ABOVE: From left to right: Work by Vian Sora, John Brooks, and Kenyatta Bosman, Center: Work by Sean Starowitz.
We All Declare for Liberty
When Quappi Projects curator John Brooks put out the initial call for We All Declare for Liberty, he expected an “avalanche of anti-Trump works”, which to him was “fine, but the topic is so much bigger than him [Trump]”. The show materialized in a different tone as Lousivillians came together to protest and grieve. With the gallery’s mission to feature “artists whose works are reflective of the zeitgeist”, Quappi Projects, established in 2017 upon John Brooks’ return to Louisville, focuses on a larger “Us”. We All Declare for Liberty is Quappi Projects’ second group exhibition and, according to Brooks, one of the gallery’s most important to date. The show features work by Kenyatta Bosman, John Brooks, Andrew Cenci, Hannah Drake, Denise Furnish, Bryan Holden, Noah Howard, Destiny Mbachu, Matthew McDole, Joe McGee, José Manuel Nápoles, Sara Olshansky, Timothy Robertson, Skylar Smith, Vian Sora, Sean Starowitz, Kris Thompson, and Travis Townsend. In Quappi Projects’ old mattress store location in Nulu, We All Declare for Liberty steeps us in political anxieties and complexities of American identity while proposing a possible recalibration.
The atmosphere of this exhibition is built around an interplay of the interior and exterior. Textures of culture with emotional symbolism. A prism of identity. While it should not be forgotten that Quappi Projects’ “white cube” visage carries certain implications of whiteness, this exhibition strikes a note between allyship and self-critique. Navigating the work is a bit like a dance of opposites, with pieces having quiet, intimate conversations in tucked away corners, while simultaneous criss-cross dialogues bounce across the room. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are met by Matthew McDole’s neo-pop art print Infinite Jest (2020) which looks like a sticker pack for an Indie band, Kenyatta Bosman’s photograph KING LOUI (2020), which brings us unapologetically to the front of the movement and Denise Furnish’s Duplicity (2020), a painted Tumbling Block quilt that keeps its foot in the door for past traditions to enter in with you. These three works are indicative of the diverse approaches and interpretations seen throughout the exhibition.
A slow, wandering approach does this show justice. In a back corner a dialogue on American fragmentation occurs between Travis Townsend’s reassembled wooden piece, Vessel of Manifest Density! (2nd Permutation) (2019), Timothy Robertson’s polyptych of an American flag on a garbage bin, and Vian Sora’s abstracted and emotional painting, Babylon to Babel (2020). Townsend’s Vessel of Manifest Density (2nd Permutation) floats slap-dash and multicolored on the concrete floor like an unmoored boat that looks like it easily could have been made out of popsicle sticks or skateboards, yet speaks as powerful symbol for historical (and present) American freedom. Boatcraft and American history has a multifaceted and complicated past (and present): with indigenous traditions of dugout and bark canoes, bull-boats and kayaks, to that of early Malali, Mandingo explorers of the Americas, fleets of Western colonizers such as Columbus as well as modern rafts of the Balseros from Cuba.
In this same corner, Sora’s large-scale, semi-figurative Babylon to Babel deals with her personal, distressing experience as an Iraqi-American with US immigration policy and refugee status. While other works, such as Andrew Cenci’s black and white photographs, Brooks’ monochrome, underpainting figures and even the minimalist materiality of Sean Starowitz’s installation utilize color reductively to explore content, Babylon to Babel uses a luminescent color palette. Sora’s use of vibrantly contrasting blues and reds nods to the inherent contrasts in American symbolism. Babylon to Babel treatment of color is quickly overtaken by the powerful relation of the semi-figurative forms existing as shadows over landscape imagery taken via drone. This piece soberly portrays how America takes liberties with human rights and freedoms. Sora’s companion piece, Denizens (2020), which depicts similar shadow figures as imprints in blue and red pigment, watches on from an opposite wall, their positioning causing the viewer to physically bisect the two works.
Both Sora’s large scale acrylic work and pigment print open up a dialogue with José Manuel Nápoles’ large scale, semi-figurative portrait of his fiancé, desperate waiting and happy endings (2020), which deals with their experience immigrating from Cuba. With a layered, gestural approach that only oil paint and hardship can depict, Nápoles’ painting communicates a striking simplicity of emotion. In spite of this quality, reading this painting can be quite complicated. The portrait depicts a pink-faced figure with a tasteful green turtleneck, but with exaggerations that remind me of children's drawings. One second I see someone monstrous, the next I see someone beaten and suffering. Nápoles’ desperate waiting and happy endings depicts both the caricature of the “Other” that is foundational to American white supremacist ideology while also depicting raw humanity unjustly denied.
