Tuesday, May 14, 2013

G. Ray Kerciu's "Radical Retrospective" and the Beauty of Local Engagement

I am fortunate to work on two local college campuses: Fullerton College and Cal State University, Fullerton.  One of the benefits of constantly being on these two campuses is that there are amazing cultural happenings all the time: art exhibits, plays, musical performances, poetry readings, lecture series, festivals, the occasional protest, etc.  I am surrounded by creativity, ideas, and free expression.

One problem I've noticed, however, is that these campuses are largely "commuter" campuses.  Thus, it is quite possible, and often the case, that many students and faculty alike will come to school, attend their classes, and go home, paying very little attention to all the cultural and social richness outside the narrow confines of their classes or department.  For a while, I was in this category.  For the first 3-4 years of my teaching career, I did not feel a part of a larger campus community, and I was hopelessly uninformed about all the amazing things surrounding me.

What changed things for me was getting involved in the Fullerton Art Walk and the Fullerton community.  Over the past 3-4 years, I've discovered a profound interest in paying attention to local things, to being a part of them, and this means paying attention to what's happening on the college campuses where I teach.  Now I like to pick up the Daily Titan, I check out campus bulletin boards, I make a point of visiting the Fullerton College Art Gallery and the Begovich Gallery at CSUF, and I get to regularly experience the beautiful community that a college campus can offer.

Recently, as a result of this newfound awareness, I attended the opening reception for an art exhibit at CSUF's Begovich Gallery entitled "G. Ray Kerciu: Radical Retrospective."  It was a career-spanning exhibit of Kerciu, a former CSUF professor.  There was a lovely book for sale about the exhibit, which I bought, and I got to meet the artist, and he signed my book.  This is another benefit of local community engagement--you get to meet some really awesome people.  At the opening, I also ran into four artists who call themselves The Bloody Marys, who had exhibited at my gallery downtown.

I took my parents and my grandma Sally to the exhibit because they also have an interest in local things.  My mom is actually taking an Intro to Art class at Fullerton College, so she's been attending a lot of local art openings lately.  I also wanted to bring my family because of what I'd read about the show.

In his early career, Kerciu had taught at the University of Mississippi when the first African American student, James Meredith, was being allowed to enroll, ending a long legacy of segregation.  As a young professor and artist, Kerciu created works which commented on the racism in his community at that time.  I wanted to get my parents' and grandma's perspective, because they were alive during the 1960s, and I was not.  I wanted to know what they remembered of the events and ideas represented in the art show.  The exhibit encompasses more than the civil rights work, but I was particularly interested in this art, because I'm very interested in how art can contribute to dialogue about civil rights issues.  That was the inspiration for the current exhibit , LOVE. SEX. UNITY. RESPECT. at the Magoski Arts Colony, of which my gallery is a part.  This exhibit is full of artwork celebrating marriage equality and the LGBT community.

And so my family and I entered the exhibit and looked at the art together.  Kerciu's "Mississippi Series" deals with all the racism and violence he witnessed during the integration of Ole Miss.  At the time, white racist segregationists were protesting the integration, and Kerciu was revolted by what he was witnessing.  He recalls, "I had to make some kind of statement.  I had to stand up and do something.  It was a gut reaction, an intuitive reaction to hatred and misery."  In his art, Kerciu used imagery and slogans of segregationists to ironically comment on what he was witnessing.  By putting racist slogans like "Ignore the Nigger With Vigor" and "White Only" and "The Only Good Nigger is a Dead Nigger" on large canvases for public display, he offered people an opportunity to reflect on the ugly racist attitudes of the time.

While Kerciu's work received national critical praise, it was less well-received locally.  He was actually arrested and jailed for "desecrating the Confederate flag," which he used ironically in his artwork.  Eventually, due to all the public and media attention, the charges were dropped.  Kerciu's pieces are powerful even today, like "Never," which included a swastika over the confederate flag, and "America the Beautiful," an ironically-titled piece which mirrors back the racist slogans he was hearing and seeing during the integration struggle at Ole Miss.

The value of art is the dialogue it opens up.  Art can allow us to transcend a lot of barriers, and see things from a new perspective.  At a time and place of great racism and conflict, Kerciu's art sought to expose the hate for what it was, and to promote serious reflection and dialogue, both in his own community and nationally.

As I had hoped, the show opened up some dialogue with my parents, who were kids growing up during the civil rights movement.  I asked my parents what they remembered, and my mom recalled a family car trip to Florida in the early 60s, traveling through the American south, and seeing signs like "White only" and "Colored" above stores and public places.  She recalled feeling, even as a child, that this was wrong.  Because my parents grew up in relatively small towns in Wisconsin, they were somewhat insulated from the major civil rights marches, protests, and struggles that were happening elsewhere.  Both recall friends and elders using racist slurs, and both recall feeling disgusted by racism. My grandma remembered her mother-in-law using bitter racist slurs her whole life.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and the discrimination I've seen has had less to do with race and more to do with sexual orientation.  I remember hearing and using the words "fag" and "faggot" in school, and I remember the laughter and ridicule our high school ASB president experienced when he "came out" in his graduation speech.  That was 1998.

After his "Mississippi Series," Kerciu began his "USA Series," which pondered larger social, civil, and political issues that defined America of the mid-1960s.  Overall, the exhibit inspired me to be continually engaged with my community, and to use my art and writing to comment on and contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

The show continues through May 25. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday-Thursday and noon to 2 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 657-278-2434.

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