Conversation with Dan Schank

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Conversation with Dan Schank 

By Gabriel Cutrufello, PhD

Visiting artist Dan Schank earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing from the Tyler School of Art and MFA in Painting from UC-San Diego. He has exhibited throughout the United States, most recently at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Los Angeles and the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA. He is a longtime friend of York College English Professor Dr. Gabriel Cutrufello and the two discussed Schank’s work in the following conversation.

GC: Can you talk a little bit about your art background (where you went to school, etc.)?

DS: I was an undergraduate at the Tyler School of Art in Philly (Temple University’s art school). I then went directly to graduate school at the University of California in San Diego. During that time, I attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (a great residency in rural Maine) in 2001 as well.


GC: One of the things I find striking about your work is the physical and visual textures you create. Can you talk about the process that you use to create your work?

DS: The easiest way to describe my process is this – I’m building collages out of my own paintings. Typically, I begin with several small sheets of paper, which are painted in great detail with gouache (a medium similar to watercolor, but more opaque). When I have enough components, usually anywhere between a dozen to four dozen pieces of paper, I begin assembling them on wood panels. I’m typically about two-thirds of the way through a painting before I begin adhering the paper to the surface. To “glue” the cut-out scraps to the panel, I take matte gel medium (basically acrylic paint without any pigment in it) and literally paint it on to the back of each sheet. The paint sticks to the surface of the panel.

Since it’s very difficult to remove a scrap of paper once it is adhered, most of my paintings need to be built from the back forward. Once something is stuck to the surface, it’s almost always there permanently.

More recently, I’ve been working on a smaller scale with watercolor and pencil rather than collage. This allows me to burn through ideas more quickly as I try to expand my visual vocabulary. But I haven’t given up on the collage stuff either.


GC: We’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ve seen your work evolve over the years. I feel like I’ve seen this progress towards a kind of fantastic of the mundane in your work. Can you talk about the images that you use and the juxtaposition in some of your work between those mundane objects and the fantastical animal-like creatures that populate some of your pieces?

DS: For about twenty years now, my work has always been about the tension between everyday life and the fantasies that circulate through it via mass media. Over time, the imagery I’ve used to convey that tension has gotten more mundane – less overtly monstrous, but with the same underlying sense of distress.

Presently, I’m fascinated with the idea of the false promise. The way that things appear when someone has promised more than they can deliver. I’m fascinated by attempts to satiate as many desires as possible at once, which can take a variety of forms in contemporary culture. About three years back, I started depicting shopping malls with this idea in mind – spaces that try to accommodate all of your material needs in one brick-and-mortar setting. In a sense, websites like Amazon have taken on this role even more effectively, which is probably one of the reasons why malls appear to be on the decline geographically. So I’m trying to fuse the language of online shopping with the language of retail architecture, while focusing on the degree to which both try to offer us everything at once.

Aesthetically, I’ve been turning to things like conspiracy organizations, religious cults, and psychedelia to establish the right mood. I can remember being a little kid and learning about aliens – the slender, wide-eyed creatures popularized in books like Communion by Whitley Strieber – and being really freaked out by them. On some level, there’s something exciting and unsettling that occurs when an explanation of our world begins to go off the rails. This brings me back to the idea of a false promise; the sense that some extraordinary explanation can remedy all of our anxieties at once. I think these explanations often feel and look a certain way. And I’m trying to make use of that feeling.

GC: Another facet of your work is repetition of images and themes. I think there are two aspects to this that interest me: 1.) The effect of the repetition on the themes of the work; 2.) The physical work that goes into creating some of these repetitions. Can you talk about how you achieve repetition in individual pieces and how you think that adds to your body of work?

DS: When I was in art school, I imagined that I’d be the kind of person who would always be trying new things in my work. That’s a great attitude to have in that setting because it keeps you open and flexible. But that hasn’t honestly been the way it’s turned out.

Coming up with iconography – imagery that is evocative enough to steer my work away from pure formalism, but not literal enough to devalue intuition – is probably my biggest challenge. I try to find visuals that convey a particular sense of place and establish a strong atmosphere, but that can also accommodate social critique to some degree. My work tends to begin with ideas more often than shapes or colors. And once I find images that work, I tend to stick with them for a long time and work with them in a variety of contexts. This can be tedious – a lot of my studio practice is pretty brainless, actually – but it also allows me to really invest in the vocabulary, which hopefully adds weight over time.

GC: As you can tell, I think your process is interesting (maybe because we used to be roommates, and I’ve seen you work). Can you talk about a course you took or a part of the craft of art that you find to be essential in your work, but you didn’t think much of at the time you were first learning it? 

DS: As an undergraduate, I absolutely loathed using gouache, mostly because it was required for my foundation design courses (which I never enjoyed). So it’s kind of funny that I use so much of it now. But the more substantive answer is probably the role that film has played in my understanding of art since my mid-twenties.

