'Crafting Democracy' fights fire with fiber 

In 2017, the Memorial Art Gallery passed the Rochester Biennial baton to Rochester Contemporary Art Center. RoCo immediately rebranded the Biennial -- which had been an invitational showcase of the work of six regional artists, exhibited in the MAG's Grand Gallery -- as a multi-venue, collaborative, and interactive event, building on coordinated the First Friday gallery openings that RoCo has spearheaded the past several years.

In the first year of the rebranded biennial, RoCo, Visual Studies Workshop, and Gallery r each hosted simultaneous exhibits. Organizers wanted to encourage collaboration between mid-sized galleries, promote thoughtful and challenging work, and explore new curatorial models, said RoCo's Executive Director Bleu Cease, in a 2017 interview with CITY.

This year, organizers have further evolved the biennial into "Current Seen," a string of contemporary visual arts exhibitions, pop-ups, and installations of new public art that will unfold along East Avenue and Main Street, mostly during six First Fridays this fall, between October 6 and November 17. This geographic focus is meant to addresses the corridor as both a dividing line and a connective thread, Cease says.

"Current Seen" is meant "to foster collaboration, help spaces achieve greater collective impact, celebrate the act of curation, and aid artists in reaching new expanded audiences," Cease said in a provided statement. It includes more than 20 exhibitions and events organized by both experienced and emerging curators. Organizers will seek more collaborators as the event approaches.

One exhibit in the "Current Seen" lineup is already on view at Central Library's Rundel Memorial Building (the recent site of the "Stonewall: 50 Years Out" exhibit). "Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism," is a collection of subversive embroidery, soft sculpture, quilts, and other resistance art curated by two Rochester Institute of Technology professors, Hinda Mandell and Juilee Decker.

The exhibit uses the language of traditionally women-oriented crafts to explore the 2016 presidential campaign and its (ongoing) aftermath as its main focus. Some of the works are finished products, created from the relics of specific responses to this administration, such as Jessica M. Skulty's "Hear Our Voice" quilt that she crafted and used as a protest banner during the Inauguration Day Women's March on Washington, DC. Scraps of dark fabric boldly spell out "Our health matters," the words layered over a pink Venus symbol. Ellis Angel's "Don't Mourn, Organize," is a different sort of quilt, made using strips of posters from the New York City Women's March, woven and stitched together.

Other works will continue to evolve, such as Adrienne Sloan's "The Unraveling." Displayed upright against a picture of the Constitution, Sloan's knitted American flag is in a state of deterioration. The artist plans to continuously unravel the work during the current administration, "as long as our civil and political rights continue to erode," curatorial notes state.

More than one artwork in the show makes mention to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, of course the knitted pink pussy hats, and women's rights in particular. Other artists are concerned with historic and pervasive issues as they condemn police brutality, racism, and the whole rotten system, while challenging each of us to do better.

In particular, June Lee's installation, "Bystander," is a powerful message to the masses. Two groups of 10 small figures are set up in a display case, facing one another, but not quite. Each of the resin cast figures is covered with a unique pattern of explosively colorful thread, and looks aloof in its own way: hands clasped behind backs or crossed over chests, and eyes cast off to the side or down at the ground. The work asks questions about our responsibility to one another, which are evident even before reading the provided statement about the individual's duality as a distinct unit and a part of a collective. In all honesty they look like superheroes refusing to help.

The exhibit's curators are looking for fiber artists to contribute to a yarn installation for "The Corinthian Hall Craft Intervention," planned for Wednesday, August 21, 9 to 11 a.m., at the Corinthian Street location of Olivia Kim's Frederick Douglass statue. The work will be installed at the former site of a 19th-century civic center, where the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Sewing Society organized anti-slavery lectures and fund-raising bazaars, and where Douglass delivered his "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" speech.

The curators also worked with RIT Press to create a catalog that accompanies "Crafting Democracy." The catalog brings together the art from the show, curatorial notes, and essays that explore the greater context of craft activism. A reception for the exhibit will take place Monday, September 16, 4 to 6 p.m., in the library's Harold Hacker Hall, with remarks by the exhibit's curators and artists. Related programming includes the yarn installation, artist demos, book discussions, and events in the Children's Center. For more information, call 428-8304 or visit roccitylibrary.org/location/central.

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