Judging from its initial exhibitions, The Contemporary Dayton seems to be doing just that. In a recent letter to supporters, executive director Eva Buttacavoli wrote that the past few months have been a celebration of a dream realized. “We are thrilled with the momentum built in just the first few months in our new location at the Dayton Arcade,” she reported. “Our bigger and more accessible space in the iconic Dayton Arcade has added galleries to support more exhibits and a location with more vibrancy and foot traffic.” She added a personal reflection: " What an experience to walk through our expanded space turning on lights each day! A new and different artist celebrated in each distinct gallery.”
In the news at the moment are three exhibitions focused on social justice which will be on view at The Co through Jan. 16. There’s also an attractive new gift shop stocked with a wide variety of artwork created by local and Ohio artists.
One thing is certain. You’ll want to talk about the art at The Co—-both as you’re viewing it and afterwards. Be sure to pick up the comprehensive guide in each of the three gallery spaces which will give you some background on the artist and the ideas behind the art. The author of the guides is Michael Goodson, the gallery’s curator and director of programs.
These exhibitions incorporate art commissioned by The Co as well as artwork from galleries and private collections around the country. “We are thinking of The Co as a mini-museum,” explains Goodson. “We want to showcase the best artists of the moment who are showing at major installations and shows throughout the world.”
The current exhibits, says Buttacavoli, challenge the way brutality is embedded in institutional systems and the beauty in consistently seeking out the truth.”
Samuel Levi Jones: The Empire is Falling
A case in point is artist Samuel Levi Jones, who lives and works in Chicago and Indianapolis and whose work has been exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem. It is also included in many museums and public collections.
The colors and textures of the large abstract paintings in this exhibit are strikingly beautiful but the work becomes even more fascinating when you learn it has all been created from book covers that Jones has first destroyed and then sewn back together in grid patterns or quilt-like designs. The colors come from the fabric on the books.
What’s most important, says Goodson, is the kinds of books Jones has chosen. They are medical books, law books, history books, encyclopedias. “These are the books that shape the way we think as a culture,” explains Goodson. “Whole segments of the population have been left out of these books, excluded from history.”
It all began when a fellow grad student at Mills College in Oakland gave Jones a set of encyclopedias and he realized the volumes omitted serious representation of African-American lives and accomplishments. That revelation has been informing his art ever since. After dismantling books that he sees as unjust structures of power, Jones reconstructs them to create a vision of his own.
“We are talking about the history of white supremacy, the history of white privilege, the history of gender privilege, the history of police brutality; medical experimentation, the way that those systems still affect sports entertainment, arts entertainment,” said associate curator of American Art at Newfield’s in Indianapolis when introducing a Jones exhibit entitled “Left of Center. “It’s not an easy subject matter to discuss, but he has found a way to make it beautiful and to share his vision with us and that’s really important.”
Willis “Bing” Davis: Kneel
You may know him as a teacher, mentor, artist or gallery owner, but if you love art you’re probably familiar with Willis “Bing” Davis, a beloved Dayton treasure. Chances are you’ve seen Bing’s boldly colored and patterned Ancestral Spirit Dance paintings and his contemporary African masks, both inspired by his trips to Africa.
For over 40 years, Davis has dedicated himself to teaching art in a wide range of environments. For that work he has received awards including Ohio Art Educator of the Year and the highest art award in the state of Ohio, the Ohio Governor’s Irma Lazarus Lifetime Achievement Award. Currently he’s the curator of the Springfield Museum of Art’s “Black Life of Subject Matter.”
He has exhibited at the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Renwick Gallery, the National Museum of Art of Senegal West Africa, and the United States Embassy Accra, Ghana.
This new Arcade exhibit, entitled “Kneel,” was commissioned by The Co after Buttacavoli paid a visit to Davis at his EboNia Gallery studio and was fascinated by work she encountered there.
“Bing was angry,” she says now. “He was doing work that was more conceptual, it wasn’t an obvious print on canvas but was more about the embodiment of ideas and protest. It was unlike any other Bing things I’d seen before.”
Davis says he’s hoping the new work feeds dialogue and discussion of some of the social ills that are growing around the country and world. “I want viewers to not fear exploring new solutions to old and new problems,” he says.
The special commission at The Co was an outgrowth of the “Colin Kapernick/George Floyd Knee Cushion” series and the new National Police Ricochet Boomerang Bullet project portable lab series. Davis dedicates the exhibit to two African-American friends, now deceased, who became Dayton Police chiefs: Tyree S. Broomfield and Ronald Lowe, Sr.
The installation revolves around the act of kneeling. His dramatic display of sculptures, dubbed “Kneelers”, are fashioned from antique wooden machine parts from Dayton industries. To those he has added carpenter’s nails, decorative upholstery studs and paint. They are the base for used footballs–some are red, white and blue. They are designed to accept the knee of someone kneeling in protest. The knee also represents the knee held on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes resulting in his death.
The footballs on display are taken from Dayton’s Westside high school and Central State University.
The act of kneeling, notes Goodson, is also about reverence. “It is a ritual in many religions, he says.
You’ll see a glass case of objects dedicated to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old African-American woman who was unjustly and fatally shot by police in Louisville in March, 2020. The objects inside are associated with acts of harassment and brutalization. One of the bottles is labeled TEARS, identified as “tears from the left eye of black mothers who lost a child to gun violence.”
“This total exhibit was created from items found on the streets, alleys, and highways around Dayton and are embellished with all items from Mendelson’s,” says Davis, who was a close friend of Sandy Mendelson. “The new Boomerang Bullet Labs are Mendelson items that Sandy helped me find during the past two years.”
Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Boat People
Don’t miss the captivating 20-minute video by Vietnamese artist, Tuan Andrew Nguyen. In his fictional story, a group of children calling themselves “The Boat People” travel the seas collecting objects from the past that have survived and continue to exist in a post-Apocalyptic future.
“We seek stories of our ancestors,” their young leader tells the head of a deity buried in the sand who converses with her. “We recreate things.”
After recreating objects from the past in wood, the children burn them.
Nguyen created the film during a residency at Bellas Artes Projects in Bataan, Philippines. The landmarks in the area include the Boat People Museum, a site that preserves archival records of the refugee camp at the Philippines Refugee Processing Center. You’ll see the original boat that crashed onto the shores of Morong in 1981, carrying eleven of the first Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Bataan.
“Our mission,” says the little girl, “is to remember.”
HOW TO GO:
What: " Samuel Levi Jones: The Empire is Falling,” “Willis ‘Bing’ Davis: Kneel” and “Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Boat People”
Where: The Contemporary Dayton, 25 W. Fourth Street, Dayton
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and First Fridays to 8 p.m. Through Jan. 16
Admission: Always free
- An artist interview with Samuel Levi Jones will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan 12. At The Co.
- An artist interview with Bing Davis will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 8 at The Co
- You can view Goodson’s interview with Tuan Andrew Nguyen at the contemporarydayton.org
For more information: (937) 224-3822, the contemporarydayton.org