In Dialogue with Emilie Ahern and Sherri Littlefield
In the thought-provoking group show Americans Looking In at the Center for Book Arts the curators Emilie Ahern and Sherri Littlefield explore what it means to be “American” mostly through media such as photography, book art, sculpture and prints. Their personal experience of coming from multicultural backgrounds and growing up in the States has prompted them to ask the question – What is American culture today, and what does an American look like?
AS: Tell me about the genesis of Americans Looking In at the Center for Book Arts
EA: When Sherri and I first discussed ideas for an exhibition, this theme was one of three we had conceived and immediately struck us as strong. The idea and artworks were interesting and struck a chord with The Center for Book Arts’ Executive Director at the time, Alexander Campos. He encouraged us to flesh out our thoughts and find more artwork, so that is what we did. We got to work researching more artists, especially at the intersection of book art and photography, and within a few months rounded out the show with what you see in the space today.
From the beginning we were thinking about identity. Both Sherri and I come from a multicultural background and are not a “typical” American, nor have we felt comfortable with the label “American” because we felt that did not capture our entire story. This nuance and tension is what we were looking for in the artwork.
SL: I’ve always admired The Americans by Robert Frank, and I’ve often thought about how Frank was an immigrant looking in on America. A couple of years ago, as we began researching for this exhibition, there was a lot of dialogue regarding refugees and if they should be let into America or not. I wondered what America might mean to them, and I thought about how this topic became such a heated debate. Through the news, social media and personal experiences, I thought about what America means to other Americans, and how they’re looking in on one another. The visual content that this exhibition required was subject matter that Emilie and I both felt comfortable speaking on – we both had traveled a lot growing up, and we both had extended families overseas. We also had experience living in various areas of the United States.
AS: In this exhibition you are exploring an urgent theme with a wide scope: “What it means to be American”? It seems that one of the ways you entered it is through your own personal experience. Can you elaborate on that?
SL: I’m half Filipino and half German. My nationality is often a topic of conversation followed by offensive questions; people asking where I’m really from. People asking how my parents met, when they’re really asking if my mother was a mail-order bride. I grew up in Central Florida, where people often assumed I was Hispanic; people would become angry when I was unable to speak Spanish. I’m usually not “Asian” enough for Asians, or “American” enough for Americans.
My maiden name Nienass, was often misspelled “Neinass.” Countless legal documents mistakenly read “Neinass.” The surname is German, but people don’t see me as German, they’d see me as something else, so they’d pronounce it “Núñez” and mark me down as whatever they thought I was on various forms. For the first 18 years of my life, public schools had me classified as the wrong race because someone decided that’s what I was.
EA: I was raised bilingual as a dual citizen of France and the United States. While I was born and lived in the US, every summer I went to stay with my family in France. The only cousins I have are French, so in a way, I felt like my “real life” or my desired lifestyle was over there instead of here. Especially in middle school, I rejected the US norms impressed upon me in school by my peers and wanted to be French. I made a conscious decision to speak only French with my mother, wore only clothes I bought in France, listened to French music, got a French haircut, etc. I was saddened when McDonald’s gained popularity in France and wanted to preserve the French culture I knew and loved.
Another facet I felt I was losing by being here in the US was the fact that my French grandfather spoke a dying dialect from his area, officially “L’Occitan,” but unofficially called “Patois.” My grandfather was one of the last speakers of this language and I wanted so badly to learn it and preserve it. This desire to preserve what was precious to me later informed my own artistic practice.
Throughout my life, I have wrestled with this tension of Frenchness and Americanness in my identity. I was born in Tennessee and all my American family is from the south. We moved to Florida when I was nine, so that is where I grew up. Even in Florida there is an identity crisis in the air among the mix of “old Florida,” transplants from other states, immigrants from Haiti, Cuba, and South America, and tourists. My mother is a teacher at a prestigious private school on Palm Beach Island, so I grew up being made acutely aware of my lesser economic status by other students and even parents at the school. We all grow up encompassed in a place while we are trying to navigate our role in it and determine the meaning of our life. It is confusing, difficult, painful, and ultimately beautiful. This is what I wanted to explore in the show.
AS: What are the other main ways you tackled this question?
EA: Pre-Covid most of the work I did exploring American identity revolved around major identifying factors for most people: work, appearance, and personal expression. I explored philosophical ideas around identity and did a lot of research about Americans’ relationship with work. With the intensity of 2020 and all it has brought, most of what I had been reading and writing about seemed irrelevant.
Over the span of a few months everything we were exploring in the exhibition touched deeper than we had previously understood. We re-examined the work in the show, read deeper into the practices of each artist and pressed into the work more. I explored readings about justice, how the brain behaves when making decisions and assumptions, and ideas on how to bridge the gap between those who think and feel differently than one another. This informed my experience of the artwork in this show and has helped me see how important it is to have the breadth of work and perspectives in the room.
SL: I wanted to ensure that the work I selected mirrored my personality as both a curator and an individual: playful with serious undertones. I was attracted to work that was a reflection of American humor, but it was also important for me to identify work that was beautiful and thought provoking. Jon Feinstein’s Fast Food series stood out to me because a lot of people outside of the United States associate Americans with Fast Food. Feinstein’s work is formally presented, and the captions only share the fat content associated with the photographed items.
I’m also interested in showing a sense of place. I’ve been in New York City for nearly 6 years – I’ve thought about how the landscape of this city is constantly changing, and what that may look like for other parts of America.
