a freeze-frame of contemporary American life. Their mercurial media includes ceramic sculpture, installation, neon sculpture, painting, photography, textile art, and performance video. This traveling exhibition from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art divides their work into three fairly arbitrary sections: Planet, Place and Self. 




This portion as you might expect, deals with ecology. Some of this work simply celebrates the Third Rock from the Sun. But much of it sounds a warning. Planet Earth has met the enemy — and it is us.


Alice Pixley Young’s “Geist, Lighthouse and Transmissions” installation (2019) is a dance of projection and shadow play. The artist (a Ringling College alumna) has created hand-cut, miniature models of decaying industrial infrastructure — transmission lines, railroad water towers, an oil derrick, etc. She’s placed these tiny models inside bell jars. The jars rotate in front of a light source, creating constantly changing shadows.


Amy Casey’s “Highground” (2019), depicts a drowned world. Her acrylic painting shows a few random buildings, surrounded by endless ocean. These human structures have a precious, twee look — like dollhouses. But some are being swamped and swept away. The high-and-dry buildings rest on giant tree trunks rising out of the water. The symbolism is easily decoded: Civilization survives when it’s rooted in nature’s greater systems.




Art isn’t created from nothing. It’s made from some artist’s mind and hands — and artists don’t come from nothing, either. Each creator is rooted in a specific place, with a local habitation and a name. The work in this section shows you where they’re coming from.


In India, a sari is a women’s outer garment — a ribbon of cloth that can be wrapped around the body in various ways. Indo-Guyanese artist Suchitra Mattai celebrates that heritage with “Exodus” (2019). Mattai’s installation weaves a host of saris together — garments gathered from several generations of her family and others across India and the United Arab Emirates. The piece resembles a rainbow-colored tsunami — a fitting symbol for waves of immigration and colonization.


In Mattai’s work, “place” is a big idea. As large as the Indian subcontinent, and the global diaspora of the Indian culture. But small places also matter. Hangouts and hideaways are the soil where art and artists grow. Neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury, and SoHo. Or even a hometown bar scene.


That’s the focus of photographer L. Kasimu Harris. His latest series captures vignettes of New Orleans’ vanishing Black bars and lounges. Many have been shuttered, after waves of real estate speculation in the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina. Harris celebrates what remains. 


His “Come Tuesday: Sportsman’s Corner” (2018) honors the Black Mohawks — an African-American “crewe” who perform in Indian garb during Mardi Gras. Their celebration honors the Black slaves who fled Louisiana’s white plantations to Indian villages — and were immediately accepted as brothers and sisters.  


This history lives on. New Orleans’ Black bar scene is why. Harris wants that heritage to live on as well. And not only in his photos.


Miami-based photographer George Sanchez-Calderón knows how he feels. His home/studio in Miami was also a gathering place for South Florida artists. The Florida Department of Transportation decided it was the perfect place for an interstate on-ramp. The artist refused to sell. FDOT invoked eminent domain and claimed the property anyway.


The artist’s neon “NOT FOR SALE” sign was his final act of protest. The neon’s green, the color of money. But the “NOT” is burned out. Because money defeated history. At least in this round.




According to Socrates, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Self-examination has led many of these artists to an existential approach. To them, the “self” isn’t a fixed essence. It’s constantly under construction — and the ultimate do-it-yourself project. Their art here speaks of this constant reinvention.


Some of that depends on what you choose to reveal to the world. “All the world is a stage.” But until all the world is equal, some of its players wear masks.


Which brings us to Ronald Jackson’s portrait paintings. His figures are always African-American, always masked, and always looking straight ahead. Your mind wants to know their stories. The artist only gives you hints.


“In a Day, She Became the Master of Her House” is a perfect example. A Black woman’s face. The unhidden portions are three-dimensional and deftly modeled. The mask she wears has a stylized, two-dimensional leaf pattern; the background behind her also looks like wallpaper.


Jackson wrote that this practice was born during his tours of Iraq in the United States Army. He’d read the obituaries of fallen soldiers. The accompanying photo was always as centered as a high school yearbook image. He’d imagine their stories, while knowing they fell short of the truth. His monumental masked portraits invite the viewer to do the same.


Where Jackson conceals, Jody Kuehner reveals. She’s a visual artist across a range of mediums, and a drag performer as well (aka “Cherdonna Shinatra”). Her “DITCH” (2019) installation brings it all together. The space is an open-sided room, like an enormous diorama. Inside, it’s a party-colored explosion of soft foam sculptures — under the watchful eye of “Mom Donna,” an exhausted but attentive mother figure in jester’s garb. The riot of color is accompanied by a riotous video of Kuehner in character, performing with her drag troupe. “This is me,” says the artist. With no filter at all.


But identity means more than the outward presentation of self. There’s also the self behind our eyes. This interior life is purely private. To an artist, the phenomenological world is also under construction. Experience isn’t passive. And seeing isn’t believing.


That’s especially true when you don’t like what you see.


Like, say, the unsettling liminal spaces of big box retail stores.


Su Su, Darwin, 2018. Courtesy of the Sarasota Art Museum


Su Su’s “Darwin,” (2018) is a walk through one such uncanny valley. Her meticulous oil-on-canvas painting paints a surrealistic vision with photorealistic detail. The scene is a homewares store. Normally a scene of abundance — but the shelves have nothing for sale. Instead of consumer goods, this fractured space is stocked with creepy-looking orangutans dolls and distorted cutouts of Curious George, the irrepressible monkey of Margret and H.A. Rey’s children’s books.


What the heck does it mean?


My hunch is the artist got the creeps while buying a new skillet one day. Su Su asked herself why? And answered her own question in this painting of a fake-friendly store that’s no place like home.


This smorgasbord selection doesn’t do justice to the 33 pieces here. The art you’ll see has common themes and obsessions — but it’s still as diverse as it gets. The artists behind it all march to different drummers. Their art says, “This is who and where we are.” The result is a glimpse of the present moment, as least as of 2020. But that today is already yesterday …


I can’t wait to see what these artists are up to right now.


‘State of The Art 2020: Constructs’


Organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Curated by Alejo Benedetti, Allison Glenn, and Lauren Haynes, the original 2020 exhibition was a group show featuring 61 works of art by more than 100 artists. The touring version of this show split it up into three smaller exhibitions; “Constructs” is one of them. It is on display through Sept. 11 at Sarasota Art Museum, 1001 South Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-309-4300;


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