San Francisco

Dread Scott: Past, Present & Future at Guerrero Gallery

Dread Scott has a long history of creating provocative works that address the hypocrisies and injustices within the United States. Unfortunately, his extremely sparse solo exhibition, Past, Present & Future at Guerrero Gallery, underwhelms. Spread between the main gallery and the project space, the show presents three very commanding works that span a thirteen-year period. Scott’s exhibition feels like a local display of highly publicized works by a New York–based artist that collectively don’t sustain a focus or shed new light on older works. Importantly, though, the exhibition prompts questions about the role of galleries in the current politicized climate, and their goals and obligations to national and local artists.

Dread Scott. A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015; embroidered nylon; 84 x 52.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

Dread Scott. A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015; embroidered nylon; 84 x 52.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

The most prominent work in Scott’s exhibition is A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015). Scott invokes the flags that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) flew as part of their anti-lynching campaigns of the 1920–30s. Spurred by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Scott updated the original flag—which simply stated, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday”—by naming the perpetrators: the police. Scott’s black-and-white banner somberly reminds us of the institutional violence that was regularly committed under Jim Crow and continues today under different legal contexts and justifications.

During the summer of 2016, Scott’s banner received a great deal of media attention when the artist hung it outside Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibition For Freedoms.[1] Located outside the Chelsea gallery, the banner provoked the public and the police. Even with Shainman’s history of supporting politically oriented artists, the gallery—like many others—has a complicated relationship with critique and commerce. Shainman’s landlord threatened to sue the gallery if it did not remove the flag, per the lease agreement that indicates that the gallery cannot affix anything to the building’s exterior; the gallery moved the flag inside.[2] With simple, truthful words, Scott’s flag speaks volumes about the conflicts that arise in the lived world.

At Guerrero Gallery, however, Scott’s flag hangs in an almost empty white-box gallery. In this context, the object seems rather neutered and formal. As its previous installation demonstrates, the poignancy of Scott’s work lies in the way that it inhabits and goads the lived world, in the form of circulated media images and objects on the streets of New York. These contexts have altered Scott’s work such that where he hangs the flag—inside or outside—adds to its meaning. At Guerrero Gallery, the artist’s rather traditional installation skirts its potential to expand dialogue beyond the rather insular art world.

Dread Scott. Imagine A World Without America, 2007; silkscreen on canvas; 75 x 75 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

Dread Scott. Imagine a World Without America, 2007; silkscreen on canvas; 75 x 75 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

Scott also presents Imagine a World Without America (2007), which features a map that shows most of the continents—Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and Antartica—but the only part of North America present is Alaska. Bold black letters declare “IMAGINE A WORLD” while “WITHOUT AMERICA” blends into the map’s green oceans. Scott challenges notions of American exceptionalism by suggesting that the world may be better without the United States. While the piece creates a powerful speculation, its circulation as the cover of the November 2016 issue of Artforum had more impact and remains in my memory. As an object in a gallery, it does not hold my attention enough to justify occupying half of the main gallery.

Dread Scott and Jenny Polak. Welcome to America, 2004; SD video on DVD; 5:28. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

Dread Scott and Jenny Polak. Welcome to America, 2004; SD video on DVD; 5:28. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

In the project space, Scott shows the video Welcome to America (2004), a collaboration with Jenny Polak. Accompanying highly pixelated imagery of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the audio background consists of schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which in most states is a compulsory pedagogical exercise in patriotism. In the video, a voice recounts the brutal physical assaults and threats that detainees have experienced. The innocence of the children’s voices is jarring against the video’s imagery and content. While the work is more than thirteen years old, it resonates with Donald Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration. But in the gallery, this forceful work appears like an afterthought, with a rather unconsidered installation in the rough staircase.

"1465.01," installation view, project room, Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco; including Andrew Wilson, Not My Sins, 2011; Chris P. Martin, Family Tree, 2016. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

“1465.01,” installation view, project room, Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco; including Andrew Wilson, Not My Sins, 2011; Chris P. Martin, Family Tree, 2016. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco.

In contrast to Scott’s meager exhibition in the main space, the gallery’s project space also presents a crowded auxiliary show of exciting works by five artists: Tosha Stimage, Woody Othello, Chris R. Martin, Carolyn Jean Martin, and Andrew Wilson. Martin’s black-and-white banners of nooses and Wilson’s cyanotype of a lynching resonate with Scott’s work, materially and conceptually. Here, Guerrero Gallery seizes its ability to make an impact by supporting promising, politically minded local artists; hopefully they will develop into lasting relationships. But the gallery could have made a stronger statement by presenting the works by these younger artists alongside those of Scott within the context of a group exhibition, rather than separating them according to the artists’ career status.

Given Scott’s frequent recontextualization of historic events and icons, the exhibition’s purview, suggested by the title Past, Present & Future, would comfortably accommodate many of the artist’s works, like his Slave Rebellion Reenactment and I Am Not a Man.[3] Their addition could have contributed to developing the dialogue raised by his work. But the power of Scott’s work lies in the social context, whether by creating media attention or through discussions spurred by his work’s provocations; a traditional white-box presentation may not be the most appropriate approach. With the pressing political and social issues at hand, we must consider how we sustain our political and critical energy, on the national and local levels, and what we expect of artists and galleries in return.

Past, Present & Future will be on view at Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco through March 4, 2017.

[1] “For Freedoms,” http://www.jackshainman.com/exhibitions/past/2016/forfreedoms/.

[2] Angelica Rogers, “Does This Flag Make You Flinch?” New York Times, July 14, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/15/us/artist-flag-protests-lynching-by-police.html?_r=0. Similarly, in 1938, the NAACP’s landlord threatened to evict the group if it did not take down its flag.

[3] “About,” Slave Rebellion Reenactment, http://www.slave-revolt.com/. “I Am Not a Man,” Dread Scott, http://www.dreadscott.net/works/i-am-not-a-man-2/.

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