Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in New York. She is a frequent contributor to the Art21 blog. ArtPrize hired Nicole to chronicle the 2009, 2010, and this year’s events. Nicole’s thoughts and opinions are her own and in no way represent an endorsement or objection from ArtPrize toward an individual artist or venue.

Gay rights activists and supporters rejoiced in June when lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, becoming the sixth and largest state to do so. Here in Michigan, where voters banned same-sex marriage and civil unions in 2004, the movement for gay rights suffered another defeat that same month: Holland City Council* voted against a proposal that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity protection to their anti-discrimination policies. I’m told that gay rights has been a hot-button issue in and around Grand Rapids ever since. What does this have to do with ArtPrize, you ask? Everything. Because art is uniquely capable of bringing together communities through conversation.

*FULL DISCLOSURE: Brian Burch, ArtPrize’s public relations director and editor of the ArtPrize Blog, currently sits on the Holland City Council.

Of the many art education initiatives taking place this year, the queer-oriented panel discussion organized by Reverend Anne Weirich of Westminster Presbyterian Church, struck me as being not only timely, but also brazen. The starting point for the discussion was Jeffery Augustine Songco’s ArtPrize entry GayGayGay Robe, located in Westminster’s lobby.* Songco was joined by Theresa McClelland and Reverend Jim Lucas of Gays in Faith Together (GIFT); Reverend Matthew Cockrum of Fountain Street Church; Pastoral Counselor, Reverend Lorie Schier; Westminster member and practicing attorney Maribeth Jelks, and Westminster’s Christian educator Sherrill Vore, who moderated the discussion.

Songco opened his presentation with two YouTube clips, one showing a performance from The Book of Mormon at the recent Tony Awards, and another from the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. To these examples the artist connected his own socially engaged sense of humor, heavily influenced by his upbringing as a child actor-singer and devout Catholic. Songco went on to position his artwork within the lineage of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper painting series and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Where television and the internet are accessible and daily consumed by the masses, I scanned the room wondering if these references to contemporary art were lost on others. But then GayGayGay Robe exists at the intersection of high and low culture, where two supposed extremes collide and fold together. This gave panelists and audience members a way to share their different experiences and, to use the old cliché, find common ground.

GayGayGay Robe immediately brings to mind the Ku Klux Klan and history of lynching African Americans in the United States. Understandably, panelists failed to find humor in the work, at least initially. They expressed having had strong and negative visceral reactions to it. Yet they remained incredibly open and inquisitive. “I was troubled by this work,” said Cockrum, “and I’m glad to have been troubled.” Just imagine if Songco had been able to realize his original proposal: an installation of 23 robed figurines standing together in a circle like a brotherhood. Although Westminster accepted just one figure, church administrators offered to fly the artist to Grand Rapids as part of their adult education program. “Because of the provoking nature of my work in the church,” said Songco, “Vore thought it would be necessary to have a discussion … ArtPrize was the catalyst for bringing my artwork to the church, but then the church took it upon itself to expand.”

Westminster panel, left to right: Songco, Schier, Jelks, Lucas, Cockrum, and McClelland.

Now back at home in San Francisco, Songco had this to say about his experience in Grand Rapids:

“I was very surprised how genuinely moved some viewers were. I made a quiet joke with myself that I’d be shot and killed at my first half-hour ArtPrize presentation, but instead of bullets, I got handshakes. The same thing happened the next day at the hour-long panel discussion: handshakes and thank yous. Several people were very thankful that I had created a visual image that perfectly represented the self-hatred they personally experienced in their own lives. I’m just surprised that I really connected with people on a conceptual level, beyond all these warm fuzzy images of fish swimming in ponds and sunsets in the distance.”

GayGayGay Robe is layered with possible meanings and among the most complex and through-provoking entries I’ve seen so far. To be sure, it’s also one of few at ArtPrize that addresses queer identity. At Diversions Nightclub and Pub 43, local gay and lesbian bars, you can find a painting or two that suggest same-sex relationships. Along Ionia Street, Christina Miller alludes to intimacy between two men in her painting installation True Portrait of an American Family. Flamboyant stereotypes take the stage in a “Glee meets the Sopranos” type of production from the community theatre group Backstage Drama. And at Fountain Street Church, their annual ArtPrize installation is devoted to the theme of “civil liberties.” With the exception of Dominic Sansome’s Brand New God, the works on view here unfortunately fail to convey the dynamism of the overarching message.

As I started to say during Critical Discourse, the type of art I most enjoy not only does what ArtPrize has set out to do — create “conversation” — it also moves a conversation forward. It tells us something about the human condition and gives us new ways of seeing and sharing our social experiences, issues and concerns. Even in light of the current top ten, Westminster’s panel discussion gives me hope for the future of ArtPrize and the future of this region. Art, and as a result ArtPrize, not only gives communities reasons to gather, but also forces them to ask questions they might not otherwise consider. It encourages people to step outside their comfort zones, which is more important and impactful than any cash award or legislation will ever be.

* Songco is a fellow Art21 blogger. We had never talked nor had I even heard of him before last week. We met randomly in the Artist’s Lounge at The Hub. Small world.

By NicoleC on