by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Latchkey Gallery recently exhibited There is no God and we are his prophets, a two-person art exhibition, focusing works by Esteban Whiteside and John Brendan Guinan, that were created in collaboration to highlight the fear and uncertainty of our times, especially with regards to African American and marginalised communities within the United States. What is fascinating about this offering is the manner in which the artists go about articulating today’s issues. Rather than position them directly within the works on display, Whiteside and Guinan extend today's prevalent systems to imagine a state that is built on religious fanaticism. There is a palpable mania to the pieces as the artists reveal deep-seated truths of the American way of life, through art that ranges from the deceptively playful to the frighteningly abstract.
There is no God and we are his prophets' world isn’t merely hyper-religious, it is also heavily militarised, which is apparent from a single glance at the show’s central installation—Camo Cross and Survivor Prie Dieu by Guinan, which features a bright orange cross over camo print, with crossed machetes; symbols of survivalism but also insurgency. The work is constructed from found materials as well as major label designer fabrics and retools its recognisable components to signal a new and tenebrous world order. Even the exhibition’s name is a reference to The Road, a book by American author Cormac McCarthy, that explores a dystopian world.
Both the American artists involved in the exhibition have a history of articulating the issues of marginalised communities. Whiteside explores the fascinating creative journey he has had, telling STIR, “I am a self-taught artist from Asheville NC. I began painting because I wanted to give my then girlfriend, now wife, a gift and I didn’t have any money. So, I decided I would paint her something. I fell in love with painting after that piece and began to do it every day. In the beginning, I painted abstract art work, but after the death of Michael Brown something changed in me and I began painting about police brutality and other social issues affecting the black community." Brown, as some outside the United States might not know, was an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, sparking controversy and protests. The artist continues, saying “one of my first jobs, when I moved to DC, was at the Phillips Collection. I attribute most of my artistic ability and knowledge from working there as a museum assistant. I never went to art school but my time at the Phillips feels like a better education than I could have paid for.” He is inspired by a variety of artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Emory Douglas and Romare Bearden.
Guinan adds to Whiteside’s statement, and discusses his past, saying, “I am an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn NY. My art practice includes assemblage, collage art, sculpture, installation art, textile art and found materials. I am interested in the phenomenological relationship between found and reworked objects, and the viewer. My practice is informed by my lived experience, which has been quite extreme. I was born at home in inner city Washington, DC above the homeless shelter and soup kitchen founded and run by my parents. My father was a former Catholic Priest and well-known activist and author J. Edward Guinan. He was a leader in the anti-war and homelessness movement and founder of the Community for Creative Nonviolence." The artist was raised in the Catholic Worker tradition, which emphasises pacifism, personalism, and Anarchism above all else. He also worked in community building for years, primarily with conflict-affected people. Like Whiteside, Guinan too is influenced by an eclectic mix of creatives, with some of his favourites including Nari Ward, Nick Cave, Harmony Hammond, Berlinde de Bruyckere, David Hammons, Hew Locke, Eva Hesse, Mark Bradford, Robert Irwin, and the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend.
Guinan explains that his art is multifaceted and that there are several layers of meaning contained within. Philosophically, he is of the school of thought that art objects have interdependent relationships with the viewer—meaning that objects do not necessarily have a universal meaning but rather a subjective meaning influenced by the experiences and partialities of the said viewer. Certain objects or textiles are coded with histories, ideas and emotions, which fascinates him. He tells STIR, “I think the artist’s job is to orchestrate steering or nudging the viewer, though ultimately, the viewer places meaning on the work. My work examines concepts related to class, violence, displacement, ritual and the sacred. I think there are instances where my hope is for my art to hold up a mirror to people. Other times, maybe my hope is for people to be confronted with something that feels in some way familiar but alien, and for a moment snaps them out of their lizard brain thinking." Whiteside has a much more succinct, if just as illuminating response when asked about the message behind his work. He simply says, “The message behind my work is to build up the oppressed and shame the oppressors"—simple words that carry great weight.
Moving on from There is no god and we are his prophets, Whiteside wishes to expand on his skill set. He says, “I would like to get more into woodwork and create larger sculptures than I have up to this point. I would also like to get my skills better at wood carving and incorporate more found objects to my works.” Doubtless, he will continue to produce fascinating art, and it will be exciting to see where it goes. Guinan expresses interest in learning more about processes for exalting objects and also how to create ethereal or spectral-like atmospheres. He says, “I have been researching light, scale, religious spaces and new materials and am excited to get to work. I am also hoping to continue to develop my sculpture and textile practices.” One wonders if the two will end up collaborating again and if so, what the further products of these two creative minds could look like.