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Late gay artist's identity, politics intersect at MoCP
by Jake Wittich
2018-11-07

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Several small portraits of collage artist Ralph Arnold hang at the entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Photography ( MoCP ), 600 S. Michigan Ave. In one, he wears an African Kufi hat. In another, he portrays the persona of a macho, tough guy. A third portrait shows Arnold dressed as a cowboy, and the list of characters he's performing continues.

These are just some of the many hats of Ralph Arnold, a black, gay Korean War veteran and prominent artist in Chicago in the '60s and '70s. They're part of the museum's latest exhibition, "The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold: Art, Identity and Politics," which examines the late artist's more personal works and impact on the city's art scene. Arnold went on to teach at Loyola University of Chicago into the '80s and '90s until he died in 2006.

Arnold's work in the gallery explores themes of identity and politics through three-dimensional photo collages, which Curator and Columbia College Chicago Associate Professor Gregory Foster-Rice said is both a technique and metaphor for his identity.

"In the same way collages tend to be overlapping and drawn from different source materials, his own identities as a queer man of color who is also a veteran are all intertwined," Foster-Rice said. "The term we use for that today is intersectionality."

One section of the exhibition examines how Arnold used his art to explore the intersections of his identities, using bags as a symbol for these identifying factors. A collage titled "Star Bag" features a blue bag with red stars that Arnold made and plastered on the canvas. Another piece, a sketch of Arnold by artist Jerry Torn, depicts Arnold carrying a bag that says "The Bag" on its side.

"He addresses the bag like it's a vessel for your identity that you can swap out," Foster-Rice said. "It's this idea that there's no core identity, but a series of identities you're enacting in front of different audiences."

Foster-Rice added that just because Arnold was a queer man of color, not all of his works had to be about his identities. In one piece, "Celebration," Arnold addressed expectations that his work must always be about his race by creating an abstract collage of crayon, watercolor and graphite pencil that bore no indications of his race.

"We're not going to argue that his identity and identity politics is suddenly the prism through which you can understand his work," Foster-Rice said. "What's significant about some pieces is that his identity would seem to have no place within it, which makes the argument that the community of artists in this area during the '60s and '70s was much more diverse than we give them credit for."

Foster-Rice said he hopes viewers not only learn about Arnold's contributions to the city's art scene, but that they also understand how the artist's work is still relevant today, whether it's through his exploration of intersectionality or fearlessness to address civil rights issues from his time period.

In "Unfinished Collage," a giant, three-panel, triangular collage hanging near the center of the gallery, Arnold explores violence stemming from political divisiveness. The first two panels examine the progressive civil-rights agendas and eventual assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, while the third panel features a blank canvas, meant to invoke the question of "who's next?," according to Foster-Rice.

"When we were preparing for this show three years ago, we knew it would have remarkable resonance with today's climate," Foster-Rice said. "But it was unsettling how this piece suddenly had more resonance after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting and pipe bombs being mailed to President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other leaders, all within the last month."

The exhibition aims to further link Arnold's work to today by featuring works by contemporary artists similar to Arnold in a companion show, "Echoes: Reframing Collage," curated by MoCP's chief curator and deputy director Karen Irvine. The upstairs gallery features work that is similar to Arnold's both thematically and in technique by artists Ayanah Moor, Krista Franklin, Wardell Milan, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Xaviera Simmons.

"The gallery enriches the experience of the Ralph Arnold show by exploring the continued relevance of his concerns with identity, politics and civil rights and updating them with contemporary artists for contemporary audiences," Irvine said.

Moor, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said she had never heard of Arnold before Irvine approached her to participate in the exhibition. Moor said in learning about Arnold's life, she started thinking about things she had in common with him and created two pieces in response to his work.

"He was someone like who was black, identified as queer and operated within academia," Moor said. "There are aspects of that story that really resonated with me, and his mixed-media approach is similar to my art style."

"The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold" exhibition will be on display at the MoCP through Friday, Dec. 21. Sepuya will give a lecture on his work featured in the gallery at 6 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 7, at Columbia's State Two, 618 S. Michigan Ave. On Nov. 8, Foster-Rice will participate in a Chicago Humanities Festival panel discussion on the intersection of violence and art at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. The MoCP will also present a video playlist of works relating to Arnold's art at 6 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 14, at the MoCP.


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