Published with The Charlotte Observer on Feb. 16, 2018.
Uncomfortable questions, complex feelings, alternative perspectives? Bring them all on for “The Art of Struggle.”
The exhibition now at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art features three Charlotte-area artists – MyLoan Dinh, Charles Farrar and Susan Brenner –and the show is the passion project of Sonya Pfeiffer, the gallery’s relatively new owner and a full-time civil rights and criminal defense lawyer with Rudolf Widenhouse in Charlotte. Her goal: “Use art as a vehicle for discussion.”
So the three submitted and created pieces for the exhibition with the stated goal of addressing “the consequences of our complex unresolved history around race and gender.” Each spoke in a panel discussion Feb. 13; the show is on view until Feb. 28.
Here’s a look at four key players of “The Art of Struggle”:
Dinh’s multimedia pieces in the exhibition are inspired, she said, by modern-day movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, as well as her experience leaving Saigon as it fell in 1975 and coming to the United States as a refugee.
Enter the gallery and you’re met with one of her large works, to the left, titled “One Nation … For All.” It’s an American flag constructed from life jackets, symbolic of her family’s escape on the last Navy ship before the city fell, she said. During the discussion Tuesday, she spoke of being at sea with tens of thousands of people who “couldn’t go anywhere because no one wanted us.”
A U.S. Navy ship awaited word from Washington on what to do about the refugees crowded onto boats, she said, but the wait stretched on. Ultimately, Dinh said, the Navy helped refugees by lowering the Vietnamese flags on their boats – which were deterring help from other nations – and raising American ones.
“It’s only because people felt that life, dignity and compassion were more important than politics and policy that I’m here,” Dinh said. “That’s what it means: One nation … for all.”
Woodturner Farrar said he was inspired for this exhibition by the struggle his parents faced as he was growing up, and that of his ancestors who were slaves brought to “cultivate the earth.” He noted that each of his turned wood pieces, exhibited from Charlotte to the White House, contains a personal piece of his ancestry. (One example: A family wedding-gift vessel, atop which he placed as a finial a tiny piece of wood from a plow an ancestor had owned.)
In the exhibition, his “Homage to Sharecroppers” was made with spalted maple wood and rings from the hub of a wagon wheel his parents used on their farm. Growing up, Farrar witnessed the unfair treatment of his parents as they worked to make a living off the farm in southern Virginia due to their race, he recounted, in an array of ways – like having to find someone to bid on farm property for them, because if they placed the bids themselves, they were likely to be “passed over” or ignored.
Farrar, based in Concord, also thought about by the creative and industrious way his parents survived despite adversity, and finds it an honor to pay tribute to them and his ancestors who may have often felt the “struggle was for naught,” he said. “I understand in telling my story I have to try not to appear ungrateful, but it’s important to me to tell the stories of those who cannot tell it themselves.”
And he applauded the exhibition concept: He laughed about his initial hesitation about a Dinh collaborative idea – a photographic work created for the show – but decided to go along, because “Already, in its infancy almost, this gallery evokes respect.”
Brenner’s work in the exhibition is unique in that the majority of it was created in 1990-91, but she said she found it deeply and newly relevant to modern struggles with gender roles and feminism.
Brenner, a painter who also works with photography, digital imaging, drawing and installation, was raised by a single mother and is no stranger to these issues, she said. “It does amaze me how relevant they are now. They seem relevant in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
“Susanna and The Elders” is the first image you see when you enter the gallery, a complex painting that draws from the portrayal of women in marketing and media as well as from an addition to the Book of Daniel.
She hopes her pieces evoke emotion and offer new perspectives, she said: “Things have to be made strange… to make you stop and think and see.”
Pfeiffer came into possession of the gallery last year after she and her husband, David Rudolf, had dinner with longtime friend and former owner Larry Elder. When he mentioned he was retiring and selling the space, the couple shared one look, she said, and knew they wanted to be the next owners.
She asked Elder to continue working under the previous name, tweaking it slightly to Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art. She’d like to show both commercial art and exhibitions that speak to relevant and at times controversial issues, she said: Because she works on wrongful convictions cases, she’d like to explore many of the issues she sees people dealing with at work, in a non-threatening way – art. And she’d like to get people talking about it.
Pfeiffer says she’s still learning as she goes, but she plans to have a section of activist art in the gallery somewhere at all times during commercial shows, and every few months will do a larger-scale activist show like “The Art of Struggle.”
The next socially charged exhibition she’s planning will happen this November and explore veterans’ issues. She’s not ruling out any shows or ideas that might pop up as the months come.
“We’ll see,” she said, shrugging and smiling. “We’ll see how the world turns.”