Behind the Beauty of New Contemporary Artworks
By Sydney Slacas, Curatorial Intern in Contemporary Art
The contemporary art galleries at the CMA host a rich body of work that challenges viewers to conceptualize diverse ways of representing the figure, visualizing the world around us, and exploring the vast possibilities of abstraction. The collection will continue to spark conversation with several new works rotating into view. While the new works of art fit seamlessly into the gallery’s themes of the figure, found objects, and living abstraction, another theme emerges as the objects enter newly into dialogue with one another: connections. Let’s dive into a few of the new works now on view in the contemporary art galleries.
The most anticipated addition in this new rotation is Bang — a painting by Kerry James Marshall that makes a visual and literal statement — which has made its way to the museum through a generous loan. Marshall is considered a giant in the art world, specializing in large-scale history paintings. Through Bang, Marshall makes a connection with and reference to the inception of our nation through the fight for the abolition of slavery. The artwork is one that challenges Western systems of portraiture and the foundation of history painting itself, which prioritized white sitters.
Upon a first encounter with Bang, the overt sense of patriotism that emanates from the work may be striking. Three young Black children stand in a backyard on the Fourth of July, holding and saluting an American flag. Clouds float underneath near the bottom edge of the painting overlaid with text that reads “HAPPY JULY 4TH BANG” accompanied by a banner with the phrase “WE ARE ONE.” Surrounding the figures is a typical suburban landscape, complete with a smoking grill, a garden hose coiling across the grass, and white picket fences. However, the children’s faces lack expression, calling into question the nature of their festivities and how they perceive the holiday.
“We tend to assume there is one history of America: the mythical, heroic narrative of an all-inclusive, grand project that had at its inception the goal of embracing differences and treating all as equal. If we allow ourselves to be lost in this mythology, we overlook the more disturbing, less humane dimensions of our history,” Marshall says. His words echo Fredrick Douglass’s address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in July of 1852. This address came to be known commonly as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. Douglass writes, “I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!…Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
The children in Bang seem to understand the dark connotations of the holiday and recognize that their freedom is not quite the same as the idealized narrative with which most Americans are familiar.
Moving through the galleries, the mediums of the artworks shift from traditional painting and sculpture to more unconventional materials.
In the “Living Abstraction” gallery (229C), undulating patterns of blue, green, and yellow braided wires hammered into a series of panels make up Elias Sime’s Tightrope: Behind the Beauty. This work came to the museum as a generous loan from a local private collection. Sime creates his elaborate compositions with reclaimed electronic parts such as computer keys, circuit boards, and other technology.
Connection is a central theme to Sime’s work — connection both to the electronics he repurposes and also to their former owner. In his own words, Sime shares, “The only thing I think about when I pick up [a cell phone], for instance, is the excitement of the [owner] the first time they got it, the hope they felt about the future, the eagerness to use it. That for me is what love is all about, to realize that we are all connected and that human contact, that touch is created in every object we take for granted.”
The artist also points to the detrimental effect that technology has on the environment. While praising the connection technology provides for the world, Sime’s work also calls attention to the amount of waste caused by the technology boom and leads the viewer to compare the costs and benefits of such connection.
In the same section of the gallery, Untitled Noren Partition (23) by Rowland Ricketts presents contemporary textiles using techniques that Japanese indigo workers perfected over centuries. Ricketts trained in indigo farming and dyeing in Japan and continues to grow, harvest, and process all his indigo by hand. Ricketts favors systems of slow making over purchasing modern indigo dyes that are made with harsh, unstable chemicals.
This artwork is an example of a doorway curtain, or noren, that first appeared in Japan during the Heian period (794–1185). These colorful curtains often adorn the outside of shops and buildings throughout Japan and, with their designs, signify to the customer what types of goods or services are inside.
Ricketts subverts the use of noren as an object that separates spaces by using his weaving and dyeing process to connect himself and his viewers to thousands of years of traditional Japanese crafting. According to the artist, “My own experiences with indigo…have made me aware of a connection that leads not just from my teachers’ to me, but one that reaches back to my teacher’s teachers and the people they learned from, back into a past in which the processes I use were developed through the accumulated experiences of all who have ever worked with this unique dye.”
The three works explored above are just a few of many challenging and dynamic examples found in the CMA’s contemporary art collection, which can be seen in person and in Collection Online. Are you ready to make a connection with artworks? Be sure to visit the contemporary art galleries during your next trip to the museum to view this recent gallery rotation.
Sydney Slacas is a third-year MA student in the art history and museum studies program as well as a fourth-year JD student at the CWRU School of Law. She earned a BA in painting and drawing with a minor in art history from the South Carolina School of the Arts.
 The term “history painting” refers to a genre of painting that focuses on mythology, classical history, historic events, or scenes from the Bible.
 “When Kerry James Marshall Painted the 4th of July,” Phaidon, accessed February 22, 2022, https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2017/july/04/when-kerry-james-marshall-painted-the-4th-of-july/.
 Frederick Douglass. “”What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?””. Speech, July 5, 1852. From Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/ (accessed April 8, 2022).
 Tracy L. Adler, Elias Sime (Munich: DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2019), 66.
 “Rowland Ricketts — Artist Statement,” Ricketts Indigo, accessed February 22, 2022, http://www.rickettsindigo.com/rowland-ricketts-artist-statement/.
 “Rowland Ricketts — Artist Statement.”
 J.J. O’Donoghue, “Curtain Call: Examining the Evolution of Japan’s Humble ‘Noren,’” in Japan Times, January 14, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2017/01/14/style/curtain-call-examining-evolution-japans-humble-noren/.
 O’Donoghue, “Curtain Call.”
 “Rowland Ricketts — Artist Statement.”