I definitely think more logically and methodically about film than painting, probably because I don’t make films myself. And since my late twenties, film has become increasingly important to the way I generate ideas, especially because my paintings often have a strange, non-committal relationship to narrative. More specifically, people like the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang and the British documentarian Adam Curtis have been highly influential to me in the ways that they assess contemporary culture. It helps that over the past fifteen years or so, an explosion of really interesting international cinema has become available.

Sometimes I think it’s easier for me to draw inspiration from recent movies than from other contemporary painters, because I can set myself apart more easily from the current trends of the art world. My grad program at UCSD was interdisciplinary, and I think I really benefitted from not being exclusively surrounded by other painters.

Typically, if I’m spending a lot of time thinking about something, it will eventually seep into my work. And sometimes the freshest ideas come when I’m not thinking about other painters.


Dan Schank’s exhibition, Open Arms, runs from Friday, April 7 to Saturday, May 6 in the YCP Gallery (formerly PAE) at Marketview Arts in downtown York (37 W Philadelphia St, 17401.) There will be a 
reception for the artist from 5-8pm on Friday, April 7. To see his work, visit danschank.com.

Diary, an exhibition of 29 paintings by Hartford, CT – based artist Matthew Best now on view at Marketview Arts

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#lonianderson by Matthew Best, 2014

Diary, an exhibition of 29 paintings made between 2014-2017, offers a glimpse of artist Matthew Best’s inner thoughts as his work has evolved over the last three years. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are greeted by the non-objective doppelgängers of Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. Titled #burtreynolds and #lonianderson respectively, the paintings, with clusters of layered triangles, represent their subjects mainly through color. The two are paired, as if in homage to their brief marriage that began while Best was in middle school and ended during his second year of college in the University of Hartford’s BFA program. Separated by Ambrosia, a larger work with similar characteristics to #lonianderson but with a wider range of color, and a comfortable distance from the drama of Burt and Loni sits #richardsimmons, a richly painted tribute to one of the artist’s favorite pop culture icons. Moving further into the space the work becomes more architectural before the invasion of election-year politics and the ominous cloud of demagoguery and fascism force their way into the artist’s psyche. Best’s response to the outcome of the election is captured by the one painting in the show that includes text. The work becomes heavier and more rigid. The imagery remains non-objective, but the titles give the viewer a sense of what the artist was feeling while making them, taking refuge in his Hartford, CT studio while trying to make sense of what was happening beyond those walls.

Diary runs from March 28 – May 6. There will be a closing reception on Friday, May 5 from 5 – 8pm.

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Final Painting of the Old Order
(detail) by Matthew Best, 2016

2017 Juried Student Exhibition List of Accepted Works

Selected Fine Art Entries (Juror: James Johnson)
Bridget Nalbone: Candid
Nick Fenn: Landscape Photo Mix
Jess Yardley: Farther from Reality
Jess Yardley: Headband
Richie Toth: Woman Portrait
Brie Dadich: Strangers’ Kids #4
Brie Dadich: Somewhere in Between
Brie Dadich: What You’ve Done to Me
Alexus DeBraganza: 1996
Alexus DeBraganza: Safari Tapestry
Amber Russell: Untitled 2
Alyssa Rankin: Untitled
Kala Enfield: Untitled I
Josh Weber: Winter Lights
Josh Weber: Life and Destruction (1 of 6)
Emily Maxwell: Mountain Scene
Maria Lenhard: Golden Ray
Darian Hoke: Flesh Study
Kristen Lee: Sea of Life
Leah Waldrop: Untitled I
Lexus Gore: Iron Peace
Heather Outwater: Equality
Rebecca Beall: Calligraphic Quote
Catherine Weaver: Gum
Colton Boyles: Woman in Chair 1A
Colton Boyles: Laundry at Midnight 2A
Noelle Becker: The Fallen
Tiara Perez: Fabric
Amber Wiesberg: Transparencies in Action
Christine Ognibene: Staying Warm
Christine Ognibene: Luna’s Sleep
Tiara Perez: Emotional
Samantha LoBue: Untitled
James O’Shea: Basket
Ivy Rodgers: Instinct
Ivy Rodgers: Topographical
Cheryl Migliarini: Landscape

Selected Graphic Design Entries (Juror: Jan Conradi)
Kristen Lee: Party Pooper
Chase Monico: The Wall
Emily Birra: Monster Alphabet
Ivy Rodgers: Netflix & Chill
Ivy Rodgers: Hold On
Douglas Shunk: Invent
Douglas Shunk: Random Eyes
Emily Maxwell: Literature Snob
Heather Outwater: Nested Native Package Design
Lauren Bupp: Penelope
Kirstyn Swancer: Dagger
Nick Labombarda: Thief
Anthony Romano: Garolfo
Rebecca Waugerman: Auldridge
Nick Gorbey: Access Granted
Lisa Courtney: Mac & Cheese
Rebecca Beall: Pedagogy & Other Terminology
Morgan Barnett: The Leaflet
Morgan Barnett: The Tagline
Christine Ognibene: Wiki Reader
Kristen Lee: Smiles
Rebecca Beall: Just Go
Nick Gorbey: Chit Chat
Heather Outwater: Day 1 of Closeness
Lexus Gore: Red Velvet & Blueberry Tarts
Josh Weber: Provoking
Josh Weber: Rise
Bridget Nalbone: Bees on Repeat
Lisa Courtney: The Cure to Stupidity
Christian Betancourt: Vote
Kerrie DeFelice: This is not U.S.

