Two Stamps exhibitions explore the intersection of the political and the personal

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Celebrate People's History posters at Stamps Gallery

Two complementary exhibitions at Stamps Gallery engage in themes of social and political progress through photography and graphic design.

Celebrate People’s History posters, a project organized by Josh MacPhee since 1998, is “rooted in the do-it-yourself tradition of mass-produced and distributed political propaganda,” according to the Stamps website. Furthermore, “in dark times, it’s rare that a political poster is celebratory, and when it is, it almost always focuses on a small canon of male individuals: MLK, Gandhi, Che, or Mandela.”

MacPhee’s approach was not to “create another exclusive set of heroes,” but to “generate a diverse set of posters that bring to life successful moments in the history of social justice struggles.” To accomplish this, MacPhee engaged with artists and designers, asking them to create a series of posters, which are told from the perspective of the artists. These are “stories of underdogs” and provide a new platform for “those written out of history.” The posters are a collective project.

The project, running for the past 20 years, has produced an enormous amount of posters, which the Stamps Gallery estimates to be about 300,000. These were designed by over 100 artists, are comprised of over 115 designs, and have been publicized by thousands of citizens helping distribute them.

The politically inspired posters are arranged in a colorful display, which seems to cheerfully greet the gallery visitor in the lobby. The exhibit extends into the large gallery space facing Division Street. The posters are placed against a bright orange backdrop, emphasizing the works further with the pop of color. In addition to the posters hanging on the wall, visitors can browse through gallery copies of Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution, which features a forward by Rebecca Solnit and color reproductions of posters from the project.

Further back in the gallery is an exhibition of works by Suzy Lake. Described by Stamps Gallery as a “pioneer of the feminist art movement,” Lake is “one of the first artists in Canada to combine performance, video, and photography in order to examine the politics of gender, the body, and identity.” Her work can be situated in the tradition of photo-journalism, self-portraiture, and documentary photography. The photographs critique the male gaze, “constructions of femininity,” and have had a “lasting impact on the discourse and narratives of performance photography.”

Those unfamiliar with Lake’s impact on performance photography might be inclined to think that her photography was a response to works by artists such as Cindy Sherman. But Stamps' write-up points out that it is her work that is cited as influencing artists Cindy Sherman, Martha Wilson, and Mary Beth Edelson.

Lake grew up in Detroit and attended Wayne State University from 1966-1969. But she moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and has “remained in the periphery of the art world," according to the gallery's text.

But in the past decade, Lake's work has been featured in high-profile exhibitions such as the 2005 Venice Biennale, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (LA MOCA and tour, 2007-2008), Global Feminisms (Brooklyn Museum, 2007), and Introducing Suzy Lake (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2014).

The Stamps exhibition, curated by director Srimoyee Mitra, combines two of Lake's most well-known bodies of work: Performing an Archive (2013-14) and Extended Breathing.

Performing an Archive explores the shifting terrain of Detroit and includes herself in the photographs. In this series, Lake wears a nurse outfit and consistently turns her back away from the audience. As astutely observed on the Stamps' website: “In Performing an Archive, Lake draws parallels between the cycles of life-death-birth of generations of family members with the cycles of urban decline and rejuvenation in Detroit.” Many of the sites she visits are places that were part of her “family archive,” places that have since changed dramatically along with the cityscape she once knew.

Extended Breathing addresses the body and mortality. It's comprised of a series of photographs in which the photographer stood still, facing the camera, breathing, for an hour, while leaving her camera shutter open. The resulting images captured the rapid movements of people in the surrounding city, the central figure blurred. The images are almost ghostly, and they seem to reference the advent of photography when subjects had to sit for long periods of time to be captured as a still life. The artist’s small movements, recorded over the hour of exposure, show up as blurs in the final image. Sometimes, the surroundings are still and she appears to be the only thing moving. Other times, a bustle of people creates a ghost-like record of other humans that have passed through around her.

The gallery also suggests that Lake’s “experiments in self-portraiture and performance blur the boundaries between the body and self, public and private, and personal and political.” This “blurring” of boundaries is literally emphasized by her approach and methods of creating images, particularly evident in Extended Breathing. As for the Celebrating People’s History, these work in a different vein, but still ask viewers to consider boundaries within another historical context. We are asked to think about the personal and political as we see the personal contributions of artists to a collective body of work. All of the works in the gallery seem to be asking the question: How can art disrupt the lines between the public and private, the personal and political?


Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.


"Suzy Lake" and "Celebrate People's History" on display through Feb. 25 at Stamps Gallery, 201 S. Division St., Ann Arbor. Visit stamps.umich.edu for gallery hours and more information. There will be a "Political Banner & Poster Making Workshop" on Saturday, Feb. 10, 12-4 pm at the gallery; it's free but advance registration is required. The downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library will screen the 62-minute documentary "Suzy Lake: Playing With Time" on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2 pm.