There’s a lot more fish skin in “Decolonizing Alaska” than in the typical contemporary-art survey, but most of the other elements are familiar. The art in the atrium of the former Corcoran Gallery (now the GW Corcoran School of the Arts and Design) includes reflections on personal and cultural identity, as well as on political and environmental issues. Figuratively, glaciers and permafrost melt just outside the frame of many of the pieces.
Among the 31 contributors are people of indigenous and Russian descent, but also relative newcomers who sing their affection for the land and its cultures. Often, the artists juxtapose tradition and technology. Video plays beneath a salmon-skin screen and is projected on the head of a handmade drum. Three abstract sculptures have been fashioned out of caribou antlers, and moose antlers have been wrapped in a plastic sheet that the artifact has partly deformed.
The multimedia installation that combines video and drum is Da-ka-xeen Mehner’s pointed response to a heroic statue of explorer Capt. James Cook, who in 1778 claimed a piece of Alaska for the British crown. Michael Conti’s “White Gaze” reacts to another sort of annexation: It places a photo of an indigenous woman, pressing on the glass with her hands, inside a museum-style diorama of a native family.
Other comebacks to the Europeans’ arrival and its effects are more personal, and several turn on the effects of booze. Holly Nordlum assembled a mosaic-like portrait of her brother, adopted after he was neglected by an alcoholic mother, out of beer bottle caps. Susie Silook’s carved statue celebrates conquering alcohol dependence; “decolonizing is for me an inner reckoning,” she writes.
Although many of the show’s ingredients are specifically Alaskan, the artistic styles and gambits derive mostly from the world of the colonizers. Russian religious icons and Old Master paintings provide the model for works such as Linda Infante Lyons’s “St. Katherine of Karluk,” a Madonna-and-child scene in which mom is a shaman and baby is a seal pup. Politically, extricating Alaska from its self-styled discoverers is improbable. Artistically, it’s simply impossible.
Decolonizing Alaska On view through March 18 at GW Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, 500 17th St. NW. 202-994-1700. corcoran.gwu.edu/decolonizing-alaska.
There’s lots of video in “Questioning Power at VisArts,” which comprises four individual shows on overlapping themes. The medium suits the subjects, most of which are grist for recent cable-news communiqués. But the most immediate works are Esteban del Valle’s satirical drawing-paintings, which portray angry older men in red hats that read “Make America Great Again.”
“1,000 Yellow Dahlias,” Estefani Mercedes’s video piece, chronicles both the artist’s September 2015 performance and reaction to it. Responding to Donald Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants, Mercedes brought dahlias (Mexico’s national flower) to Trump Tower. There were too many blooms for the artist to manage, and her inability to deliver them drew gleeful responses from right-wing websites. But the mess was intentional, a theater-of-the absurd moment designed to highlight simplistic rhetoric and Internet commentators’ propensity for snap judgments. Some cyber-pundits assumed, for example, that Mercedes is undocumented and Mexican, when in fact she’s American-born and of Argentine lineage.
Two of the shows address stereotyping of young African American men. Shané K. Gooding’s “To See or Not to See” is a three-screen video piece that focuses primarily on four subjects, interweaving almost-still portraits with documentary footage of the men’s vocations (which tend to be artistic) and their lives. Antoine Williams’s “gods in the gaps” is a series of mixed-media drawing-paintings of young men in hooded sweatshirts and low-slung, boxer-revealing jeans. Their heads are hidden or missing, and some appear vaguely ominous. The menace is all a matter of perception, of course.
The largest show, Esteban del Valle’s “Unsettled,” was partly inspired by the Chicago native’s involvement in his father’s 2011 run for mayor of that city. In a smaller gallery whose work is all in shades of gray, a video of a performance piece features dialogue derived from speeches by Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The effect is far from somber, and one of the elements is a model of the front end of a 1963 Ford Galaxy.
Around the corner, del Valle is showing large, vividly colored pictures of belligerent Trump supporters, including one who’s stocking up in a home-improvement superstore. (The piece is titled “Build the Wall.”) Yet the artist, who now lives in Brooklyn, also lampoons young liberal gentrifiers in vignettes such as “Jacob Lawrence at a Harlem Cafe: The Great Migration.” Next to the late African American artist who depicted his people’s quest for freedom is an oversize coffee drink topped with whipped cream. It’s the history of upper-middle-class white privilege in a single frappucino.
Estefani Mercedes: 1,000 Yellow Dahlias and Shané K. Gooding: To See or Not to See On view through March 19. Antoine Williams: gods in the gaps and Esteban del Valle: Unsettled On view through March 26. VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200. visartscenter.org.
The title of “Luminiferous Aether,” photographers Chandi Kelley and Marissa Long’s Transformer show, refers to a discredited 19th-century notion of how light moves through air. The archaic name suits the images. High contrast, mostly black-and-white and often eerie, the pictures evoke Surrealist reveries, Victorian seances and vaudeville magic shows.
The local artists’ photos are mixed together, which is apt, because they’re compatible in both style and vibe. The backdrops are mostly black, while the highlights are often a harsh white. Kelley sometimes uses color, but it can be as faint as the green tint around the edge of the mist in “Disappearing Act.” Just as the white seems to scar the black, it also appears to incinerate the other hues.
Long’s stated specialty is the portal, which might be a mirror, a window, the moon or a human eye peering through a tiny opening in an rumpled ivory curtain. Kelley is more inclined to pose natural objects, whether a shell, a snake or a coyote skull. Whatever the subject, the goal is not to document the world as it exists, but to gaze within and beyond. “Luminiferous Aether” tricks the eye in a bid to free the mind.
Luminiferous Aether: Chandi Kelly & Marissa Long On view through March 18 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW. 202-483-1102. transformerdc.org.