‘States of Mind: Art and American Democracy’ exhibit at the Moody demands attention, contemplation

A highly political art show isn’t easy, but that’s the point

Copper-colored signatures of every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan copied perfectly onto crisp white sheets of paper, written in the artist’s own blood.

Glittering haute couture pieces in black velvet embroidered with 24 karat gold thread and shards of glass gathered from scenes of violence at the Texas-Mexico border.

A repurposed AK-47 rifle that prompts you to look down a scope and “shoot” at others — before realizing a hidden camera is capturing you, the shooter, and placing your own ghostly figure within the sights.

"America's Finest" by Lynn Hershman Leeson is an interactive installation with video camera and AK-47. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

“America’s Finest” by Lynn Hershman Leeson is an interactive installation with video camera and AK-47. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

These are three of the wide-ranging, thought-provoking pieces on display this fall in the Moody Center for the Arts’ newest exhibition, “States of Mind: Art and American Democracy.” The show runs through Dec. 19 and examines themes of gun violence, immigration policies and voting rights through the work of more than 30 contemporary artists.

“I’m very happy to present the show at this particular moment,” said associate curator Ylinka Barotto, who organized the show with the support of student assistants Julia Fisher and Julia Kidd. “Through art, you can really think about those issues differently — see them in a new light or maybe just think about them a little bit more — and I think that’s very important, especially now.”

“States of Mind” brings together artists who are showing in Texas and the U.S. for the first time, including Colombia-born Camilo Godoy, the artist whose blood indicts the violent actions undertaken by every U.S. president since his birth in 1989. The U.S. premier of Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s videotaped performance, “The Undertaker,” screens on a loop in the Moody’s Media Arts Gallery and asks viewers to consider burying weapons instead of bodies.

“A political show is not easy,” Barotto said of the new exhibition. “I expect people not to agree with all of the works presented, and I think it’s important for us to create a platform for that dialogue in these polarized times.”

Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled (The Supreme Court Painting)” was created as a response to the court’s Bush v. Gore decision that settled the 2000 presidential election.

Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled (The Supreme Court Painting)” was created as a response to the court’s Bush v. Gore decision that settled the 2000 presidential election.

On the same evening the nation learned of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barotto was gathered with others for the exhibition opening. The news, she said, prompted many guests to gravitate back to Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled (The Supreme Court Painting),” his famous 2004 sculptural canvas piece. McMillian’s take on the court building — slumping into the ground, seeming to melt away — hadn’t seemed so poignant since the artist first created the piece as a response to the court’s Bush v. Gore decision that settled the 2000 presidential election.

Some pieces offer a more absurdist take on the current state of American democracy, such as a video installation by Tony Cokes that juxtaposes some of President Donald Trump’s more offensive and outlandish tweets with a soundtrack of upbeat electronic music.

Others invite the viewer to participate directly, such as Aram Han Sifuentes’ “Official Unofficial Voting Station,” in which guests can cast paper “ballots” that question the electoral system, who is excluded from it and what would happen if those marginalized people were allowed to take part in the democratic process.

All of the pieces, however, are deeply personal — each one a keening voice in a larger conversation. Taken together, “States of Mind” offers a fierce and timely reminder of the violence and disenfranchisement many Americans continue to face.

Clinton Drake's words are embroidered with red thread on McMillian’s “Untitled (flag IV).”

Clinton Drake’s words are embroidered with red thread on McMillian’s “Untitled (flag IV).”

Clinton Drake’s story was first widely told in Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” A Vietnam War veteran and participant in the 1965 Selma voting rights march, Drake was later incarcerated on minor drug charges. As a felon, he was unable to vote; upon parole, Drake was still barred from voting due to $900 in fines he couldn’t pay — after all, it’s hard to find a job with such a conviction on your record.

But something about seeing Drake’s own words embroidered in blood-red thread across a giant burlap panel resembling a ragged American flag — McMillian’s “Untitled (flag IV)” — is even more unsettling than reading his story in clean black-and-white print.

“I put my life on the line for this country. To me, not voting is not right… My son’s in Iraq in the army just like I was. My oldest son, he fought in the first Persian Gulf conflict. He was in the Marines. This is my baby son over there right now. But I’m not able to vote.”

Not every piece renders an American tragedy, however.

Margarita Cabrera’s “Space in Between” repurposes U.S. Border Patrol uniforms into cacti, agave and aloe vera “plants” growing out of terra cotta pots.

Margarita Cabrera’s “Space in Between” repurposes U.S. Border Patrol uniforms into cacti, agave and aloe vera “plants” growing out of terra cotta pots.

Some, like Guadalupe Maravilla’s shell-and-sea-sponge-covered sculpture “Disease Thrower #9,” evoke a sense of healing, its towering figure conjuring thoughts of Ojibwe dream catchers, Mexican milagros and an intense shamanistic energy unbound by borders.

Others, like Margarita Cabrera’s “Space in Between,” offer glimpses of beauty amid prickly issues. Her series repurposes hunter-green U.S. Border Patrol uniforms into cacti, agave and aloe vera “plants” growing out of terra cotta pots. The fabric is stuffed with foam, the “leaves” constructed over PVC pipe and embellished with colorful thread. Each embroidered detail presents a small slice of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“You can really get lost in them,” Barotto said, pointing out a tiny, red-and-yellow woven bud stitched on one leaf, its understated brilliance almost hidden from view.

States of Mind: Art and American Democracy is on view through Dec. 19. Patrons will be required to wear face coverings and maintain physical distancing of 6 feet. Entry to the galleries will be limited to support physical distancing and hand sanitizer is available throughout the building.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.