Hank Willis Thomas lecture rescheduled for Thursday, February 16 at 5:30 PM

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Visiting artist Hank Willis Thomas is snowed in at his studio in Brooklyn so his lecture has been postponed to next Thursday. The lecture will begin at 5:30 PM on February 16 with a reception following at 6:30 PM. If you have any questions, please contact gallery director Matthew Clay-Robison at mclayrob@ycp.edu

Lecture: Hank Willis Thomas – Artists Should Work in Society’s Subconscious

Unbranded: A Century of White Women

hwt15-038_1951-hr72dpiShe’s all tied up … in a poor system 1951/2015, Hank Willis Thomas, 2015, chromogenic print 

In anthropology we discuss how culture can be social comfort because it teaches us how to survive in the world and how to live a good life. From early childhood, we learn about acceptable behaviors, collective values, and our heritage by interacting with the people around us. We also learn about material culture, which is the physical stuff a society produces like clothing, tools, buildings, toys, and art. Cultures also have non-material culture, and these are the nonphysical, the ideas, symbols, values, behaviors, languages and abstractions that shape our cultures and societies. All societies have material and non-material culture and it is the material, physical culture that is the manifestation of the non-material. For example, a country’s flag is material culture. It’s just a piece of cloth we produce. But it also represents the non-material part of that culture because it is a symbol of that country’s history and values. Art, visual media, and advertisements are also a significant part of our material culture and they too give us a clue into deciphering our nonmaterial culture.

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In a globalizing world, we have come to rely heavily on the material culture of images, rather than written texts, to teach us about our world.  Visual advertising has become a powerful educator in shaping culture because it is more than just selling a product. Advertising sells an idea or a value and in doing so enculturates us, or in other words, teaches us how to be “right” or “normal” in that given culture. The people in advertisements are conventionally attractive and happy-looking, and we might think, perhaps subconsciously or perhaps not, that by emulating them, or by buying the product they are selling that we too can be attractive and happy. Yet, this becomes problematic when the images used to sell the product use harmful stereotypes that reaffirm prescribed ideas about gender and race, leading to conformity and systemic bigotry and injustice.  We can learn a lot about a culture from analyzing its advertisements and deducing what the nonmaterial culture or values are.

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Hank Willis Thomas’ Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015 is an excellent exercise in understanding how the media and advertising can perpetuate perceived social roles and patriarchal values in our culture. In this series, Thomas has taken advertising depictions of white women from the last 100 years and removed text and logos. When you view the images stripped of their context, pay special attention to your own reaction. Do you appreciate what you see or does it make you uncomfortable? Considering the year the image was originally made, do the implications of what you see suggest progress or regression for women in America? Question your reaction. What part of your culture helped you form it? You might also want to consider what your culture has taught you about power, beauty, gender, sexuality, constructing whiteness, and race when viewing this exhibition.

Shelly Clay-Robison teaches anthropology and conflict transformation at York College of Pennsylvania. She researches and writes on how the arts can be used as a tool for progressive social change. Read more of her work at artandconflict.com

Normalizing Rape: “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Donald Trump, and Brock Turner

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By Shelly Clay-Robison

 
Sitting alone in a dark gallery, watching In Her Own Words, is an uncomfortable, discordant, and profoundly emotional experience. This video and accompanying sound art piece constitute Baltimore-based artist Paul Rucker’s exhibition 20 minutes of action in 20 yeas of life, which explores campus sexual assault and the voice of a victim, referring specifically to the Brock Turner case at Stanford University.

The piece, on view in York College’s Brossman Gallery from November 28 – December 20, invites viewers to read the victim-impact letter composed by the victim of Brock Turner’s sexual assault. The text of the letter initially appears at the bottom of the projection and then gently floats upward, like embers in a slowly building fire. But the viewer must stay focused and read quickly, as line by line, the text dissipates to the top, ultimately re-joining to create a final image of Brock Turner’s mug shot.  You must stay present and alert if you want to read the text before it disappears. And you must focus and be patient to witness the powerful conclusion. Too often, in discussions of rape, we want to turn away instead.

In 2015, Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was convicted and faced a possible 14 years in prison for his crimes. Yet Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to only 6 months of prison while the news media continued to focus on Turner’s prowess as a competitive swimmer at a top-notch school. Many were outraged by the pitiful length of the sentence and news coverage, seeing them as another contribution to a culture of rape and normalization of violence against women.

