Abigail DeVille’s American Future

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Abigail DeVille’s American Future

By Paul Maziar January 22, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Abigail DeVille’s immersive, monumental installation at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, The American Future, invites visitors to consider the image of the United States through the lens of Black Americans and others who’ve struggled and suffered yet persevered. The exhibition also serves as a confrontation to one’s own image in relation to the grand constructions that the artist and her team of workers have built.

The most evident theme of The American Future installation can be encapsulated in one word: power. Many other words also emerge—like burden, vulnerability, community, visibility, witness—all of which speak to the critical resistance required to navigate structural power, seen or unseen. Throughout the vast gallery space, this thoughtfully assembled and meticulously labored exhibition evokes the power of the creative artist’s drive today: to bring together historical and contemporary socio-political issues, diverse media, and collaborative forces in a way that allows for the unforeseen to become painfully visible.

Abigail DeVille. The American Future, 2018; installation view. Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Portland, OR. Photo: Evan Lalonde

At the front of the installation, a monolithic formation composed of bundled back issues of the Street Roots newspaper looms, heavy and imposing, over a hidden support structure of metal and colorfully painted detritus. Street Roots is a weekly newspaper published in the Portland metropolitan area. Through its distribution and sale, it provides job opportunities to people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Its readership is wide and varied. DeVille’s work calls to mind the many unseen narratives of the underserved and the paradox of the news media. The conversation it engenders tends to be ephemeral though deeply consequential. To the left of the newspaper monolith (listed as A in the show of settings and tableaus lettered A through K) is Can you see? (2018), a tall black tent with numerous mannequins’ feet coming from its base. Continuing around the show’s pentagonal hub, a pathway of fractured pieces of mirror winds through the space as though it were a secluded tunnel, forcing a viewer to reconcile one’s body relative to the size and scope of this work, both physically and ideologically.

Cumulatively, the works are imposing to take in—all of it is rich in culture, material, critique, and tenderness. The curator Kristan Kennedy’s statement in the exhibition’s gallery guide rings true: “The generosity of information and material people have contributed to this installation has been staggering.” On the one hand, the amount of information presented has been tediously considered, to remain accessible; on the other hand, the show is dizzying in the obvious enormity of DeVille and her collaborators’ labor. One would have to be willfully ignorant in order to miss the message for the monument. The show, which took over a year to conceive and multiple weeks to install, involved the work of many different creative voices, including those of Jodi Darbi, Julie Perini, and Erin Yanke through a film about Portland’s history of police violence, Arresting Power (2014).

Abigail DeVille. The American Future, 2018; installation view. Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Portland, OR. Photo: Evan Lalonde

In keeping with the rich tapestry of DeVille’s general practice, The American Future draws upon important issues of our time by way of various materials and media, allowing her messages to emerge organically through a multitude of interfaces. The artist takes a critical look at the origins of American democracy, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the presidential race of 1804. Jefferson’s suggestion that “all men are created equal” and the historical lapses of such an ideology, are palpable throughout the exhibition. A neon pink family-room setting with couches and clocks also bears the outline of the American flag, punctured or shot through with sharp, blue LED lights that look like bullet holes. There are duplications of the Declaration of Independence, and groups of pillars—a classical trope that’s meant to depict solidity, support, and fortitude—are made flimsy by Deville through her use of cardboard for their construction.

For DeVille, making art is a timely and pointed gesture toward bearing witness to the historical and contemporary struggles of Black Americans. This bearing witness is a necessity that, through internalization and embodiment, inspires empathy and subverts flawed versions of history. The installation, in all its constituent, multivalent aspects, is neither didactic nor opaque. It allows visitors to have the kind of experience that rings true for them, be it purely subjective or related to the asserted narrative. A viewer’s politics must be reconciled before one can fully appreciate contemporary art; Americans have access to too much information to unwittingly ignore the context. In DeVille’s case, The American Future inhabits a cultural history while it reflects the recent past in dynamic ways. Lovers of art and archives alike have much to be grateful for in an installation like DeVille’s, which strives wildly in its vision for change and ambition to surprise. It succeeds on many grounds. The urge to remind and enlighten in DeVille’s work is undeniable. The works give hope for a future of critical awareness, visibility, community, and new pathways of support for the marginalized.

Abigail DeVille: The American Future was on view at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) through January 12, 2019.

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