Bryan Kelly Holden’s sculpture Consume (2019) is comprised of found liquor bottles lined up like soldiers to form an American flag on top of a surface of shellacked cardboard signs purchased from homeless people. Captured in some of the bottles are little keepsakes - pills, syringes, a wedding ring. A sculptural micro-Census, Holden’s Consume speaks both to shared destruction and collective strength. Instabilities in politics, the economy, and public health have caused an increasing number of Americans to turn to substances to cope. This piece not only documents realities that are marginalized but reinforces human presence through affirmation.
Other works in this show use documentation as a means to re-establish reality, such as Destiny Mbachu’s cotton-candy hued self portrait, SHOW ME SOME FUCKIN RESPECT (2020). Mbachu’s work directly rejects through self-affirmation Susan Sontag’s famous quote: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”1 SHOW ME SOME FUCKIN RESPECT turns self portraiture into a vehicle for individual expression and unapologetically claims space for the self. Placing humanity over objectification, Mbachu’s piece not only reiterates that liberty should not be denied, but that it should be enjoyed.
Presuming a cohesive unity is a slippery slope, an easy reduction, a bad habit when viewing group shows, let alone when thinking about the American experience. We All Declare for Liberty merges the aesthetic with the cultural, in so doing challenging the paradigm of exclusivity within the “high art” scene which Louisville is known for - reminiscent of Brianna Harlan’s recent work surveying art access in the city. This show features the work of Black, Brown, white, non-binary, female, male, young, and old artists. It is worth mentioning that Trump does make it into works of this show, albeit sparingly, with artists treating his image as critique of power in works such as Noah Howard’s mixed media print DON’T VOTE FOR FUCKERS LEST YOU’RE LOOKING TO GET FUCKED (2016), Sean Starowitz’s National Garden of Heroes monument proposal, statues are silent teachers (2020), and Kris Thompson’s MAGA (2020) piece. It is apparent that a consideration of inclusion (and therefore exclusion) are relevant to understanding the significance of this show.
As politicians and activists move to challenge (and maintain) inequities and liberties to those denied them, artists continue to provide the catalyst for recalibrating our country. Brooks states: “Artists, like most people, want to be happy, but they are sick of the state of things. I’m under no illusion that what we are doing here will fix the problem(s). But I do think we can be a part of a conversation.” I’m reminded of writer James Baldwin, who said “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”2 To deny liberty is to deny human dignity, freedom and jouissance. A world where liberty need not be declared would be a Utopia like no other.
To hold an exhibition at this time in Louisville is a delicate thing, a balm and a megaphone, a blanket and a kiln. “We” means nothing without liberty, without acknowledgement, without reconciliation. We aren’t our American identity, America is us. We All Declare for Liberty was not an immaculate show but a real one. More than a neo-liberal diversity stunt or a community organizing project, Quappi Projects puts its white-cube aesthetic to work while Brooks’ responsive curation successfully sets a stage for high calibre artists to re-examine American identity and culture, crafting liberty from tyranny.
Quappi Projects is located at 827 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40206, and is open Thursdays 12-4pm, Fridays 12-4pm, Saturdays 11-3pm and by appointment.
Quappi Projects practices social distancing and is abiding by all new COVID-19 occupancy regulations. Protective face masks are mandatory within the gallery space.
- 1. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
- 2. Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. United States: Beacon Press, 2012.
- Quappi Projects
Contributor to Ruckus
SHOW ME SOME FUCKIN RESPECT (2020) by Destiny Mbachu, premium luster print.
Foreground: Vessel of Manifest Destiny! (2nd Permutation) (2019) by Travis Townsend, wood and mixed media. Courtesy of Quappi Projects.
Consume (2019) by Bryan Holden, plastic liquor bottles, cardboard homeless signs, wood, resin, ink, paint, liquor, cigarette butts, pills, syringes, keys, Sharpies and wedding ring.
Babylon to Babel (2020) by Vian Sora, acrylic on canvas.
desperate waiting and happy endings (2020) by José Manuel Nápoles, oil on canvas.