Bulletin boards for written requests to the Almighty are common sights in churches. Lately, museums and galleries have caught the same participatory spirit. Many curators encourage visitors to scribble reflections on a Post-it Note and affix it to a wall where others can read it. Because theirs are secular spaces, these prompts are directed toward the cohesion of the community rather than the salvation of the soul.
They often feel indebted to devotional practice anyway. Those who visit two new exhibitions — “Spiral Q: The Parade” and “Local Voices: Memories, Stories and Portraits” — that are part of a series called “Perspectives” at the Domestic Arts Building at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton will encounter a solicitation for dialogue on the way out. It fits: Both shows feel like prayers. They are both animated by faith in the healing power of art and storytelling — faith that hasn’t exactly been justified by the harsh experience of living in the world in 2023.
In “The Parade,” in the top floor of the space, there is a physical manifestation of the belief that the right papier-mâché puppet in the right shape can make an intervention in a public debate that verbal argument cannot. “Local Voices,” on the bottom floor, is a three-dimensional multimedia documentary meant to ennoble the immigrant experience through tales, photographs and personal artifacts from 15 South Asians living in New Jersey. Not coincidentally, many of those belongings and stories have religious significance.
The two shows, curated by chief audience officer Kathleen Ogilvie Greene, represent genuine outreach from an arts institution that hasn’t often been associated with social justice movements. These gestures of inclusivity are slightly awkward, but they are sincere nonetheless — and sincerity permeates both exhibitions. These are exhibitions built, unashamedly, around sociopolitical missions.
In “The Parade,” we are confronted by lively, massive paper sculptures that come straight from processionals and protests. We also are invited to admire the cohesion and commitment of the local groups who have fashioned these brightly colored beasts and turned them against the establishment.
“Local Voices” presents well-composed photos and crisply directed video. But its assemblers also want us to recognize the struggles of the subjects of those photos and autobiographical clips.
The projects make their arguments with conviction and share an ideological outlook and a spirited distrust of art for art’s sake. The creators upstairs and the creators downstairs would recognize each other as fellow travelers. It seems ever so slightly disloyal to the egalitarian principles for which these shows stand to decouple them by pointing out that one works far better than the other one does.
“The Parade” is an endearing, energetic show, and it crackles with the excitement of the front lines at the protest. It’s hard not to be impressed by a gigantic unicorn, as big as a fantasy dragon, surrounded by posters dedicated to transgender people lost to violence. A papier-mâché effigy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos glowers from a corner, where he hangs like a huntsman spider, his avarice answerable only by unionization and redistributive economic policy. Human figures (and huge raised fists) representing gay rights, reproductive freedoms, pacifist movements, racial justice and police reform jostle for attention in a narrow alcove. A diorama of Capitol Hill is meant to remind us not simply to complain, but to channel our frustration into the making of progressive policy.
Chances are, these sculptures in pulp have seen more action on the street than you have. Spiral Q, the organization behind the puppetry, has been agitating in Philadelphia for close to 30 years. Its works aren’t just crudely effective: They’re effective because they’re crude. Their irregularity amplifies their moral force. Their proletarian makers feel too much urgency to let themselves stop to chase perfection, or even rough symmetry. The sculptures are expressions of popular desires and demands for change, fashioned by volunteer activists in communal settings. Spiral Q provides the coaching and the art supplies; you do the rest.
But the visual uniformity of the work on view suggests the presence of a heavier hand than we’d expect to get from a group committed to running grassroots campaigns. The aesthetic of Spiral Q is deeply reminiscent of that of Bread and Puppet Theater, the activist performance art group that has been turning monstrous papier-mâché masks against social ills for many decades. This resemblance is unmistakable, immediate and somewhat perplexing, and it surprises me that “The Parade” does not make much of this obvious influence.
Bread and Puppet’s puppets began their march against war and poverty a half century ago, and haven’t swerved much since. Even if we can accept that a universal visual language of protest exists, shouldn’t fashions in papier-mâché have changed since the Vietnam era? Shouldn’t radicalism inspire something a little more radical? Paper and glue belong to the tradition of arte povera, but freedom from conventional expectations ought to have prompted more visual innovation than we’re getting.
