June 14, 2024
Art Gallery

“The Mask of Prosperity” at Gallery 400

cameron clayborn, “homegrown #5,” 2022/Photo: cameron clayborn and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

“The Mask of Prosperity” at Gallery 400 presents the work of several artists exploring inheritance. Many things come to mind when I think of inheritance, but the first is money. Strategies for accumulating and keeping wealth permeate conversations surrounding the promise of leaving something for the next generation, but these conversations are also entangled in the complexity of one’s legacy. Inheritance is always personal, but it is also always cultural. Disentangling these factors is beyond me (ask a lawyer or maybe an accountant), but I think focusing on the complexity of inheritance and the ideas surrounding it is a beautiful concept for an art show.

Sonya Clark, “Hairbow,” 2016/Photo: Sonya Clark

Denny Mwaura, the assistant director of Gallery 400 and the curator of “Mask of Prosperity,” has put together a curatorial masterpiece: The exhibition feels cohesive and personal despite the wide array of mediums and practices used by artists within it. Mwaura explains in the exhibition brochure: “Exhibiting artists Eli Greene and Katherine Simóne Reynolds deeply motivated me to pursue this project when we were all dealing with loss.” Mwaura’s willingness to share this insight into his curatorial process imbues the artworks on display with an extra contextual dimension. The artworks in “The Mask of Prosperity” are also a presentation of objects grouped together in communion with processing loss, and the only accurate depiction of loss is an incomplete one. As a whole, artworks in the “The Mask of Prosperity” still acknowledge the complexity of sociocultural factors surrounding inheritance, but Mwaura’s personal approach also lends credence to a simple sentimentality for what is left behind.

Carmen Winant, “Clinic Pictures,” 2023/Photo: Carmen Winant and Patron Gallery

Upon entering the exhibition, cameron clayborn’s “homegrown #5” is the most immediately eye-catching artwork on display, as clayborn’s large, fibrous amalgamation of construction materials is suspended in the middle of the main gallery space. Its knobby, organic form feels like a sinew-covered spine or similar anatomical structure, but its fuzzy blue texture draws the viewer toward it. “homegrown #5” seems to represent an uncanny industrial carcass at a distance, but, when viewed up close, clayborn’s minute attention to detail speaks to a wisdom contained within this bodily structure. In the context of this exhibition, the balance between garish and tender within clayborn’s sculpture feels akin to the push and pull of conflicting emotions surrounding loss and inheritance. Resting on the wall behind clayborn’s work is Sonya Clark’s “Hairbow for Sounding the Ancestors.” The artwork is comprised of a violin bow strung with one of Clark’s dreadlocks, and speakers mounted to the wall play a looping audio track of the bow being used to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Together, Clayborn’s and Clark’s artworks examine inheritance as an embodied experience, placing it in conversation with other sociocultural factors that bodies are beholden to.

Sonya Clark, “Signet Rings,” 2016/Photo: Sonya Clark

Photographic multiplicity seems to be a central theme in the artworks curated into and commissioned for this show. The same image means different things to different people, but the ineffable nature of experiencing loss means that sharing photographs or other sentimental materials is often the clearest method one has for expressing it. Our understanding of images and photographs is its own form of inheritance, but it is also affected by the same sociocultural factors that affect all images. Several of the artists in “The Mask of Prosperity” use the visual language of archives and archiving images to explore their personal relationship to inheritance, but these archives don’t provide the audience with any sort of indexical understanding. For example, Katherine Simóne Reynolds presents two printed images from her parents’ wedding day alongside a framed piece of junk mail from a company advertising faster access to inherited wealth that she received shortly after her father passed away. While these objects could have been presented as literal artifacts from her family archive, each of them avoids easy narratives. One of Reynolds’ photographs is obscured by a translucent patterned plastic material reminiscent of table placemats. The other appears to be a straightforward image of a decorated altar, but slivers of a white border interrupting the bottom and right edges of Reynolds’ photograph make us aware this is a re-photographed fragment of a different print. While thinking about what the unphotographed portions of the original image would look like, I was struck by Reynolds’ success in urging me to ponder ways in which her photograph was missing something, and I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say it is instead missing someone.

Bouchra Khalili, “The Speeches Series—Chapter 1: Mother Tongue,” 2012/Photo: Bouchra Khalili and mor charpentier

Several vellum Xerox prints interspersed throughout the exhibition by Eli Greene also use aspects of the archive to activate memory. By layering her Xerox prints together on Porta-Trace light tables—commonly used for film archiving or tracing information—Greene’s repeated words and names engage with a sense that anything named can be lost. Names are commonly inherited, but they are also something we create for ourselves. “The Mask of Prosperity” reminds us that the language we inherit is just as fallible and just as flexible as images are. This understanding is mirrored in an edition of postcards by Gabrielle Octavia Rucker, who uses “a form of wordless script that suggests meaning without specific linguistic structure,” called asemic writing, to express things that English can’t fully access.

What do we leave for those who come after us? The inclusion of an artwork by the married artist duo of Caroline Kent and Nate Young is accompanied by a quote stating “[e]mbedded in the artworks is a family narrative that is also passed down—a narrative of working with our hands, creative thinking, utilizing our imaginations and craft, all things that can be done and are done over a lifetime. This artwork represents the building and upholding of those kinds of values into the lives of our children.” I appreciate this reminder that inheritance is a form of intergenerational communication: “The Mask of Prosperity” is a promise made in the world we create, not just the world we leave behind.

“The Mask of Prosperity” is on view at Gallery 400, 400 South Peoria, on the campus of the University of Illinois Chicago, through August 3.

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