Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2020
In Plain Sight
Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, November 23, 2019–June 28, 2020
In Plain Sight, installation view of Sadie Barnette, Room to Live, mixed-media installation with holographic vinyl sofa, metal flake TV, archival inkjet prints, and metal flake security cameras, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, 2019 (photograph by Mark Woods, provided by Henry Art Gallery)

When a midsize museum devotes its entire space to an exhibition by a recently hired curator, that’s a statement. In Plain Sight, at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, was organized by Shamim M. Momin, two-time curator of the Whitney Biennial (she co-organized the 2004 and 2008 editions) and founder of Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), which generates site-specific installations in public spaces. Not only was In Plain Sight Momin’s first large-scale exhibition since she was brought on by the Henry as senior curator in the fall of 2018; it also displayed her long commitment to interdisciplinary, inclusive art.

More broadly, the show marked a continuing path for contemporary art, one that shares a direction with “the ethnographic turn” but also feels personal, specific, and principled. Back in the 1990s art historian Hal Foster, among others, noted the waves of artists who turned away from modernist formalism as they surrounded themselves with cultural or community practices and engaged in on-the-scene research. Since that time, others have pointed out some of the pitfalls of anthropological or social-practice art, particularly the inequities of exchange between artists and the communities with which they work.  

Most of the fourteen US-based and international artists chosen for In Plain Sight employ similar ethnographic strategies—observation, participation, archiving—but they do so in ways that seem full of care. The divergent works seemed consistently respectful of the artists’ own lived experiences and interactions with others.

The exhibiting artists were Sadie Barnette (US, born 1984), Sanford Biggers (US, born 1970), Andrea Bowers (US, born 1965), Tom Burr (US, born 1963), Fiona Connor (New Zealand, born 1981), william cordova (Peru, born 1969), Beatriz Cortez (El Salvador, born 1970), Hayv Kahraman (Iraq, born 1981), Nicole Miller (US, born 1982), Alison O’Daniel (US, born 1979), Ebony G. Patterson (Jamaica, born 1981), Mika Rottenberg (Argentina, born 1976), A. L. Steiner (US, born 1967), and Oscar Tuazon (US, born 1975). In radically varied ways, these artists uncover and craft stories that are typically hidden from broad public awareness. The exhibition title’s implication, of course, is that these narratives already live within our field of vision but have been hidden from awareness due to individual or institutional bias.

And so these artists skillfully illuminate and explore issues such as immigration, capitalist control, transgender activism, and environmental politics. These matters are weighty, yes, and important. But the work is not heavy-handed or overly didactic. It is visually diverse, often clever, and even fantastical or exuberant at times. The exhibition sprawled across and enlivened all galleries, across two levels and even some transitional spaces like hallways and landings. There were mixed-media installations, stand-alone paintings, large photographs, video art, and works made of cement, rhinestones, and sound. The uniting threads were a deep embeddedness in specific communities, sociopolitical revelation, or personal history (and often all three at once).  

Oakland-based artist Barnette, for example, invited viewers into a pink and iridescent living room. The playful wallpaper of images of hair picks, along with personal photographs, set the stage for a story related to African American family life. Further investigation revealed FBI surveillance documents, with names wryly redacted by Barnette with glittery silver tape. The artist used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain an FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and opened the first black gay bar in San Francisco. Barnette’s installation created, or perhaps reclaimed, a joyful family room while revealing truths about racially motivated surveillance and intrusion.

Cortez, who was born in El Salvador and works in Los Angeles, also deploys historical research in her installations. The Multitude (2015) was installed in a tall, narrow, turret-like space. Visitors could step inside the glowing enclosure to be immersed in a sonic bath of layered, whispered names: those of nearly one thousand civilians who were killed in 1981 by the Salvadoran army, which was trained and equipped by the United States. The honoring and naming of the victims also reveals how the massacre was covered up for decades by the Salvadoran and US governments.

This heart-wrenching, aesthetically minimal light and sound installation seemed quite different from Cortez’s other work in the show, Memory Insertion Capsule (2017), a large, clunky, sci-fi steel contraption. But here again, Cortez brings together past and present, while adding a futuristic layer. The pod-like sculpture was inspired by space travel, indigenous Mayan architecture, and the tents of refugees and unsheltered people. The patched-together references ask us to think about the construction of historical records, and indeed, the installation comes with archival video material that glimpses Mayan heritage, immigration, colonialist agricultural systems, and fraught historical exchange between the United States and Central America.

The subtlest work of the exhibition—a set of sculptures that were truly almost hidden in plain sight—came from New York–based artist Burr. His nine sculptures, aptly titled Walls, blended into the museum’s white-walled structure. But they inexplicably jutted out from other walls or stood oddly tall and narrow, calling attention to their slightly out-of-place character. Imprinted on the walls were phrases about places—addresses, dates, descriptors—taken from a 1980s gay magazine in which readers would inform each other about places to meet. Burr used the architectural language of the white cube to ask us to think about the coded use of language and space within discriminatory public landscapes.

Environmental activist artist Tuazon explores other kinds of interactions with other kinds of sites; his work looks at the intersections of natural, educational, and political systems. The artist’s contributions to In Plain Sight created a large space within the largest gallery, with a wooden platform that housed a gathering space, bookshelves, and a big water-collection tank. Much of this work hearkens to Tuazon’s deep exchanges about resistance, survival, and education with communities in ecologically fraught or politically disempowered environments. Now based in Los Angeles, Tuazon added to his Los Angeles Water School (LAWS) installation to include Water Maps, which highlights interconnected water flows in the Pacific Northwest, Tuazon’s former home and the locale of In Plain Sight.

Tuazon’s additive, reimagined installation also revealed curator Momin’s collaborative approach to working with artists. For this exhibition, because so much of the art involved activism in some way, Momin and the artists developed events, talks, performances, and film screenings that emphasized collaboration with local arts and community groups. Tuazon’s installation, for example, became a literal platform for conversations, indigenous storytelling, and a water-oriented poetry workshop with Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna.

When COVID-19 swept the world in early 2020, the Henry Art Gallery closed, and some of its programming was canceled or reconfigured. Other projects had already been planned as online events or were able to be transformed as such, including screenings of films and video poetry programmed in collaboration with groups such as the Black Cinema Collective and the Northwest Film Forum.

In Plain Sight reconfirmed Henry Art Gallery, Washington State’s earliest museum to focus on contemporary art, ­as an institution that shines a light on percolating artistic practices. These principled, artistically manifested ethnographic practices reveal enthralling personal and communal histories and the barriers that kept those stories hidden in plain sight. 

Gayle Clemans
Associate Professor, Critical & Contextual Studies, Cornish College of the Arts