Younger generations are sometimes criticized for knowing only the history they've lived through, for voicing kneejerk outrage without the nuance historical context brings. But this can't be said about the young artists in Versus, the Ackland's annual show for graduate students in studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill. This year's exhibit is a considered indictment of the racial, economic, and ethical history of the United States.
Even reactions to our current moment, such as Jeanine Tatlock's revised plaques for the Silent Sam monument on campus, interrogate the past of the university, the state, and the nation, weaving informed critique with angry provocation. Tatlock previously mounted two of the wooden plaques, painted to look like bronze, on the monument. One of them bitingly edits the text honoring the Confederate dead, while the other lends the soldier a bit of white guilt: "Guys, I'm embarrassed to be standing here. Why don't you put a statue of Pauli Murray in my place?"
Allison Coleman and Kimberly English raise the point that racial and economic disparities are the same thing. In Coleman's five colorful paintings, she plays upon a postwar domestic fantasy of white wealth and goodness while calculating the cost of that prosperity through the lies we tell ourselves for it. "Thanks for the Conversation (Mea Culpa)" shows a white family praying around a turkey dinner and a housewife shopping at a gory grocery-store meat counter; both ignore the migrant family working a field between them.
English's video and installation, "Made in America," features a high-end suit jacket deconstructed into eighty-six parts, pinned to the wall like splayed insects. The video shows her cutting and tearing the garments apart, acknowledging the work that went into the piece, while audio of a sewing machine surges and recedes. English shows that labor doesn't supply the product; it is the product, and it always has been.
This economic critique turns more environmental in other works. Britta Anderson's "How is everything going?" is a bland oil painting crumbling into concrete and drywall, a comment on the disposability of the wall upon which it's hung. Lindsay Metivier, after painstakingly removing thick accretions of flyers and posters from Carrboro telephone poles, presents them as archaeological relics. Both artists remind us that discarded meanings disappear while their material remnants keep piling up. Sara Farrington's "Model Home," a living room set meticulously wrapped with white craft paper, inverts that entropy, showing the empty terror of the products we retain.
Joel Hopler's paintings, frantic with pictorial conflict to the point of depicting no identifiable things, raise one's anxiety level, and Carley Zarzeka's quieter "also grows the saving"—an array of nineteen small sculptural assemblages of everyday objects—connects anxiety to the racial, economic, and environmental disasters we are letting unfold. In one assemblage, a black foam tube dangles from a monofilament suspended from a jutting spring that keeps a door from bashing a wall.
Through such enigmas, Zarzeka lets us bring our own anxieties into the gallery to reimagine them ourselves. These are things without names or memory, post-thing things, survivors, things that remind us our consumption will consume us and the inanimate will outlast us. History, civilization, and even its aftermath are all encompassed in Versus's long view.
Corrections: Based on incorrect information provided by the museum, this piece originally misidentified the pictured Joel Hopler painting and the audio content of Kimberly English's "Made in America."