Outside the Box 

Image is everything (or is it?) in exhibits at MCA and Clough-Hanson.

The artworks in Memphis College of Art's group exhibition "Reasons To Riot" tease, rankle, inspire, and horrify. In Hank Willis Thomas' Jordan and Johnnie Walker in Timberland circa 1923 (inkjet print on canvas), a black man, with a basketball in his right hand and a noose around his neck, swings from the limb of a tree in a slam-dunk position. A dapper, well-dressed gentleman (the Striding Man logo for Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky) walks past the lynched man with blithe confidence. "Just do it," the signature advertising slogan for Nike sportswear, is printed at the bottom of the canvas. "Keep Walking" is printed beneath the Striding Man.

Slick advertising combined with sadistic slapstick is hard to take, but Thomas has created one of the most telling works in the exhibition. It slaps us in the face with a crass brutality that incites riot/revolt/rebellion. It brings us face-to-face with a callous mindset ("Just do it and keep walking") that makes ethnic cleansing, holocaust, and apartheid possible.

Many of the artists challenge us to think outside the box. Derrick Adams' installation, Playthings, invites us to get down on the floor and into a town painted on a rug. Possibilities for playacting are wide-open in this small community whose citizens are Kenyan tourist figurines as slender as Masai warriors, as sleek as gazelles. These 12-inch-tall wooden figures are dressed as McDonald's fry cooks, divas in designer evening wear, basketball players, National Guardsmen in camouflage fatigues, and cross-dressers in pink feather coats. At the Internet café painted at the edge of the rug, you can join in the free-wheeling debates about beauty, politics, and fashion.

click to enlarge Chris Scarborough's untitled portrait of "Sara"
  • Chris Scarborough's untitled portrait of "Sara"

With hips moving gracefully from side to side and books balanced on top of her head, digital video artist Leslie Hewitt records herself walking slowly across a landscape of deteriorating concrete, rubble, and weeds. Played again and again, this sparest of narratives gives us time to reflect and to wonder whether the burden the woman carries is a metaphor for the limiting effects of illiteracy or if the books (and the knowledge they contain) serve as her stepping stones out of the ghetto.

In the searing, sardonic, overtly sexual mixed-media drawing Destiny, Zoe Charlton whites-out the face and upper body of a man leaning back on his haunches. She straps what looks like the prow of a 17th-century clipper ship (crammed with human cargo for the slave trade) around the man's waist like a dildo. A small undecorated Christmas tree dangles from its tip. Charlton takes the unexpressed (cut-off, repressed, denied, watered-down, expurgated) passions of humanity and channels them into a phallus as pointed as this artist's insights, as unadorned as truth, as double-edged as our species' capacity for cruelty and joy.

"Reasons To Riot" at Memphis College of Art through April 6th

Chris Scarborough's exhibition "Living on Cloud Nine" at Clough-Hanson explores gender stereotypes. Scarborough's most expressive works are digitally altered photographs of a girl named Sara. With subtle computer manipulations, Scarborough reduces her mouth, enlarges her eyes, elongates her limbs, and transforms her into a petite princess of Japanese anime whose kingdom is the cosmos or that vaguely remembered part of ourselves that at age 5 or so was astonished by just about everything.

One of Scarborough's Saras sits in the sand looking out to sea, another is completely surrounded by darkness, and a third stands in black water looking up into an equally black sky. All three Saras are wide-eyed and open-mouthed with wonder.

Scarborough also digitally alters photographs of a blue-eyed, platinum-blond teenager named Shannon whose matte complexion and broad, photo-op smiles replace Sara's freckles and look of amazement.

Hair-tousled and dressed in form-fitting sweater and slacks, one of the Shannons lies on a thick white rug looking up at the viewer with sex-kitten coquetry. Another image of the same young woman hangs on the wall to our right as we leave the gallery. This Shannon is slimmer; the texture and tone of her complexion has gone from matte to plastic. With the same seamless manipulations that transform Sara into an archetype of unadulterated awe, Scarborough turns Shannon into a Barbie doll lying in a trash-strewn lot, her limbs bent in exaggerated positions. Scarborough's Shannon/Barbie composite could be a victim of drugs, foul play, or suicide, or she may stand as a metaphor for the soul-numbing effects of focusing on surface beauty.

And then there are the faces of Sara. Once you've recovered from the longing and regret these images engender -- look again. In small increments (like Scarborough's digital manipulations) relax and let Sara take you back to a time when you could see worlds of possibility inside and out.

"Living on Cloud Nine" at Clough-Hanson Gallery through April 4th



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