Recently, while holiday shopping in a cozy shop full of handmade goods, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” came on the radio. This popular winter holiday song was written in 1944 and has come under criticism in recent years for its lyrics that suggest unrelenting pressure for the woman in the duet to stay overnight at the home of the male singer despite her consistent refusal. It might be “just a song,” but it’s a part of our culture and culture teaches us what is right and wrong. This kind of culture is also bolstered when people like U.S. Representative Todd Akin discusses rape as something “God intended to happen,” or uses terms like “legitimate rape,” to suggest that some sexual assault was desired. There is popular music with men singing to women, “you know you want it,” or “Couple more shots you open up like a book,” suggesting that woman are responsible for being rape victims.  And then there is the President-elect Donald Trump who says things about women like, “You have to treat them like shit,” or “You can grab them by the pussy…You can do anything.”

These examples are what contribute to a culture of rape. Rape culture is the expressions, norms, and behaviors associated with how we collectively consider rape and sexual assault. It involves victim blaming, slut-shaming, trivializing rape allegations, and sexual objectification. What compounds the problem is that media, politicians, and music normalize these behaviors and thus makes them acceptable. But rape is uncomfortable to talk about and we’d rather sanitize it by calling it “sexual misconduct.” Rucker’s video encourages us to sit with the discomfort and the painful truth. If we want to change this culture, we must be willing to unveil and focus on the misogynistic elements of culture and not discount rape as just “20 minutes of action.”

 

Shelly Clay-Robison is an adjunct lecturer at York College of Pennsylvania where she teaches international conflict analysis and resolution and anthropology.  She also researches and writes on how the arts can be used as a tool for progressive social change.

 

 

Art Amidst Conflict: Belfast, Beirut, and Baltimore (Panel Discussion featuring Rita Duffy, Helen Zughaib and Joyce J. Scott)

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“Art Amidst Conflict: Belfast, Beirut, and Baltimore,” the second annual Perspectives on Peace Discussion, will feature artists  Rita Duffy, Helen Zughaib, and Joyce J. Scott (2016 MacArthur Fellow/”Genius Grant” winner) in DeMeester Recital Hall on Thursday, November 10 at 5:30pm. YCP professor and conflict transformation professional Shelly Clay-Robison will moderate the discussion, which will delve into how growing up in their home cities of Beirut, Belfast, and Baltimore during periods of conflict influenced the artists’ work and their interest in seeking justice and promoting peace. A reception will follow the discussion and attendees are encouraged to visit Helen Zughaib’s gorgeous exhibition, “Arab Spring (Unfinished Journeys,)” in the York College Galleries.
For more information about the event please visit the Facebook event page:

https://www.facebook.com/events/594355924083271/

 

To learn more about the artists:

Helen Zughaib: http://www.hzughaib.com/

Joyce Scott: https://www.macfound.org/fellows/971/

Rita Duffy: http://ritaduffystudio.com/

Refuge(e): Discussing art and humanity with Helen Zughaib

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MCR: Helen, you were born in Beirut, Lebanon. What are your recollections of living there as a child and the circumstances under which you had to leave?

HZ: Yes, I was born in Beirut in 1959. I attended school until we were evacuated the first time in 1967 during the six day war. We left on the ship USS Independence. I remember our nighttime departure, sleeping on the floor in the flat of friends, on the campus of the American University of Beirut, then taking a bus to continue our journey. Up until that first evacuation, I recall fondly my early years in Lebanon. We spent a lot of time with our many relatives and extended family there, going to the beach, swimming in the beautiful sea, and going up to the mountains when it got too hot in the city. These are times I am sure we all thought would never end. We came to America for about two years and then left again for Kuwait and then Lebanon once again. Older at this point and in high school, it seemed we quickly resumed our lives in all the normal ways; relatives, friends, trips to the beach and the mountains. This wonderful life lasted until September of 1975, when things began to change for Lebanon and our family. School was increasingly infrequent due to what everyone referred to as the “troubles.” A bomb here, an assassination there, limited street travel, checkpoints cropping up between East and West Beirut and ultimately a curfew was imposed over the city. The division between the two parts of the city ultimately became known as the “green line.” The West being the Muslim side and East the Christian side. We lived in the West side. My father continued to go to work, though our school had closed its doors due to the escalating troubles. Soon we were sleeping on the floors of our flat, unable to look out the windows even, for fear of possible snipers. Ultimately, my mother, two sisters and I were evacuated to Athens, Greece. We had to leave my father in Beirut which was devastating. I can still remember very clearly the day we left. Left my father and Beirut, thinking we would return in a week. The “Civil War” had started and did not end until the early 90’s. I did not return for another thirty-five years.

MCR: What a heartbreaking story and one that is being experienced by so many refugees today. How long was it before you were reunited with your father and what was it like to return to Beirut after thirty-five years?

HZ:  So heartbreaking, and we were some of the lucky people who were able to leave and start new lives. That alone is difficult, to start over, but for the people unable to leave, this is a tragedy. We had it better than many others.  It was several months before my father came to live with us. And remember at that time there was no email, rarely a phone line to Beirut, only a periodic telex for rare communications. It was a painful and hard time for my mother and sisters and me. Even to recall these times now as I write to you is very sad.

