A Story to Be Toldby John Cappetta
KINGS COUNTY HOSPITAL | JUNE 2 – JUNE 22, 2018 (Room #CG91)
You might not expect A Story to Be Told to move you with its profound depth and sophistication because its premise resembles the always traumatic year’s-end hanging of the fruits of high school art classes. But the Young Exhibition Makers program (Y.Ex) is concerned with teaching its participants tools for self-definition, and the result of this sustained attention to meaningful expression is something quite different than both high school art exhibitions and proper gallery shows.
A Story to Be Told is set up like a small art fair, with mini-exhibitions constructed in various corners of the room. As with any art fair, not all of the work is engaging and not all of the curatorial visions are tightly executed. But some of the works are arresting. Medbh McNamara’s small paintings (watercolor and oil), which appear in numerous exhibits, intimately record the quiet anxieties and victories of what little time young people can set aside for themselves. In Dorothy (2018) a girl curls on a couch, bathed in sunlight, wearing a half-smile. There are two track-pant covered knees in the foreground that might belong to “Dorothy,” but they might as easily belong to the viewer, setting cozy and familiar dimensions for both the space and relationship with “Dorothy.” The image is unstable, the book doesn’t quite follow the spatial rules set by the figure, but the unsure physics work to make the moment feel precarious, like it might slip away at the slightest Instagram notification. Kiana Ketcham's Untitled (2018) in the “Complexions” gallery radically complicates the viewer’s ability to judge gender and age. The subject is bathed in a blue light field, resting their head in their hands, a not unfamiliar signal of vulnerability. But the effect is an unexpected destabilization of normally recognizable categories.
Likewise the curation is, at times, provocative. “Skin I’m In” (curated by Benjamin Opoku, Can Chen, Jontay Beckles, Marie Massier, and Ruby Mendez) examines gun violence, making use of two school lockers as vitrines—one door is covered with news clippings of gunned-down youths, the other presents a photographic record of teens expressing their rejection of gun violence and its blind popular acceptance. The locker is an enduring symbol as a site of private proclivities taped up for public consumption.1 These call into pointed question when and how we talk about politically charged topics like gun control, as well as how we wield the victims’s bodies as rhetorical tools.
A Story to Be Told is sponsored by No Longer Empty, an organization that is interested in art as socially engaged and community-based practice, among other things, and KAVI, an organization that conducts interventions in service of violence prevention. Y.Ex trains teenagers how to research, curate, and build exhibitions from a combination of their own works and art submitted by other local teens around self-selected topics. It is the kind of program that proposes unquantifiable healing and growth for its participants, the way that summer camp brochures might. The setting, a disused emergency waiting room in Kings County Hospital, provides a contextual reminder that Y.Ex is a study in wellness, leaving the viewer wondering if the healing isn’t reserved just for the curators.
Dr. Robert Gore, KAVI’s Founder, said in a panel discussion for the exhibition, “wellness, in health, is about being able to define who we are and how we are in our own words, instead of by somebody else.” There’s been a welcome trend in teen media over the last few years in which outlets heed Dr. Gore’s words, facilitating teens in discussing issues on their own terms rather than speaking down to their readers from a list of market-research provided topics. This was arguably spearheaded by Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Mag, embraced by portions of BuzzFeed, and taken across the threshold of mainstream media by Teen Vogue (responsible for our ability to correctly identify “gaslighting” in the sitting president’s rhetoric). And here, in Teen Vogue’s crossover appeal, we can posit that wellness begets wellness and that the viewer might also heal with Y.Ex. When a person expresses themself without inhibition, the viewer (any viewer) is affected and uplifted by a startling recognition of their own self in the artist’s work.
The curators spoke repeatedly during the panel about feeling unheard. It is certainly true that their voices, though loud and clear, haven’t yet deposed gun violence, gender inequality (neither gender writ large), monolithic racial stereotypes and inequality, or any of the other issues addressed forwardly in A Story to be Told. But we might see in programs like Y.Ex, as in the rise of teen musicians to prominent acclaim through use of their own internet-based platforms (Car Seat Headrest, Clairo, King Krule, Snail Mail, pinkcaravan! to name a few), that somebody is listening. And that the people who are listening are finding, in these voices, the thing they might have been looking for everywhere else—a recognition of their angst and desire to celebrate the fact that, despite everything, we’re still here.
- Felix Bernstein outlines the concept in reference to the “media locker” of gay influences. Nick Bennett, “InConversation: Felix Bernstein and Gabe Rubin with Nick Bennett,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2018.
JOHN CAPPETTA is a production assistant and contributor at The Brooklyn Rail. Their writing has also appeared in Civil Eats and Hakai Magazine.