Gillian Laub

ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

America's battle with itself comes alive in a pair of plays, a book on the working-class tightrope, and a photo show about the persistent South

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

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Southern Rites at the Jewish Museum

Photographer Gillian Laub's deeply documented show on the persistence of racial attitudes in the South is visual activism at its best

What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it?
– Stacey Abrams, in a TED talk shortly after she lost her bid to be elected governor of Georgia in the 2018 midterm elections.

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AS SHOULD BE OBVIOUS by now, I rarely review exhibitions that I don’t like. The world doesn’t need more negativity, and I don’t need the emotional aggravation. It is therefore with some trepidation that I accept invitations to review something I have not yet had a chance to see. I will only do so if I am deeply committed to an institution and usually trust its choices, as is the case with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE.)

Felicia after the Black Prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009. Photographed by Gillian Laub. Photo: Friderike Heuer

No need to fret: OJMCHE’s newest exhibition, Southern Ritesis one of its strongest yet, a moving and thought-provoking tour de force about race relations and racism in contemporary America. Organized by the International Center for Photography and judiciously curated by Maya Benton, the exhibition of photographs by Gillian Laub is visual activism at its best: perceptive, engaged, critical photography of human beings in a context that defines them. Did I mention beautiful? Beautiful!

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