When I did finally return to Beirut after thirty-five years, it was for me, a dream coming true. How often can we truly say that we have had a real dream coming true? But for me it was! Both my parents and husband came as well. To be back in Beirut with my father was a circle that had finally closed. It was so important to me that he be there with me upon my first return.  I had been invited for a solo exhibition, which was a happy success and by all accounts, I was welcomed warmly by my beloved Beirut!

Driving around Beirut and the environs, you can see vestiges of war-ravaged buildings still, including the walls of my aunt’s home where we stayed mostly; shrapnel and bullet holes in the thick outer walls of their home. In spite of many damaged buildings and homes, there was much rebuilding and vibrancy in the city and the Lebanese really live in the moment. The sea is as beautiful as ever, though sadly much more polluted. We went up to the mountains to the family home in Zahle, that overlooked the vineyards and olive trees, to have a very large lunch with many of my relatives. At that meal, with much of my family gathered around, I tried to express my happiness to them to be there once again, only to end up being overcome by tears

MCR: Your extended family includes both Christians and Muslims, right? Did the civil war affect family relationships?

HZ: Everyone had their opinions with regards to the civil war; who was to blame, what to do about it and how to solve it. But no, it did not affect family relationships.

MCR: I asked because so many families are divided by politics, let alone religion, and I wondered if the violence exacerbated that or if in those moments a family might be more likely to cling to and support one another. Stepping back to the meal in Zahle, did the overwhelming emotion you felt leave you questioning where you belong? You’ve built a very successful life in Washington, D.C. and I wonder if it feels like home or if there is a part of you that feels pulled back to Lebanon.

HZ:  I can easily recall that day, that meal, my feelings at lunch, overlooking the mountains in Zahle. I felt a welcoming I had not felt in a long time. A “coming home” to people who had patiently waited for me, though I never had any idea that they were waiting. Waiting to see me, my parents and meet my American husband. Never asking why we had not returned years earlier, no reproach, just that acceptance a family has when one has been gone a long time. A happiness, a relief of sorts and the inevitable question, when are you coming back? That day evoked plenty of conflicting emotions in me and, as you ask, where do I belong? At this point, I have lived longer in DC than any other country so far! That question has haunted me my whole life. I have struggled to reconcile that conflict in much of my work, and continue to do so until today. I am not sure I have an answer or that there will come a day when I feel completely accepted and at home, either here in America or in Lebanon. This very push and pull of emotions and identity find their way into most everything I do. Perhaps I should accept these very feelings, relish them and indulge in them.

MCR: I imagine that push and pull, feeling both part of and apart from two cultures simultaneously, motivates your desire to be a bridge in your work between Arab and American cultures. The desire to bring understanding between these two worlds you feel connected to must be important to you on both a personal level as well as a global level.

HZ: Yes, it is a simultaneous feeling of belonging to both cultures, yet being apart from them. It creates a duality, a sort of displacement if you will, that feels as if it should all be combined, forced into the toothpaste tube to come out whole. So what are we left with? A determination to make oneself understood by both cultures. A determination to create understanding by both cultures. And most definitely a determination to create acceptance, both for me and for my work as an artist, working on a larger global scale as you suggest. That bridge that carries us to both the East and the West, we all walk on. The realization that in fact, we are all more similar than not.

MCR: To communicate that we are more alike than not is a simple, yet beautiful and admirable goal. Acts of violence are much easier to commit without this understanding. Several years ago one of my students, who was in the National Guard, left school to fight in the Iraq War. When he returned I showed him how artists like Otto Dix dealt with their haunting experiences through art. His response pained me. He said he wasn’t haunted by what he saw because the people he fought weren’t like us; that we are good and civilized and they are evil and uncivilized. Do you feel like you are pushing a boulder up a hill with your work? How do you maintain your optimism in the face of so much xenophobia and violence in the world?

HZ: That is a very painful and tragic story you recount of your former student. I am not even sure how to respond to that sad declaration, except to say perhaps he had to see the people he fought against as evil and uncivilized to justify his actions. Perhaps it is the same with all wars, but as an artist this is exactly the sentiment I try to reframe in my work. To tell the story behind those people, to declare through my paintings, we are indeed civilized and just like you, viewer. We have families we love, children we want to feed and educate and care for. We are indeed more alike than not. But yes, as you say, it is a constant battle to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, with many setbacks, misunderstandings and stereotyping along the way. It is sometimes hard to find the cracks that let light shine through to find common ground and understanding. But these very moments, these glimmers of hope, keep me engaged as an artist in this struggle. And to lose hope, we end up with nothing, so that is not an option for me.

MCR: I saw a glimmer of hope in the nearly universal reaction to the now famous video of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year old boy in Aleppo, sitting in an ambulance dazed and alone. His vulnerability and innocence connected with people in a way that transcended politics and religion, but sadly it only held our attention for a brief period. I just read that more than 100 children have been killed in airstrikes in Aleppo this week alone. As an artist, how do you deal with the contemporary attention span? How do you cut through the clutter of our increasingly visual world to make something that strikes at the core of our shared humanity the way that video briefly did?