It also should have prompted a little more subtlety. Constructive political discourse rarely happens at this high pitch. It does not seem to have occurred to Spiral Q that reductive caricatures of complicated topics might be part of the problem we’re facing rather than part of the solution. The righteous expression of dead certainty that this show radiates does feel very American and very 2023. With its statuary, its stations, its dogmatism, its naked appeal to the emotions and its roll call of martyrs, it also imparts a bit of the chill of the medieval cathedral.
“Local Voices: Memories, Stories and Portraits” has heavy overtones of devotional service, too. But this congregation is ecumenical: creator Madhu Bora has gathered stories from, among others, a Muslim, a Jain, a Zoroastrian, a Bahai and a Sikh. Unlike Spiral Q, an organization with an outlook aligned with international social-democratic movements, “Local Voices” feels deeply rooted in New Jersey, home to one of the largest concentrations of South Asian immigrants anywhere on the globe. This show is as minute and particular as “The Parade” is excitable and general, and because of that specificity and originality, both its design and its message are thoroughly persuasive.
For “Local Voices,” Bora and co-curator Quentin Williams suspend poster-sized reproductions of photographs from the ceiling of the ground floor gallery. Walking through this assembly of faces feels a bit like being at a party and a bit like taking a meandering walk through the championship banners in the home gym of a winning basketball team. The tone is welcoming and the mood is battered but proud. Each subject has stashed a thing or two of personal significance in a transparent reliquary that squats in front of the photo like a pet might sit before a walker. Some of the objects come straight from a temple of one sect or another, but others simply have the sacred quality of the everyday: a book, a shawl, a photograph, a cricket bat.
They amplify the individuality of the subjects, many of whom gaze back from the photographs with looks on their faces that suggest distinctive trajectories, struggles, and the particularities of experience. At the same time, the objects link these men and women to living cultures. They’re proud representatives of traditions, but those traditions don’t define them. Neither does hardship — although hardship is something they’ve all known.
The room of banners is engrossing. But to fully understand who these people are, you’ve got to go to a den-like retreat at the back of the gallery where their first-person stories play on a pair of video screens. You might be tempted to skip this: Grounds for Sculpture promises an outdoor experience for visitors, and the sun will probably be calling you to the gardens. Don’t listen. Yes, you will feel like you’re watching television in the den of a middle-class Jersey home, but that’s part of the aspirational charm of the exhibit.
The narratives, recounted in detail and with great candor, reinforce the singularity of these lives and the continuity of the immigrant experience. Some of them are sad stories. But a common thread is perseverance, and a powerful desire to be part of America, even when it doesn’t seem like America has much love to give back. And some of these confessional narratives are quietly triumphant, like that of the woman who keeps the Zoroastrian flame burning in a country where it barely flickers, and the amazing tale of a poor gas station attendant who finds romance with a repeat customer.
The “Perspectives” shows open at Grounds For Sculpture just as the weather is turning nice. In the contest for the viewer’s attention, they are pitted against some of the most spectacular outdoor art in the region: scores of sculptures (some massive, some miniature and some practically inhabitable), scattered across the Mercer County hills. But in their commitment to narrative, “The Parade” and especially “Local Voices” are well aligned with the mission of a unique arts destination filled with works that have complicated stories to tell. They’re a worthy supplement to a fascinating permanent collection: an indoor option at an outdoor institution. Time spent in the Domestic Arts Building may feel a bit like going to the chapel on a beautiful morning that you’d rather spend in the park. But a quick trip to a house of worship can deepen understanding of what you’ve encountered during your springtime idyll. And if you have trouble pulling yourself away from the sunshine, know you’ve got time: “Perspectives” will remain at Grounds for Sculpture through the cloudy days of fall, not closing until Jan. 7.
For information, visit groundsforsculpture.org.
April 29 at 1 p.m., a performance of classical Indian dance by the Sattriya Dance Company will accompany “Local Voices.”
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