Jon Feinstein “42 Grams,” 2008, from Feinstein’s Fast Food Series. Archival Pigment Print Edition of 6 20” x 20”. Photograph courtesy of the artist
AS: How did you work together as curators?
SL: Emilie and I met in graduate school and soon discovered we had a lot of similar interests. I’ve always admired Emilie’s work ethic and attention to detail, so I jumped at the chance to co-curate this exhibition with her! We played off each other very well. Every meeting was filled with excessive coffee and laughter. I came up with some of the quirkier and comical ideas, while she elegantly laid out some of the more series ideas in the exhibition. Emilie is an incredible writer, and I’m continuously amazed at her ability to distill complex ideas (and art) into words.
EA: Sherri and I have participated in projects, group shows, and many social activities together. Our partnership with this endeavor was easy and natural. We met regularly to discuss developments, we shared artwork and articles for research, and in the end made every decision, together.
We both are disciplined. We set our own deadlines, stayed organized, and kept each other moving forward. I am so glad to have shared this experience with Sherri as I often leaned on her in the process and ultimately it gave us a unique opportunity to deepen our friendship as we grew together through this experience.
AS: Your show is exhibited at a venue with a rigorous focus on Book Arts. What can you briefly share about this New York City venue and how do you see Americans Looking In within that context of Book Arts?
EA: The Center for Book Arts is an important space in New York City. Founded in 1974 by Richard Minsky, Center for Book Arts is the first space in the nation devoted to Book Art. It is an incredible resource both with its collection of art as well as its offerings to the city. The Center regularly exhibits artwork and offers a space for anyone to learn anything relating to the book. It has a full-functioning bindery and letterpress studio for artists to rent at affordable rates, while offering residencies for artists to grow and develop their practice. It really is an incredible place!
The book is an intimate medium offering time and space to anyone who interacts with it. The level of nuance in the stories we are sharing through Americans Looking In is best explored through the intimacy and quiet of a book. Books offer us depth and breadth in a subject in an accessible vehicle. It is for these reasons we feel that Book Art was one of the best ways to explore the context of this exhibition.
Installation shot of Americans Looking In, photographed by Andrew Littlefield. Artworks on the wall from left to right: Ashok Sinha, Jon Feinstein, Eric Pickersgill
AS: There seem to be many interconnected links between the artists. Can you share some of your reflections on these connections and what would you like the viewer to take away?
SL: I think art can be a subtle but powerful tool. Art can provide facts, it can encourage a conversation, and it can be thought provoking. Some of the work in Americans Looking In may force people to view America through the lens of someone more or less privileged.
Some of the artists, like Anastasia Samoylova and Kris Graves, have been on my radar for years. I was excited to share their work – which shows different views of America, especially current topics like climate change and racial justice. I’d like viewers to think about how they can help those around them. I’d like viewers to appreciate images captured by surprise (Paul Kessel’s “Q Train”) and view everyday beauty, which may surround them.
EA: The show grew organically as we explored art and one piece inspired the next. I am so glad the connections came through. We had a few guiding principles for the process: we wanted to explore the breadth of the United States from coast to coast and border to border. We did not want a show all about New York, for example. So in our search for artwork and artists, we let the process guide us in our selections. If one series or piece reminded us of something else, we followed that lead.
For example, when I learned of Eric Pickersgill and Ashok Sinha through Sherri, I was met with different viewpoints of the Midwest-West Coast. Pickersgill’s black and white images of people in their cars in parking lots, or the fake venues he was exploring in strip malls were a stark contrast to Sinha’s rich, color photographs of diners, gas stations, and the like, which we associate with the Americana narrative of Route 66. Their works reminded me of Brian Taylor whose work explores western landscapes and American art history with a surreal twist. His works can be as colorful and rich as Sinha’s, or sepia and black and white like Pickersgill’s. The three seemed to create a varied exploration of parts of the country I have never been to.
Amos Kennedy’s works, his practice, location, and use of layers upon layers of color in his letterpress prints led me to think of Ke Francis’ work. Kennedy uses letterforms to create his compositions, with strong statements printed in dark inks as the final touch. Francis creates illustrations using woodblocks and also uses bright colors to create dynamic, high energy pieces. When I found Dixie Compass, it was a perfect rounding out to our exploration of the South as it incorporated narrative, various printing techniques, book art, and sculpture.
Americans Looking In at The Center for Book Arts
Artists Include: Thomas Allen, Uriel Cidor, Ana Paula Cordeiro, Daniela Deeg + Cynthia Lollis, Ke Francis, Jon Feinstein, Kris Graves Projects featuring Nadiya Nacorda, Kenneth Wrye and MaryLynne Wrye, Alina van Ryzin, Kiliii Yüyan, Courtney Asztalos & Michael W. Hicks, Tess Roby, Jed Devine, Hayley Austin; Iris Grimm, Amos Kennedy, Paul Kessel, Shane Lavalette, Jamie Martinez, Greg Miller, Tammy Nguyen, Iviva Olenick, Eric Pickersgill, Purgatory Pie Press, Religious Leaders, E. Brady Robinson, Arlene Rush, Anastasia Samoylova, Ashok Sinha, Brian Taylor, treat america project featuring Paul Sisson, Bubblegum & Whiskey, Lisa Toto, Jym Davis, Ingrid V. Wells . Curated by Emilie Ahern and Sherri Littlefield
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org