Critical Art

Eugene Contemporary Art’s interdisciplinary art exhibit examines race, identity and privilege

Mika Aono and Neal Williams making prints. Photo by Kathleen Caprario.

Lane Community College art instructor Kathleen Caprario was a textile design artist in New York City before she moved to Oregon. When she came to Eugene in the late ’70s her attention turned from textiles to landscapes.

In A Critical Conversation, at Eugene Contemporary Art’s ANTI-AESTHETIC gallery through March 21, she merges her interest in pattern and the environment with the topic of race.  

Sponsored by a Black Lives Matter artist grant from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and a 2020 Lane Arts artist grant, the gallery show features work by eleven artists and four poets, as well as two panel discussions and a March 6 screen print performance.

The exhibit began with a proposal Caprario made to ECA, where she is a member. She has long been interested in issues of social justice. But it wasn’t until she took an introductory anthropology course at LCC that she began to think specifically about race. The professor, Tami Hill, asked her class to describe themselves. Caprario says no one identified as being white, even though everyone was. 

It was then she realized the nature of white privilege, that she didn’t have to think about being white if the system, purposefully or by rote, was set up to her advantage.

A Critical Conversation reflects part of an ongoing question Caprario asks herself as an artist who’s white: “How do I work in this space without taking a colonizing view?”

In response to this question, she invited artists to participate in the show who are all Oregonians but from different ethnicities, races and perspectives. She wanted their work to “converse” with her own. They include Mika Aono, Kaitlyn Carr-Kiprotich, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, Perry Johnson, Stormie Loury, William Rutherford, Josh Sands, Kerry Skarbakka, Yvonne Stubbs and Neal Williams.

The exhibit is meant to be a starting point for dialogue, to discuss and think critically about the intersection of art, race and equity. It has so far been a success, particularly the panel discussions that were streamed Feb. 19 and 20.

The discussions were moderated by Beth Robinson-Hartpence and Megan E. Malone, both of whom have educational backgrounds in conflict resolution. In the Feb. 19 discussion two participating artists, filmmaker Gregory Black and poet Carter McKenzie, spoke about their creative practices. Black relates his various artistic endeavors to a general curiosity about the world, while McKenzie explains it another way: “For me, poetry is witness.”

Eric Richardson participated, too, though not in his capacity as executive director of Lane County’s NAACP. He was present, he says, as “just Eric Richardson.” He was there as son to artist parents who were members of the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, Missouri, as an amateur musician (he plays bass) and as someone who was raised to view John Coltrane as a hero, even maybe more so than Martin Luther King Jr.

Caprario’s interest in design and pattern informs her piece for the show. She designed the wallpaper for her installation “Patterns of Privilege: Under my Skin.” The wallpaper at first seems very much in the background, just something to cover the wall and hang her other art on. One small corner of the paper hangs loose, as if it’s starting to peel off. Exposed on the wall underneath is a pattern: names of Black people who were violently killed in recent years.

Carr-Kiprotich’s “Navigating Race and Ethnicity” is inspired by her experience being part of an interracial couple. Her paper collages are part of an ongoing series and serve as effective conversation starters as well. Simple cut-out shapes depict routine daily life yet manage to put an emphasis on the complexity of attitudes toward race.

Carr-Kiprotich leaves her faces blank so the focus is on shape and color. One work in the series shows people of different colors watching President Donald Trump on television, recognizable by the shape of his hair. It’s a simple, childlike image of a couple watching TV. It’s powerful because it leads to thinking about fairness the way a child might, and about designing a world where future generations of differing colors — or races — could live with equity.

A Critical Conversation runs through March 21 at Eugene Contemporary Art, 245 W. 8th Avenue. See to sign up for a time to visit the gallery. Recordings of panel discussions are available online, and the final print performance, in which Mika Aona and Neal Williams will make and give out prints, takes place at ECA 2-4 pm March 6.   

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