Let’s sing a song of hope, understanding, acceptance. Let’s welcome strangers, cherish the Earth, listen to others. Let’s be thoughtful, generous, kind. Let us protect each other, care for each other, love each other. Let us be.
Such old-fashioned virtues, once so common and expected, seem to have all but disappeared from public discourse in the United States. In their place are fear, anxiety, bluster, blame, suspicion, rejection, hostility, anger, threats.
In a country once famed for its generosity and can-do optimism, the new normal seems virtually un-American. Yet countries do change their tunes, and perhaps in the future the United States will just howl and shake its fist rather than smiling and grasping the outstretched hands of others.
Such were the sobering thoughts that prompted “Humanly Possible: The Empathy Show,” at Instinct Art Gallery in downtown Minneapolis through Jan. 16. “Empathy” features work by nine Minnesota artists — paintings, photos, sculpture and a marvelous video that the artists hope will inspire viewers to see into the lives of others and to accept them.
Much of the artwork grew from the artists’ personal experiences, though it is seldom autobiographical. Instead it brings viewers face to face with issues easily overlooked.
In three drawings and a painting, Tina Blondell depicts four young women whose body language, expressions and gestures suggest vulnerable psychological states. One has folded herself into a box, withdrawing or retreating into a cramped and self-punishing isolation. Another has ebullient blue hair and a profusion of tattoos and face piercings that project a vibrant albeit somewhat defiant personality. A lonely looking child clings to a teeter-totter or balustrade while a fourth woman curls on a sofa, expressionless and withdrawn.
Catherine L. Johnson uses words to poetic effect, scratching them into the streaked surface of abstract drawings to insist “I am human,” or “I will bathe the pain away.” David Aschenbrener’s small bronze sculpture “She Never Loved You” combines a surrealistic, hollow female torso with a half-moon shape, a traditional female emblem.
Meanwhile, Inna Valin sympathetically photographs people, often on the streets of downtown Minneapolis, who appear displaced, disconnected, invisible, emotionally fragile or misunderstood. In expressionistic paintings, Christopher E. Harrison represents the anger, frustrations and sometimes the hostility of his subjects by peeling away their skin to reveal raw flesh or by suggesting deformities in their faces or bodies.
Two of the artists address the larger world and, by implication, humanity’s relationship to it. Juliane Shibata’s installation of “male” and “female” ceramic flowers and seeds serves as a reminder of the life cycle, while another installation suggests 1,001 lips blowing kisses. The improbably named Chase Boston uses photos to document his elaborate environmental installations, including a mysterious and powerful cage of bones, pelts and antlers suspended over a mossy fire pit in a smoldering forest.
Peter B. Nelson, a Northfield-based videographer and performance artist, addresses the empathy issue directly in “Nine Monologues.”
It consists of audio interviews in which Nelson asked women and girls of various ages about their aspirations, experiences and ideas about feminine and masculine roles. Then he videoed himself lip-syncing their comments. It’s both disconcerting and fascinating to hear their feminine voices and ideas apparently emerging from his stubbled face. An extraordinarily subtle actor, he has intuitively and successfully internalized their feminine — and sometimes feminist — psychology.
Iranian-born artist Nooshin Hakim Javadi, now a student at the University of Minnesota, has transformed relics of riots and protests in her homeland — a shoe, rocks, a pair of jeans — by growing on them beautiful blue crystals that change abject detritus into beautiful mementos.
At the show’s opening Javadi also invited visitors to sing a lullaby for a refugee child. Forty lullabies were recorded that night. Now a friend of the artist is giving the recordings to Syrian children who recently arrived in Germany from their Middle Eastern homeland.
“The artist is adamant that the lullabies not be shared with anyone but the recipient,” said gallery director John Schuerman. “In this big world where you often feel you can’t do very much to change things, we felt we were just doing a little something that might make things better. And that was pretty powerful.”