What We Mean When We Say 'We'

A current exhibit at Clay Street Press gallery questions the meaning of "We the People" in a nation bitterly divided by the Trump presidency, mass shootings and more

click to enlarge Tim McMichael's "We (Ut)" - PHOTO: Mark Patsfall
PHOTO: Mark Patsfall
Tim McMichael's "We (Ut)"

Mixed media artist Tim McMichael’s exhibition We…, currently on view at Over-the-Rhine’s Clay Street Press gallery, is a meditation on the meaning of the pronoun in America today.  And although the Cincinnati artist has engaged with the idea of place as a subject in the past, here he seems to apply that interest to a much more pointed look at our current social and environmental conditions.  

McMichael makes elegant dimensional drawings that feel like poetic gestures. For We…, he repurposes and builds upon the written words “We the People” from the United States Constitution, using maps of sites that have experienced recent trauma, the flag as a compositional element and satellite imagery of environmental phenomena.  

McMichael creates his pieces from multi-layered applications of paint and paper that are sandwiched between thick coats of poured resin that he sands down to obscure details. He also frequently draws with conceptually loaded materials such as pulverized volcanic ash, coal and brick. Additionally, his simple yet open-to-interpretation titles and his frequent use of maps — both imagined and real — lend the viewer an insight into the artist’s exploration of what the “We” in the exhibition title might mean.

This showing includes two newer bodies of work that explore environ­mental issues as well as the current political situation.

We… features 22 pieces, half of which were made this year, so it comes perhaps as no surprise that events of 2017 have tied together environmental and political concerns. 

Clay Street Press gallerist and artist Mark Patsfall, who has collaborated on prints with McMichael in the past, says, “I think a lot of people are thinking about being more active — what can they do to change the situation? An artist can bring some attention to those (political issues) in a way that’s not necessarily obvious and makes you think about it on a different level.”

“Tempest, Maria,” for example, is a drawing of a satellite photo of September’s Hurricane Maria’s northwestern edge at its peak intensity, made from pulverized brick on paper. In the wake of the resulting humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico (and a president who humors himself by throwing paper towels at devastated islanders), one might be hard-pressed not to wonder if McMichael is engaging in political critique.  

While all of the six other similar pieces are made from pulverized volcanic ash or coal, “Tempest, Maria” uses pulverized bricks — a possible reference to both the lack of infrastructure the island is currently experiencing and the wall that the current president swore to build during his campaign to keep out people of color. 

“Pulse” is a larger scale work that overtly draws upon politically charged topics: the flag and the site of the 2016 mass shooting/hate crime incident in Orlando, Fla. For “Pulse,” McMichael included another abstracted map, portions of which obscure the flag’s red stripes and make it look war-torn and battered. The location of the titular nightclub is dead center on the flag — though you’d have to investigate those details independently, as the artist leads with clues yet resists didacticism. 

There are seven different individual works in the exhibition titled with the word “We,” with two additional letters in parentheses. One might easily associate “We (NV)” as the location of our nation’s most recent (and currently the deadliest) mass shooting, “We (SC)” as the site where nine peaceful African-American worshippers were killed by a white supremacist in the deadly Charleston church shooting of 2015 and “We (OK)” as a reference to the 1995 right-wing domestic-terrorist bombing of 1995 that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. But other titles are more ambiguous. Still, you’d be hard-pressed not to find a national disgrace that happened in any of the states to which McMichael might refer in his titles.

Investigating the clues left by McMichael becomes a way for viewers to engage with and activate the work. Thus, the artist imbues his art with both literal and metaphorical layers of meaning. Or, as McMichael says in his succinct statement for the show, “My utilization of layers mirrors the prevailing tsunami of noise which ultimately leads to a state where we are not ‘We’ anymore.”

We… is on display through Jan. 13 at Clay Street Press, 1312 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: 513-241-3232 or patsfallgraphics.com.

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