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Cultural Politics and Contemporary Art at The Ackland Art Museum

CHAPEL HILL, NC.- Assistant professor of Art History Cary Levine gives his students all the credit for the special collection installation Cultural Politics and Contemporary Art. "It's really their show," he says, and he isn't just being modest. The fourteen students in his fall class "Cultural Politics and Contemporary Art" selected every image included in the exhibition, laid out the installation, and wrote the accompanying catalogue.

"This is why I took the class," says Ann Howell Brown, a senior Art History and English major. "I feel completely lucky to have the chance to do this."

Structured around three of the most divisive cultural issues of the past century, the exhibition focuses on the themes of gender, race, and the body. Students divided themselves into three groups, one for each theme, and then selected related artwork by searching the database of the complete Ackland Collection. Though many of the works are contemporary, the students reached outside of the scope of the course to include works from other time periods, finally selecting approximately forty-five pieces, including works by Paul Cezanne, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, Gordon Parks, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Winslow Homer, among others.

In their selection process, students evaluated the tactics employed by artists who address cultural politics with their work, asking the questions: is politically-engaged art viable, and if so, what are its capabilities? what methods are available to the artist-activist? and can art change the world? Many of the works included are not overtly political by themselves, but become so when set against each other. The exhibition creates tensions and invites a kind of dialogue between works. Often, their situation in the gallery creates new effects that may not have been intended by the artists.

Although much of the political power of the images comes from their placement against each other, several make political statements in their own right. Kara Walker's Freedom, a Fable and Andy Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot explore explicit racial and political unrest; Carrie Mae Weems' photo Not Manet's Type is a clear challenge to gender, race, and body norms; and Yasumasa Morimura's Ambiguous Beauty - an image of the artist dressed as a woman - also questions gender roles.

Levine has found his students' work to be both complex and rigorous. Pleased and surprised by the process, he says, "The students seem to intuitively be drawn to thinking about these themes in dynamic ways."

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