Art as space for freedom: Amanda Curreri talks opening of ‘feminist, queer’ SF exhibition

Amanda Curreri/Courtesy

Related Posts

Within “COUNTRY HOUSE_,” artist and educator Amanda Curreri’s “feminist, queer response to the current American administration,” there is blood.

That’s not to say that Curreri condones violence. In fact, she encourages much the opposite, both as an individual and as an artist. In person, Curreri comes across as gentle. She also has a commanding presence, although she is soft-spoken and calm. Her collage-style textiles, which make up most of “COUNTRY HOUSE_,” present as similarly tranquil, hanging from the ceiling like huge, floating sea creatures; there’s little that is outwardly menacing about them.

So, no, you won’t find plasma splattered across Curreri’s textiles. But within the collection, there is history. And in this history, there is blood.

In 2015, Curreri and her partner moved from San Francisco to Ohio, after Curreri received a job offer from the University of Cincinnati. In their new home, the two found themselves at a particularly potent site for artistic inspiration — right along the Ohio River, which the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 effectively established as the demarcation between slavery and freedom in the western United States. Over these Midwestern waters, Confederate and Union soldiers alike spilled blood in loyalty to their respective causes.

This blood, and the centuries of oppression both past and future of which it is reflective, informed Curreri’s creative work.

After the 2016 presidential election, the artist found herself grappling with issues of deep division. She saw it in her teaching position, noting how her students dealt with instances of blunt racism. And it showed up in her art. At its core, “COUNTRY HOUSE_” is a response to violence and abuse of power.

“Making this body of work, I was taking all that into the studio — (all) the violence that the 45 (President Donald Trump) is spreading through language and messaging, all the visual permissions for fear and violence and racism in America,” Curreri said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

It can be difficult to see how the exhibition relates to the current presidency — in what ways it serves as a response or a cry for action. The pieces are tricky to digest; they require patience, observation and consideration. As such, some might consider “COUNTRY HOUSE_” elitist, too abstract for us common people to wrangle meaning out of its collection. Contemporary art galleries such as the Romer Young Gallery, which is hosting the exhibition, can themselves be harbingers of gentrification and displacement, touting art to which many don’t feel welcome.

The tension between Curreri’s intended message of inclusion in “COUNTRY HOUSE_” and the potential exclusiveness of the space that her art occupies, both physically and thematically, is not lost on the artist.

“That’s definitely a main concern,” Curreri agreed when I asked about the conflicting interests. And yet she considers the abstraction in her art an essential part of the experience — it’s something different from our daily inundation of media.

“Whereas in advertising, it’s very directed … with abstraction, there’s more potential for making new meanings and finding new spaces,” she pointed out.

If you look closely, many of Curreri’s works do provide legible clues — in the forms of symbols and writing — as to the artist’s intentions in creating the pieces. This, Curreri explained, is her way of maintaining distance from the sort of strict formal abstraction that she contended can be “bougie, and maybe not political.”

Many of the images and words that appear in Curreri’s work speak boldly and without hesitation — they’re not “sweet,” as Curreri put it. In “C_unt__ House_,” one of the few paper-based pieces in the collection, the artist selectively blanked out the printed title of the exhibition to create a new, potentially incendiary message. In “Homo-Hime,” one of the most assuming textile creations in the collection, Curreri sewed a series of hands clenched with the thumb poking through the index and middle fingers in a gesture known as the “fig sign.” Curreri noted that the signal means fig, but is also often used as slang for “vagina.”

“They’re like these power symbols throughout the work,” Curreri said.

For all the hours dedicated to the collection, and for Curreri’s description of the exhibition as a political force, the artist expressed moments of uncertainty about its reach: “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the most productive thing to do,” she shrugged. In such moments of doubt, Curreri described finding fortitude in art, most recently in the writings of James Baldwin.

“(He had) faith in general humanity and beautiful things that we know have happened,” she related. “And so I’m just trying to rearrange language to find spaces of freedom — if art can be spaces of freedom.”

“COUNTRY HOUSE_” will run through Oct. 27 at the Romer Young Gallery in San Francisco

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].