HZ: Yes, the brief moments of universal hope for the ongoing tragedy of the war in Syria and its smallest and most innocent victims, seemed to be captured by yet another earlier image of the little boy washed up on the beach in September of 2015, and more recently little Omran in the ambulance. I had been painting that very summer of 2015, small children’s shoes in bright colors and patterns, expressing that beauty, hope and optimism of a child. With these shoes, I am hoping someone will try to imagine their own children in this situation. How would they react? Would they just turn the page of the newspaper and go on with their lives as usual? In another installation, I have used newspapers and headlines from the past 5 or six years, images of the war, refugees, including those two little boys, on china plates. As we “eat” they stare at us as with each forkful we put into our mouths demanding we not forget. With the huge numbers of refugees, the thousands of people killed and displaced, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the tragedy, so that by focusing on something like a child’s shoe, I try to create an intimacy, that small sliver of recognition, and the ability to relate to that one small child in empathy and compassion.

MCR: We need that so desperately right now. There is a rising wave of xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism around the world and we have seen it take hold rather shockingly here in the United States. As one who is both a citizen and participant in our culture but also has the perspective of an outsider or observer, what is your take on this moment? Do you feel the culture changing or might this be a temporary reaction to the heightened drama of election year politics?

HZ: We absolutely do need that now and more than ever I would say. This wave of xenophobia, particularly anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment, was very prevalent as well, after the tragic events of 9/11. I felt them personally. Again, I reacted to those events with my painting, Prayer Rug for America, a limited edition print of which is now in the York College collection. I also began a series of paintings based on my father’s early childhood and young adulthood in Lebanon and Damascus, before immigrating to the United States. These paintings and corresponding true stories about his life, family and village traditions hang beside each painting so the viewer can read about this part of the world and see that once again, we are more similar than not. After 9/11, I also felt that along with the extremism and anti-Arab American sentiment, there was simultaneously a desire for the West to try to understand the Arabs, Islam, the Middle East and its people. I felt this was a positive step towards mutual understanding between East and West. Today, with the great numbers of people forced to leave their homes and countries, mostly for their own safety and that of their families, this huge influx of people in such a short time arriving in Europe, Canada and the United States, has unfortunately created suspicion and mistrust amongst the host countries. I assure you, the vast majority of these people would rather have remained in their own homes and countries. The xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism being stirred up by various politicians and groups negates the underlying values and ideas this very country was founded on and prior to this newest wave of desperate people, there have been others before, coming to our shores seeking safety and peace. It is ironic to me to watch this happen to people who did not ask for a war. They want peace, shelter, education, just like anyone else. My hope is that the more reasonable voices around the world and here, in the United States, will prevail.

MCR: Do you find that installation as a medium allows you to engage your audience’s capacity for empathy and compassion more powerfully than other mediums you enjoy, such as painting and drawing?

HZ: It is strange because I do not think of myself as an installation or mixed media artist, though over the course of the past six years (the beginning of the revolutions and uprisings, “Arab Spring”) more and more, it seems to me that with certain stories, the best way to accomplish that story I want to tell, is by installation. When I think of the story I want to tell, it sometimes comes out “better” as an installation as opposed to a painting. I always weigh these possibilities; painting, photograph, installation, and after many hours of thinking, it seems to me, the right, best way, shows itself to me. It does not always work the way I envisioned or how I “saw” it in my mind, but the gist is there and that is what I am going after and what I am hoping the viewer will see and internalize. And honestly, sometimes the painting will not accomplish what I want you to see or hear. Sometimes it is even a piece of music. I am scrambling, searching, wondering, “How can I make you feel like I feel. How can I make you feel my pain?  My hopes and dreams?” This is a lofty goal and I am trying to reach it whatever way I can; painting, installation, photography. It is all ultimately about you, the viewer, stepping into another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, feeling what we are feeling, deep down, knowing there is not much difference between us. That is what I want. As I said, a lofty goal….

MCR: I am interested in what you said about selecting the right medium based on the feeling or message you need to communicate. So often we artists become comfortable, even masterful, at a particular medium and are then unwilling to sacrifice that comfort or mastery for the good of the work. I admire your willingness to experiment with such a range of media to convey your thoughts and feelings. You have even added video to this exhibition which I believe is a first for you.  You also experiment quite a bit with style to alternate between messages that are quite personal and express sadness to those that emphasize hope and beauty and even several that are quite funny and a bit sarcastic. In shifting between style and medium you seem to be guiding your viewers through the complex web of emotions in the exhibition. Is that accurate and if so, how do you balance a desire for clarity with a desire for subtlety?

