They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs and, while a late-night nosh at the JTB Waffle House might prove that wrong, it’s the kind of adage that’s generally accepted because it makes general sense to the general public. When it comes to art, that particular platitude also has the benefit of being historically accurate, metaphorically speaking, since egg goo was used to make artists’ tempera paints in ye olde days of yore, before kindergartners claimed them as their chosen medium.
These days, nobody seems to care as much about the composition of an artist’s media as they do about the content of an artist’s work. Where once the paints and solvents were the sticky and dangerous stuff, in the kinder, gentler 21st century, it’s the themes and images that can lead to a harmful level of toxicity.
This week, noted photographer and 904 expatriate artist Tyler Shields blew up the Internet when his recent work examining race relations in right-now ’Merica got picked up and shared by TMZ. The central image, a stunning black-and-white photo of a naked black man lynching a white-hooded klansman, was enough to ignite the zeitgeist of social media and make something of a wave. But it was Shields’ ancillary pieces — in which white, riot-geared police are victimized, their own tactics used against them by black civilians — that gave the images’ right-on-time message such a powerful voice.
Shields’ images emphasize the heat that’s been burning its way from the doorsteps of Staten Island to the Gate parking lot on the corner of Southside and Baymeadows. In other words, just the kind of bile-flinging sideshow that bottom-feeders like TMZ have perfected. Predictably, the related conversations that ensued were flaming, emotional and hateful, just like the scenes on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson.
Last week, Folio Weekly columnist AG Gancarski paralleled things further, positing that the streets of Jacksonville might be overripe for the same kind of unrest that Baltimore just experienced. We’ll see how our community — and our newly elected and pathetically inexperienced mayor and sheriff — reacts as the details of the D’Angelo Stallworth shooting come to light. In that regard, it seems like more than kismet that the forceful, inflammatory, thoughtful and in-your-face photographs of a former NEFL artist are pushing their way into the public consciousness. What role, then, might an exhibition of Shields’ photography play in the 904 right about now? Is there a space or curator here willing to risk the kind of controversy such a show might (read: absolutely would) reap?
Sure, valuable and vocal arts and community leaders like Hope McMath, Chevara Orrin, and, of course, Al Letson do an amazing job of making sure we never forget that #blacklivesmatter, but it wasn’t too long ago that Lee Harvey’s “Jesusville” exhibit stirred the stink pretty good. Less than a year ago, a photo of a woman’s nipples caused a half-hearted tingling in an overwrought city-council-president-who-shall-remain-nameless’ naught bits and nearly set us back decades. And just a couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon gallery shooting in Texas, plenty of locals played the “don’t make waves of negativity” and “proper decorum” cards.
Tyler Shields, and plenty of other talented artists of all genres, have moved from NEFL to pastures much greener for artists, finding success only after adopting a new ZIP code. His work is controversial by provincial local standards, but by no means is it cut from the cloth of the Shock Art school. In fact, in Los Angeles, where Shields is now based — a city quite familiar with the consequences of a palpable, constantly ticking level of racial tension, FWIW — it’s unlikely his photography would be considered any big deal in terms of “appropriateness of content.”
We live in a time obsessed with pandering to the broadest spectrum and impressing the least common denominator. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Twitter.) That means not making waves or ruffling feathers, and especially not seeming like you’re trying too hard or caring too much. It’s no wonder that, to take a cue from national arts guru Jerry Saltz, even the work of abstract expressionists — once considered the edgiest and most outrageous of artists — has begun to drop like mud into a self-referential drool of safe uniformity and couch-matching “marketability.”
In 21st-century ’Merica, and most poignantly in NEFL, the act of being offensive is what is taken offense with, before even approaching the quality or content in question. Where does that leave the artists, the painters, the poets, the actors and dancers and musicians who hold up a mirror to our culture, to our community, to us, and ask the hard questions, make the tough observations, tell the unvarnished truths?
More often than not, it leaves them on a hot stretch of NEFL asphalt on their way to Atlanta, Miami, or any of the major metro areas that invest in and listen to artists, wondering who’s eating a shitty Waffle House omelet in the 904.