The exhibit “Non-Fiction,” which was on display at the Underground Museum in Arlington Heights from May 2016 through May 2017, was a brutal exploration of the African-American experience in America. Some of the works, including Kara Walker's paper silhouettes, featured physical brutality against people of color. Curated by museum co-founder Noah Davis, who died in 2015 from a rare form of cancer, the exhibit was the second collaboration between the Underground Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, part of a deal intended to bring MOCA's collection directly into a working-class neighborhood.
As the museum website described the exhibit, “'Non-Fiction' is Noah’s love letter to the victims of racial violence, and the families that endured.”
Once again, Davis' curatorial vision has been carried out posthumously in partnership with MOCA, but this time the idea of color has taken on a different meaning. In a subversion of expectations, “Artists of Color” focuses on color and how we view color in relation to society. Why do colors matter? What feelings do they provoke? What political significance do they hold?
One of the works, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is called Forbidden Colors (1988), and consists of four acrylic monochromes in the colors white, green, red and black. The piece addresses the Israeli ban on the colors because they were the colors of the Palestinian flag. This combination of hues caused beatings, arrests, shootings and more. Because of the political significance attributed to the colors by people, the colors took on a life of their own.
“This work is about my exclusion from the circle of power where social and cultural values are elaborated and about my rejection of the imposed and established order,” Gonzalez-Torres wrote in a statement in 1988.
Megan Steinman, director of the Underground Museum, says it's one of her favorite pieces from the exhibit because Gonzalez-Torres is an artist who allowed himself to be vulnerable, making the piece personal. He internalized the experience of an artist being banned from creating art in the way he sees fit.
The exhibit explores the many ways “that color has been depicted and deployed by different cultures and time periods,” Steinman says. “All of the artists that are working in this exhibition are really taking on one or two colors and [seeing] how much meaning, material and experience can be generated by just a single color.”
Across from Forbidden Colors is an untitled piece by Michael Asher, which resembles a television screen created in highlighter-pink Plexiglas. As you look into it, you see your reflection as well as the museum’s walls behind you, making everything part of the pink colorscape. Steinman explains that Asher was really interested in the idea of institutional critique and didn’t believe in pure experiences. To him, everything had meaning. “There are ways that color has power and sometimes a power that it is not given credit for,” Steinman says.
Right above the museum's entrance is a piece that's hard to overlook, a sentence written in glowing blue neon. Created by the youngest artist in the exhibit, L.A.'s own EJ Hill, it's called A Declaration and reads, “We deserve to see ourselves elevated.” Justen LeRoy, the museum liaison, says this work is a reminder of what the Underground Museum does.
Although there are no figures in the show, Steinman believes that it is the bodies watching the art that are most important. “We deserve to see ourselves elevated alongside the Ellsworth Kellys, the Donald Judds and the Michael Ashers that have been elevated elsewhere for so long now; it’s the bodies in the space that are going to see themselves elevated.”
“Artists of Color,” 3508 W. Washington Blvd., Arlington Heights; through Feb. 2. theunderground-museum.org.