In Dominique Birdsong's painting "Temporality," a young African-American woman appears from the neckline up against a luminous backdrop of 1980s teal. A mandala in a deeper shade of teal blooms behind her head, throwing the kinky strands of her short Afro into relief. Her face is rendered in flatly painted passages of acrylic paint, with each sequence of closely related hues, from cocoa to taupe, delineating a single plane. The effect is machine-like but low-tech, recalling the rote technique of midcentury paint-by-number projects as well as the characteristic pixellated appearance of early computer graphics.
Birdsong's subject poses in three-quarter view, her head tilted as if she is about to engage the viewer in conversation. The effect is almost engaging enough to distract from the fact that something terrible seems to be happening to her face. The part that's closest to the viewer has been violently rearranged in a way that feels disconcertingly familiar from our experience with images on screens. The edges of forms appear to crumble or disintegrate, revealing stepped contours: We're in the realm of pixels here, not flesh. A matrix of brushmarks in an aggressively unnatural palette of lavender and mauve seems to be expanding, viruslike, from some central point of contagion. The architecture of the subject's face breaks down; from somewhere in the cheekbone vicinity, a fragmentary second form emerges. The face of a young woman with dark hair and light skin takes shape.
Does the double consciousness depicted here come from without or within? Is this accessory face a digital succubus engaged in an excruciatingly personal act of colonization? Or is it a figment of the character's own psyche? Birdsong's portrait prompts these questions even as it activates a host of cinematic allusions: from the double negative effects in the climactic scene of Ingmar Bergman's Persona to that scene in Terminator II where Arnold Schwarzenegger strips back flesh to reveal android circuitry, to the effects in last year's horror blockbuster Get Out, in which black people's minds and spirits are consigned to a "sunken place" and forced to passively witness while their bodies and speech are appropriated to perpetuate a racist culture of white supremacy.
Birdsong's painting is a high point, but there are plenty of strong works in this month's exhibition at the Arcata Sanctuary, titled Future Formers: A Visual Art Exhibition of College of the Redwoods Alumni at the Sanctuary. Shannon Sullivan, a ceramics artist and art professor at CR, curated the show by drawing on the extensive network of contacts she has made in 11 years of teaching, focusing on former students and recent graduates.
Participating artists include Carissa Clark, Genevieve Kjesbu, Janiel Giraldo, Jessica Swan, Katharine Payne, Katie Holt, Keith Fleury, Meredith Smith, Michael B. Rude, Philip Kumsar, Shawn Frost, Sue Kimpel and Samantha Williams-Gray, all of whom live in the area and have studied with Sullivan within the past five years. Works of art include narrative ceramic masks, ink drawings, ceramics, portraits, woven textile panels, mono-printed ceramic tablets and metal sculptures. The artists place emphasis on the low-tech, homegrown and handmade. Surfaces are gnarly and a wabi-sabi ethos of imperfect and impermanent beauty reigns.
Survey exhibitions like this one are valuable, in part, because they give viewers the opportunity to make sense of regional tendencies. Tropes become apparent both in terms of choices made and not made. What artists collectively don't make is just as striking as the shared themes that emerge. In this case, the absence of video or animation reflects our region's remoteness and that penchant for the crunchy that is manifested at all levels of the local arts, but it also reflects the degree to which electronic media have yet to make much of an impact on local arts education.
At the same time, Birdsong's media critique reminds us that sometimes a work of art can bring out the conversation surrounding screen culture and self-image without deploying anything more high-tech than acrylic paint and wood.
The show Future Formers: A Visual Art Exhibition of College of the Redwoods Alumni will be on display at the Sanctuary from April 2-May 27. A public reception for the artists will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, April 13. For more information, contact the Sanctuary at 822-0898 or visit www.sanctuaryarcata.org.