HZ: Another great question, Matt, thank you. Yes, I absolutely agree with you that artists many times become complacent in our chosen medium, and are wary of stepping out of that niche especially if we have become “known” for that particular medium or style of work. For me, this is precisely what I feel with this newer body of work, but I am also compelled to keep the experiment going if I feel that is the best way to tell the story. I do feel I have stepped out of my comfort box, but on the other hand, focusing on the issues before us, war, migration, displacement, death, destruction, I say to myself, “Go ahead, this bit of anxiety is nothing compared to those horrors.” And if I for a single tiny moment I am successful in having my viewer put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I am successful. So that keeps me going. I think I always am a painter first, but will not limit myself to that medium if I feel I can tell my story in another way that cuts deeper.

As the Arab Spring wore on, my work became larger, perhaps because the problems and sadness was so overwhelming and huge. My work is composed of multiples or pieces, and as the Arab Spring fractured in the ensuing years, after that initial hope and optimism, my work also began fracturing. Pieces of Chiclets gum which the small refugee children sold on the streets late into the night to help support their families, the beautiful birds in cages desperately seeking to escape, the pieces of tiles, broken, reflecting damaged and destroyed homes, lives shattered, windows once whole now broken, pieces removed. Images of beauty, now ravaged.

On the other hand, these installations are still created with much detail like many of my paintings. There are tiny brass tacks, tiles both ceramic and wood that I have painted in detail, pompoms and shiny beads, colorful flowers, all innocent play things a child might use, I use on my Refuge(e) tent. This intimacy in detail brings you into their world, to focus on the smallest detail, in hopes of understanding their plight and desperation.

And my video, yes a first for me!!! This show will be the first time the video and installations will be seen. The video, Wish, is very simple; A young boy tossing a penny into the bubbling fountain, the joy of momentary pleasure to express his wish for anything in the world. To make a wish and hope it comes true is a simple universal desire. As we were shooting our video, Amy Joseph, my collaborator, and I stood by and watched as child after child, old, young, stood at the fountain and threw their coin in to make their wish. We also spoke to a tourist couple. The woman was pregnant, and as she stood by, her husband tossed in his coin. We asked what he had wished for. He said very simply to have a healthy baby.

Also as you say, Matt, there is still beauty and humor in the work as well. Yet another “subversive” tactic I use to draw you in! You see the beauty, pattern, color, or even laugh at the irony of some of my work, but by then, you are also able to hear my story…

MCR: And when your audience hears your story, what do you hope remains with them?

HZ: Well, I hope that the work in this exhibit shines a light on a civilized, educated people, forced to leave their beautiful homes, their livelihoods, their families. To focus on the smallest victims. to create an empathy for people who are looked upon as “the other” and to show the beauty of their lives.

MCR: You are providing an antidote to the effects of hateful rhetoric that we’ve heard this election cycle. There is a video on YouTube that has been viewed more than 5 million times and it features images spliced together of refugees and fairly random, often irrelevant acts of violence with a voice over of Donald Trump reading the lyrics to the song “The Snake,” based on the Aesop Fable “The Farmer and the Viper.” The video communicates the idea that it is inevitable that refugees will attack their host country because it is in their very nature to attack. Sadly, many in my community believe this. They think that refugees represent the greatest threat to our collective safety. Meanwhile, the first six of America’s 2016 Nobel Laureates are immigrants. The story you are telling is the true story, but the competing false narrative is powerful because it preys on our fear. Do you feel the pressure of not only telling a compelling story to combat this fear but also representing yourself as an example of what not to fear?

HZ: I do not get it. In my new installation, Hope Chest, I show my father’s high school diploma from Sidon in Lebanon. This document was kept in the steel tube shown in the photo beside his diploma. That steel tube was carried by my Teta, my grandmother, through both voluntary and forced departures over the many years. My father ultimately immigrated to this country in 1946, shown by my painting, Coming to America, and received his PhD from Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and was a Senior Fulbright Scholar before joining the Foreign Service. He served THIS country!!! And of course his story is not unusual. There are millions of stories like his. And as you said, Matt, six of the  2016 Nobel Prizes were awarded to immigrants!!! I am so proud of my father, my heritage, and I know so many others who have come to this country to contribute their talents and education. They have added to this country, not taken anything away from anyone.

I am not sure I answered your question directly. It is easier to act out in frustration and anger, but I would say that is exactly why I continue to do my work. That is my way of fighting back against negativity and xenophobia.

MCR: In your gallery talk you mentioned, and I am using my own words here, that your work is focused on humanitarian concerns that transcend political parties and that you’re not interested in preaching politics, but rather expressing the oneness of humanity. Listening to that I realized that my last question was probably difficult to answer because I named a polarizing figure who is also a major candidate for the presidency. You deftly avoided being pulled into the political aspect of the question while still making your point strongly and I think that is an impressive trait in both your personality and in your work. You are teaching humanity without preaching politics. Your work functions as visual diplomacy, which explains in part why it has become a popular gift exchanged between world leaders. I know this is tough because you are so humble, but will you please name some of the leaders who have given and received your work as gifts and also discuss your role as a State Department Cultural Envoy?

