In those photographs, Gaignard dons a variety of alter egos — as a tough as nails Budweiser-chugging townie in “Red State, Blue Plate” (2016), or a salty dime-store novel-style vixen with a wedding cake blond bouffant in “Pallets & Pepsi” (2015). Adopting those personas allows the artist to play with identity, class and sexuality. The work speaks to the malleability of Gaignard’s biracial reality: some see you as white, you see yourself as Black, you occupy multiple realities all at once.
But back to that captivating installation.
In “Black White and Red All Over” a bowed couch wears the imprint of multiple generations, family photos decorate the bookshelves and kitschy porcelain figurines and collectible dolls dot the nooks and crannies of Gaignard’s Americana fever dream. A shaggy red throw rug spreads out like pooling blood beneath that lumpen white couch in one of the many symbolic uses of color throughout the exhibition.
An early clue that these settings Gaignard has created are less than innocent recreations of American domesticity is the toile wallpaper that decorates the walls. Look closer at the charming pattern and you’ll notice the idyllic scenes illustrated are romanticized visions of slavery. Regal white folk take carriage rides and barefoot Black folk are framed against Greek Revival plantation homes. If this, Gaignard prompts, is the way we outfit our homes, what other grand delusions about America and its history are we also harboring? In a tour of the exhibit, Gaignard points out that that cringey wallpaper is not some relic from the ‘30s or ‘40s, but actually hails from the Seventies.
Treacly patriotism abounds in “This Is America;” whose blood red walls seem to contain an implicit threat. It’s the kind of bullying, chest-thumping jingoism that likes to set bylaws of us and them, and has often made Black Americans feel less than — like foreigners in their own country. Because this “normal” domestic vignette Gaignard has created is also decidedly white. At moments, something uglier pokes through, like a tacky postcard featuring a little Black child sitting on a mountain of cotton boles.
She drives home her point of how all of us are implicated in matters of race in one of her collaged works on view “Put a Spell on You,” featuring a drawing of a nude Black pinup against a backdrop of nicotine-stained floral wallpaper. And at the center of the composition is a gilt mirror, which allows us to see ourselves in these strange — and both comforting and provocative — delusions of American life.
“Put a Spell on You” is a distillation of the ideas in “This Is America” as a whole, which is about an assumed “normality” that hides a whole lot of uglier truths about racism, sexual exploitation and class aspiration. A mix of intoxication and searing truth, Gaignard dangles seduction and comfort and then throws a bucket of cold water in your face.
VISUAL ART REVIEW
“This is America: The Unsettling Contradictions in American Identity”
Through May 15. Noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, Fridays-Saturdays; noon-8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Free. Atlanta Contemporary, 535 Means St. NW, Atlanta. 404-688-1970, atlantacontemporary.org.
Bottom Line: Snappy, smart, acid-laced, Los Angeles artist Genevieve Gaignard’s layered exhibition peels back the delusions of American life to reveal the news about race, class and sex.