Considering Representation, Identity and Community Through Art at the RIT City Art Space
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (LA) inspires the RIT City Art Space to host conversations centering voices from women, queer, and BIPOC communities to challenge normative art historical narratives.
As Rochester, New York’s only free downtown art gallery, the RIT City Art Space is always looking for ways to meet the challenges of making art more accessible. Through borrowing Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (LA), the venue embraced visitor-driven art experiences and asked complex questions surrounding identity, community and representation. With support from Art Bridges, the City Art Space set out to fulfill its mission to spark inspiration, conversation, and community connection through art, culture, and education.
On view from October 2020 – February 2021, the installation of Gonzalez-Torres’ work intentionally coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of his passing on January 9, 1996. This occasion not only marked a moment to celebrate the life of one the twentieth century’s most impactful artists, but also a time to re-evaluate and re-consider his life, work and legacy.
This was done in part by putting “Untitled” (LA) in conversation with an adjacent exhibition Visible Voices, a community-based, crowdsourced exhibition focused on equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, inclusivity, and justice. For the spring portion of the installation, the work was in conversation with an exhibition called Beyond Addiction/Reframing Recovery, a curated show of photographs charting new understandings of addiction and recovery through visual storytelling.
“Untitled” (L.A.) is one of the many candy-spill works Gonzalez-Torres created during his lifetime. Infinitely flexible in the ways it can be displayed, and in theory, interpreted, the spill invites visitors to consume the cellophane wrapped green candies that compose its bountiful mound. This invitation, at once alluring and taboo, challenges prescribed gallery expectations, reaching across the divide between viewer and art, bounding the two, while implicating the former in the latter’s demise. Ironically, this activation is also the source of co-creation, an idea that continues to resonate with viewers today.
Built around the theme “From Exclusion to Inclusion: Conversations about Art, Representation, Identity, and Community,” the City Art Space set goals that spoke to community and audience building. The first was to share scholarly insight into the practice of exclusion in art history and museum practice, which they accomplished through cumulative conversations that explored the ways Gonzalez-Torres differenced the field and art institutions through his work and the theories that foregrounded them. The content and perspectives for these conversations were created by women, and folks from BIPOC, and queer communities, thus prioritizing some of the groups that Gonzalez-Torres addressed in his body of work.
The City Art Space also thought about the life of the loan beyond its end date and created a free digital publication that continues to consider how we may approach and understand “Untitled” (L.A.) through community perspectives in an interactive format.
The Art Space worked closely with Rochester-area partners such as Out Alliance, Rochester’s LGBTQ+ equality and community enhancement organization and individuals who have a connection to LBGTQ+ rights and activism to shape and inform the content of their virtual offerings. The first program discussed some of the ways Gonzalez-Torres’ candy spills have been interpreted, while the second was offered in observation of Visual Aids’ Day With (out) Art, a day dedicated to action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis. The third, and final program featured a conversation that considered Gonzalez-Torres’ viral strategy, in which he successfully infiltrated museums and galleries, and in the process had to negotiate his relationship to whiteness. The discussion addressed the ways Gonzalez-Torres’ gayness was made palatable through omitting his identity as a Cuban refugee living with, and dying from AIDS. The program concluded with a “pass the mic” section where various memory keepers expressed some of the resonances of the artist’s work and responded to comments or questions from the virtual audience.
All three programs featured ASL interpretation and closed captioning, which was a first for the Art Space. The offering also included the creation of a digital graphic rendering of one of the program’s conversations. Including these features marked the first time the Art Space used these components, which built upon the idea of “from exclusion to inclusion.”
On the programming, John Aäsp, Gallery Director, RIT College of Art and Design and Juilee Decker, Assistant Professor and Director of Museum Studies, RIT College of Liberal Arts noted: “By the end of our series of programs, we had spanned topics of art history, social activism, local history, diversity, inclusivity, and institutional criticism while sharing in the common delight of this inviting, interactive work of art. It reminded us that even though the work was local and specific to our venue, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work continues to be an open path for important conversations resonating far beyond where it happens to be physically exhibited. Art Bridges was instrumental in helping us realize this meaningful programming during a difficult time for many art spaces and museums.”
Why We Love This Project
We love that the RIT City Art Space used its loan of “Untitled” (LA), to open and complicate conversations about art and identity, especially as race, gender, and sexuality continue to be axes where difference is othered. Just as they did over 25 years ago, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy spills today still encourage closer looking, consideration and interpretation. “Untitled” (LA)’s porosity continually rewards the viewer, which the Art Space embraced through its thoughtful programming. The work continues to encourage public collaboration and discourse; communion, compassion, and community building, as it seeks to bring people and ideas together through its ongoing generosity.
Published August 19, 2021