Exhibit forces you to see yourself in America's story of race, violence


NORTH ADAMS — The names comes fast and too regularly, they seem to blur together. Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray. Even before we catch up another appears — last month, Stephon Clark, another name and another story. Each is an image that tells the story of race in America, and the political violence aimed at black men.

Shaun Leonardo's work wants you to pause and reflect on it. The series of drawings that make up "Witness" urge you not to let the names rush by, but to think about how you fit into the story.

"Might the slow process of observation turn our witnessing into looking?" he asks in an artists' statement for his current show at MCLA's Gallery 51 in North Adams.

The exhibit was put together as a class project by Laura Thompson's Advanced Museum Studies class at the college, with students who curated the show and handled all the design and interactive elements of it.

"[Leonardo] wants people to slow down, to pay attention," said Thompson, who is Mass MoCA's director of education and the curator of Kidspace. "These images are part of our collective visual knowledge about these experiences. We don't really take the time to focus on what is the meaning of it."

The show features nine works, most are drawings executed in a distinct style that blurs some details and leaves other to blank space, but still leaves a recognizable image. They are all images seared into our media-enabled consciousness — a series of snapshots from the nightly news. There is Rodney King, in the infamous video clip, a portrait of Trayvon Martin in a hoodie, courtroom images from the trial of the Central Park Five.

Leonardo said in his statement these missing elements are "strategies of omission ... employed in order to bring awareness to those elements that are intentionally absent." It is "not an act of willful neglect but a tactic of extraction."

Over each image is a glass layer that mirrors and reflects viewers back to themselves. It is designed to slow the viewer down as they sort through the images, and to literally see themselves in the image. Drawing out this level of engagement is "an attempt to restore a sense of humanity to how these events are so often flattened in the media."

In addition to the drawings, there is a video installation "The Eulogy," which shows a New Orleans second-line brass band marching into a public space in New York, while Leonardo launches text from Ralph Ellison about the cost of violence to a crowd of what seem to be unsuspecting onlookers. Pointedly, a loud horn blast obscures the names of the specific people he mentions.

As part of the class, the group had to together settle on interpretation, graphic design and messaging. Thompson said finding a space to collaborate and participate in the process of the art was an important part of the class. "They need to have a place to process and talk about all that is happening," she said. "It is important to allow students to talk about those things without censoring what they are going to experience."

As for curatorial decisions, the group decided to keep the gallery stark white, with few wall panels or explanatory texts. "The work speaks for itself," said William Taylor, a junior from Marion. "It is very powerful and charged."

It is also a commitment to the process, and convincing visitors to set aside their prejudgements.

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"The point is to get people uncomfortable and have to sit in that discomfort and sort through their feelings," said Jacob Davis, a senior from Rochester, Mass.

The exhibit ends with a space for feedback designed by Adazae Shepherd-Edwards, a senior in Arts Management from Dorchester. It is set up as a dinner table, with fresh flowers, and color-coded place settings for guiding question about race and gun violence.

"It's the idea of a comfortable place to have a conversation," she said. "It's a place I could have imagined having a conversation."

The slips of paper for notes and remarks are able to put on a wall with a reflective surface.

"A good way to begin these conversations is to see others having these conversations, despite what their differences may be," she said.

Thompson said she usually coordinates her class with projects at the museum. In this case, Leonardo was an artist-in-residence at Mass MoCA last year, and will be a part of a group exhibition for Kidspace that will open in 2021.

She says teaching at MCLA, which she has done since 2010, helps keep her up to date.

"It's funny because it is also about me," she said. "I use this class as an opportunity to make sure I am staying fresh. I am constantly doing research on current trends and thinking in the museum field, as well as actually doing the work. ... When you are in the thick of it you don't get to do that."

If you go ...

What: Shaun Leonardo's exhibit "WITNESS"

When: On view now through April 22. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday

Where: MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St. North Adams

Information: www.mcla.edu


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