Standing in the middle of Mitchell Squire’s provocative exhibition at Carver Bank, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts’ North Omaha satellite, one gets a sense of eerie foreboding in the close quarters surrounded by the over one hundred or so art supporters present at the January 11 opening.
Given the gallery’s use of the phrase “gun violence” six times in the four-paragraph exhibition text, the show could easily be imagined as another grasp by an artist hoping for the public synapses to fire in reaction to a fiercely debated and hotly contested water cooler topic.
At a time when a locally trending article entitled “Omaha, Nebraska: The Most Dangerous Place In America To Be Black” is making the rounds, one might expect an exhibition seemingly focused on “gun violence” to fit quite nicely in among the familiar beat-you-over-the-head-with-my-message-until-you-agree-with-my-viewpoint exhibitions we seem to love so dearly. Mitchell Squire’s We’re gonna have to do more than talk, on view until March 11, is simply not that exhibition and Squire is not that artist.
Though the text might lead one to believe otherwise, gun violence does not seem to be the driving force behind Squire’s motives. Admittedly the exhibition, simply two groupings of framed works of paper and a collection of architecture and design books lifted from artist Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects in Chicago, is heavy as the artist makes quick work of an easy image: a shooting range target, a black silhouette designed for one purpose, but Squire makes no intention in leaving the his works in a place as simple as a statistic or a pointed finger. Instead, he has reconfigured this dark information and imagery and placed a spotlight on the open space created by this issue that he hopes to fill with talk and activity.
This was quite apparent when Squire, during his gallery talk, did nothing short of preach to an ever-growing audience that this work was being presented to the public to invite the viewer into the laboratory with the artist, giving the community room to speak and possibly reevaluate their surroundings.
An associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University, Squire was invited to exhibit at Carver Bank shortly after the departure of long-time Chief Curator, Hess McGraw. The pairing of Squire and Carver Bank seems only appropriate, as Gates, Carver’s founder, is a colleague and former student of Squire’s. Again, at his gallery talk, the artist jokingly boasted at providing Gates with opportunities in years past that helped create the young-art powerhouse that is Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation.
The exhibition, titled after a statement made by activist and deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, is (at the time of it’s January 11 opening) broken into three parts main parts.
The first is a duo of ink on paper pieces titled “We’re gonna have to do more than talk” and “You can kill a revolutionary…” The pair was created by the artist repeatedly marking the paper with a shooting target shaped rubber stamp in muted, black ink. The motion was repeated and centralized on the paper to an extent that the positive space created by the markings creates in itself a negative, a gaping hole made of an uncountable number of actions.
Second, as mentioned above, is a curated selection of books from Gate’s Dorchester Projects Library and Archive. The pop-up library will be utilized as a “learning sculpture” to be included in “Where do I go? What shall I do?” a performance series of five public design workshops for area young adults. The workshops will occur weekly beginning in February and will be led by Squire. The library will also be available to the public during gallery hours.
The last and most striking portion of the exhibition is a series of ten nearly identical framed works titled “The Young Gladiators”. The group title references young men at one point in history uprooted and placed in the arena to die for sport. Another finds them migrating from dense urban areas to smaller Midwestern cities in search of opportunity only to have the odds increased at their becoming another statistic, living or not.
Each piece is comprised of spent gun range targets from an Iowa police academy layered some 40 deep and hung in simple plywood and Plexiglas frames. Rather than attempt to resurrect these spent targets in all their glory, Squire chose to lay them face down in their frames, allowing the viewer the chance not to gaze on the subjects but to peer through the space created by men and women honing their aim.
In Squire’s home state of Iowa, less than ten percent of the population is African-American yet they make up twenty-five percent of its prison population. As with the rest of the exhibition, these works seem to press the viewer past the direct and almost tangible effects of gun violence and a seemingly imbalanced judicial system; the torn paper and staples reach up out of the frames taking on a more sculptural existence as the bullet holes create ghostly figure mapping out the targets underneath.
We’re gonna have to do more than talk comes not just from the bandwagon highlighting the issue at hand or claims to hold an answer. It comes from an artist who is questioning if art can initiate a dialogue that leads to change and what would follow if it does.
We’re gonna have to do more than talk continues through March 11, at Carver Bank, 2416 lake St. For more information go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-933-6622.