How do you identify? ‘Infinite Mirror’ assesses visions of ‘American’ citizenry

The Juniata College Museum of Art will present a wide array of interpretations of the United States’ ongoing struggle to define itself with the exhibit “Infinite Mirror: Images of American Identity,” on view through Oct. 26.

The exhibition features more than 50 multimedia works by culturally diverse artists from across the country. All of the artists reside in the U.S., but some are new immigrants to this country; others are first-generation Americans.

“To me, the show’s essential theme is that American identity is something that is not easily defined or captured in one image, or familiar words,” said Judy Maloney, director of the Juniata College Museum of Art and a lecturer in art history. “American identity is multi-faceted, always changing, always expanding —not only as new immigrants enter the country but as more Americans feel confident to add their distinct voices to the American story.”

“Infinite Mirror” is divided into four main themes. “Self-selection” reveals the artists defining their world through their own unique experiences. For instance, “Alice Waiting,” by photographer Ben Gest, shows a seated portrait that comments on how America treats its aging citizens.

The second theme, “pride,” shows how pride of origin can emanate from the view of the artist or by the subject matter depicted by the artist. A photo portrait by photographer Delilah Montoya shows boxer Elizabeth “Pink Panther” Monge as an athlete blazing with confidence and pride in her skills.

The third theme, “assimilation,” takes a look at cultural signposts of different ethnic populations and immigrants and how those mores are adopted by the wider culture of the United States or fall by the wayside. In an etching by Tomie Arai called “Peach Boy,” a young Asian boy is shown dressed in Western garb, seemingly ready to play a game of cowboys and Indians. The artist’s goal is for the viewer to see this depiction on a much deeper level; hinting the exploitation of Asian workers on railroads and in agricultural fields.

The last theme of the show is “protest,” which incorporates the view from several artists that tweak or confront the viewer with images that reveal that not all of the people who came to the United States were able to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One example of “protest” can be seen in a digital print by San Francisco artist Scott Tsuchitani titled “Boys Love Baseball,” a piece that comments forcefully on the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“In ‘Boys Love Baseball,’ I am interested in questioning how history is told — through whose eyes and to serve what purpose — and moreover, to question what gets left out of the ‘official’ version and why,” he said. “How does this privileging of interests and concomitant disavowal of history not only shape how we see and live with the events of the past, but more importantly, condition how we relate to ongoing inequality and injustice in the present?”

“I think that any visitor to the exhibition will experience, first, the sheer pleasure of seeing many gorgeous and visually interesting images,” Maloney said. “In the way that art can make possible, they will be taken inside the mind and heart of the artist to get a glimpse of what that artist is passionate about or wistful about or angry about, or what that artist wants us to understand about his or her own particular American experience.”

“What I wanted to look at was a broader portrait and an examination of the underlying purposes of portraiture itself,” said Blake Bradford, director of education at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the curator of the exhibit. “The themes of the show were ways of getting at that. The idea of American-ness was a topic of intense discussion; and I also wanted to use the show to ask some open-ended questions about representation and identity.”

One very important aspect of the show is it encourages people to embrace a more nuanced or complicated understanding of America, which is reflected in the diversity of artists displaying their work.

“The artists are all American — native to, living here or working here,” Bradford said. “What I want visitors to come away with is a sense of the range of contemporary artistic practices; a notion that America and American-ness is bigger than any single person’s version and that it’s something that’s constantly evolving; and a heightened curiosity about and a greater interest in Americas that are different from their own.”