Rita Montlack has transformed the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery at University Hospitals into a multi-layered, candy-coated reality.
Walking through it is like walking through a dream we've had before. We're walking through halls toward a brightly lit area. The sunshine reaches down from the skylight and caresses our face. There is so much color, bright and cheerful. We feel like we don't have a care in the world.
Then we woke and really looked at the colors in our periphery.
"If you were just walking down the hallway, I don't think the intent of the work would be apparent unless you just stopped, breathed and looked," observed Adam Tully, co-founder of Maria Neil Art Project. It's an accurate statement that aptly sums up the whole idea of this show. Montlack's work takes on a deeper edge under the exhibition title, Woke. Included on display is her earlier work, yet the content takes on a much heavier tone.
Per the artist's statement regarding the exhibit's title: "The word [woke] arrived in today's vernacular in a song by Erykah Badu. It was quickly snatched up by Black Lives Matter, who made it their watchword. Then Hollywood teens decided to co-opt its meaning in various ways to serve their purposes. An idea or word that spreads like this, from person to person, creates a meme and memes are to culture what genes are to life. The power of the word resonated with me."
The whole exhibition speaks of wealth versus poverty, class-ism and an offering to us to look closer through color, through the candy coating and get woke to the world we are living in.
Within "The Big Uneasy," each print lays out areas of New Orleans. As we scan the 30-block digital photo collage from the upper left to lower right, we start with a marching band and end with a huge pile of money. Everything in between is a documentation of the devastation rained down by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One block displays three declarations: "I Am Coming Home! I will Rebuild! I Am New Orleans." To its left, a handmade sign with birds in flight above a tree stump, its tendrils reaching into the earth, proclaims that "Roots Run Deep Here;" finally, there is the "Obama '08" campaign sign. All three of these tiny billboards are manifestos of hope. In one section of this massive artwork, Montlack has captured large block letters that build the words, "Happily Ever After." They look like they're made of rebar. Ironically, this material is used to increase the tensile strength of concrete structures. Churches, a police station and building shout out "The Fun and Flavor of New Orleans" and also remind us that, "Fifty percent of New Orleans's artists lost their homes, and dozens lost their life's work."
"Stay Woke" takes us on a hallucinatory ride in 19 panels. In the first we encounter a contemplative man perched on a beam next to a ladder. He looks out the skylight, a literal glass ceiling. The panel is divided into the secondary colors of violet and orange, speaking to how the African American community has been treated as second-class citizens. In another panel, a man stands in the corner, as if being punished, the same split screen of secondary colors dissecting the image.
The show also includes a montage of exquisite street art and murals that, judging by the area code in one of the wall works, look to be in or around Cuba, where Montlack had spent a great deal of time. Here Elvis wears his hair high and tight, dressed in an Adidas tracksuit and chain. A skinny-necked masked girl, in what looks like carnival makeup, holds a chick in her outstretched hand. There are muscle cars, skulls and the Beatles walking with ladders and paintbrushes, the wall behind them bearing the title of the piece, "Art Is All You Need."
"I believe artists have 'woke' in their ready-made DNA," says Montlack. "It is a necessity in order to have the ability to detect and exploit developments across the culture. An awareness and alertness to, not only visuals and art, but politics and social issues as well. As a former social worker, the entire gestalt interests me. This combination of striving to stay awake has inspired my work through the years."
Rita Montlack's Woke forces a decision upon us, the hoi polloi. We can choose which path to follow at the fork in the road: Inhale the spectrum and keep the status quo, or get down to business and examine what lies beneath the color.