HZ:  Yes, you are absolutely right. I truly want to emphasize the humanitarian concerns, as opposed to one particular political point of view.  I think it is easy to land on one side or the other of many an issue, the harder path is the murky grey area in between that has fuzzy and asymmetrical borders. That is the part I am after, though I am not saying that is easy.  But the moments of mutual understanding or at least respect for one another, after creating that dialogue, is most rewarding.  I have experienced those very moments, those small moments, where a relationship or dialogue I have had with someone, is able to effect change or at least begin to chip away at a previously held stereotype.  That tiny step of recognition or understanding is so much more powerful than military might.  And of course there is the amazing program in the State Department, known as Art in Embassies, a program begun by John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is a curated program that loans artwork by American artists, to our US Ambassadors and embassies, all over the world as a further arm of diplomacy. I have been honored to have had my work placed in the Sultanate of Brunei, Nicaragua, US NATO Mission in Brussels, Mauritius, Baghdad, Iraq and our US Ambassador’s residence in Beirut, Lebanon.

Ok, I will name names!! Former President George W. Bush was given one of my pieces, an official gift of Lebanon, by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri at the White House. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave one of my pieces to the King of Morocco, and President Obama gave one of my pieces to Nouri al-Maliki, then Prime Minister of Iraq.

MCR:  Wow, that is impressive. Thank you very much for your time, Helen, and for sharing your work and your insights. Please be safe during your trip to Saudi Arabia. I look forward to hearing about it when you return for the panel discussion on November 10.

 

 

Jefferson Pinder’s “Dark Matter,” which debuted in York, ends its run

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Chicago-based contemporary artist Jefferson Pinder debuted his performance Dark Matter during November 2014’s First Friday in Downtown York. The performance has since traveled to several prestigious venues, including the Phillips Collection, David C. Driskell Center, Reginald Lewis Museum and Prizm Art Fair in Miami. Pinder is retiring the performance to move on to other projects, but has made video available of the various performances, with the original in York given top billing. Check it out: http://www.jeffersonpinder.com/dark-matter

 

Left: Matthew Clay-Robison (YCP Gallery Director,)  Right: Jefferson Pindermcr-and-jp

York College to host exhibition honoring Louis Appell throughout October

 

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YORK, Pa. – York College’s Center for Community Engagement and Division of Art will host “The Art of Giving: Honoring the Legacy of Louis J. Appell, Jr.” from October 6 -26. The public opening for the exhibit is First Friday, Oct. 7. The exhibit is free and open to the public, and will be held in the Gallery Hall exhibit space on the third floor of York College’s downtown Marketview Arts facility at 37 West Philadelphia Street.

The exhibit honors perhaps the single most important patron of the arts in York, Louis Appell, Jr. Appell has supported countless artists, arts organizations, and arts efforts for decades. He was also one of the driving forces behind the acquisition of what is now Marketview Arts and its development into a space dedicated to fostering the advancement of the arts and artists in York, making it especially appropriate that this show is hosted at this location.

Dominic DelliCarpini, dean of the Center for Community Engagement (which operates this downtown facility), noted his commitment to “honoring the legacy of Mr. Appell not only with this show, which features many of the artists that have been supported by Mr. Appell, but also continuing the agenda that Mr. Appell worked tirelessly toward — making York and its arts district a vibrant hub of activity.”

The show was planned, curated, and executed by York artist Carol Oldenburg and Matthew Clay-Robison, director of York College Galleries, with the help and support of Appell’s wife, Jody. They sought to create a show that Appell himself would have enjoyed, bringing together works by artists with a wide range of styles, but who had all caught the eye of this generous patron of the arts.

“The title of the exhibition, “The Art of Giving,” represents both Mr. Appell’s visionary philanthropy and the work made by artists he has supported,” said Clay-Robison. “This exhibition demonstrates Mr. Appell’s patronage for artists in various stages of their careers and the incredible impact his patronage made on the vitality of York’s art scene.”

“Over the past 25 years I have been honored and delighted to work on a number of projects for the Appells, said Oldenburg. “Each has been a unique challenge to my creativity in bringing Louis vision to fruition. Driving into Millbourne always leaves me with the feeling that I am the luckiest artist in the world to get to work amidst such beauty.”

Artists whose work will be displayed include Helen Appell, Glenn Blue, Rob Evans, Lorann Jacobs, Cliff Maier, Nena Norton, Oldenburg, Polly Stetler, and Brenda Wintermyer. The show will also feature work by Cody Bannon, Anya Felch, Kree Wiede, Rita Whitney, and Dillon Samuelson, York College graduates and recipients of the prestigious Appell Arts Fellowship.

 

A private college located in southcentral Pennsylvania, York College offers more than 50 baccalaureate majors in professional programs, the sciences and humanities to its 4,400 undergraduate students. The College also offers master’s programs in business, education and nursing, and a doctorate in nursing practice. York College students enjoy a high-quality education that emphasizes practical application and a community invested in their success. The College provides a personal plan to help students focus their passions and attain their goals so they are prepared for a lifetime of meaningful careers – ready to meet the challenges of their profession and feeling confident and proud of their achievements.