Hanging near the entrance to the Lowe Art Museum’s new exhibition, Sungho Choi’s model for My America concisely summarizes the show’s premise. Infinite Mirror: Images of American Identity showcases the ways we form and connect to an American identity and ultimately what it means to be an American in the 21st century.
The Korean American artist depicts a jigsaw puzzle map of the United States superimposed on an American flag. Each individual piece carries an image distinct from the others.
The artist says that “most of my work lies on the intersection between different cultures and traditions, addressing critical issues of our society.” His art making, he says, is the process of collecting and formulating the patterns of cultural conflict, destruction and, ultimately, healing.
The unresolved impression left by Choi’s work underscores the exhibition’s dilemma. While it emphasizes differences, not commonalities, an accompanying interpretive text asserts that assimilation is a two-way transaction in which America can accommodate new elements, imposing change on those elements even as the country is changed by them. In the end, the artworks in the exhibition speak individually with a more distinct voice than they do collectively.
The exhibition is comprised of works by American artists of African, Arab, European, Asian, Latino and Native American descent, and was curated by Blake Bradford, curator of education at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
In his catalog essay, Bradford calls the exhibition an “approximation” that measures America’s image of itself through the works of a diverse group of artists. “Acutely aware of ethnicity and tradition,” he writes, “they tried to retain a fixed sense of their identity even as their environments changed.”
African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Howardena Pindell, are some of the most recognizable in the show. Their works, and others by Latin artists, are arguably more familiar to many viewers and consequently have a less pronounced impact.
César Augusto Martínez, a Mexican American artist, is represented by Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres (The Man Who Likes Women), which was based on memories of a neighborhood mechanic and conceived as a portrait of “a big guy who could comfortably accommodate several tattoos.” In the portrait, his shirt is open to reveal a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his barrel chest, bracketed on each bicep by a clothed woman and a naked woman.
By contrast, the works by Indian and Arab American artists have a more immediate impact, due as much to their unfamiliarity as to their visual quality
Doris Bittar was born in Baghdad to Lebanese parents and immigrated to the United States as a child. The exhibition includes two oils from her Stars and Stripes series, begun after 9/11. “I wanted to explore what happens when the most profusely patterned flag in the world encounters the most profusely patterned culture in the world,” she says.
In Camo Flag — 1, Islamic grille work is superimposed on an American flag and desert camouflage, marrying what the artist calls “seemingly oppositional motifs to probe intertwined concepts of loyalty, identity, nationalism and power.”
Another standout is one of the few three-dimensional pieces, Communication Gap, by Indian American artist Indira Freitas Johnson. It combines a sculpture of the lower extremities of a Hindu goddess — who has cut off her head in order to separate her mind from her body — with ceramic insulators used on telephone poles.
The message: communication between the modern and traditional sectors of America’s diverse societies is both complex and precarious. Sungho Choi’s My America has it right: creating one nation from so many cultures is a tough puzzle indeed.
NOTE: An earlier version mistakenly indicated the March 20 lecture would be delivered by the artist. The correct information appears here.