Honors College art installation ‘America Selfie’ draws inspiration from democracy

Posted on Aug 23 2017 - 8:02am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

It’s hard not to notice the new art installation tucked perfectly into the great room of the Honors College.

“America Selfie,” the Honors College’s first “on-site” artwork crafted specifically for a certain space, is part of Washington, D.C., artist Laura Elkins’ series “Studies in Domination.”

Elkins combines imagery from current events, American history, personal experience and historical art references to create a portrait of the United States that confronts the complexity of issues that have developed since the nation’s founding.

“I see it as a way to grapple with the forces that have shaped America,” Elkins said.

The conception of the work began in January when Elkins participated in Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez’s discussion series, “At the Edge of the Inside.” A tour of the Honors College renovations resulted in Sullivan-Gonzalez asking Elkins to design a piece.

Sullivan-Gonzalez said he gave Elkins complete free reign in subject matter and design.

“I told her to surprise us,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said.

Initially, the exhibit was set for the opening and dedication of the renovated Honors College, but due to construction difficulties, it was postponed until now.

Elkins said she lost a little bit of adrenaline when the deadline was postponed but now feels the delay allowed her to develop her ideas further.

“At first I didn’t know what to do,” Elkins said.

She said that after leaving the Honors College she didn’t even write down any measurements.

Elkins’ earlier work in “Studies in Domination” focused on the burgeoning surveillance culture in the country, but after the election, Elkins said she felt the need to address what was going on politically.  

“During the campaign, it was just sort of shocking what was being exposed and encouraged,” Elkins said. “I thought, ‘I need to respond to this.’”

Elkins attended the Women’s March, which she said turned out to be a great source of imagery for “America Selfie” – represented in the vagina-hat-wearing women she depicted.

Elkins said that although “America Selfie” is overtly political, she does not want to control viewers’ interpretations.

“I’m not interested in telling people what to think,” Elkins said. “That’s a problem with a lot of political art – it’s so single-minded.”

Elkins said “America Selfie” has been culminating for a while now and is about “the whole picture.”

Sullivan-Gonzalez said, “There are a number of sensibilities, and we’ve got to be aware of those, and she puts them right in our face. That demands reflection.”

Fundamental, overarching themes, however, are still present in “America Selfie.”

“I think there are these underlying themes, and the strongest is sexism and misogyny in our culture,” Elkins said. “It is a way to talk about these things and express what I’m thinking and feeling.”

Elkins said that nowadays, democracy is a source of inspiration. In one panel, a soldier-like figure wearing heels and holding a vagina probe assaults a woman.

“His penis is an American flag that turns into a noose around her,” Elkins said. “So it’s turning the flag into a weapon against freedom.”

The classical aspects of “America Selfie” were inspired by Giambologna’s marble sculpture interpretation of the “Rape of the Sabine Woman” in Florence, Italy, and the more cartoon-like characters arose from Picasso’s interpretation of the same ancient Roman story.

Elkins said she selected a color scheme that would pick up the browns and reds in the Honors College masonry. Giotto’s “Scrovegni Chapel” was her ultimate inspiration, she said, because he designed the chapel for its paintings.

“I want to unite the architecture and the art,” Elkins said.

For this reason, “America Selfie” is folded to fit neatly into the space.  

“It’s an engaging piece by the design of it,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “It takes a while to see it – walking casually, one won’t see what’s there.”

For example, without careful examination of “American Selfie,” one might not notice the Twitter birds and pacifier surrounding the mouth of the golden, Donald Trump-inspired militarized figure.

Sullivan-Gonzalez said he was most intrigued by the surveillance metaphors in the piece.

“Everyone was sort of one-eyed,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “It was sort of the ultimate camera that’s become a part of our lives that before was not existent.”

Overall, Sullivan-Gonzalez said “America Selfie” calls for awareness to the questions that need to be answered if the country is going to improve for all.

“The question is, ‘Who shall we become?” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “What does one out of many look like? One gender? One ethnicity? What does plurality look like?” 

“America Selfie” will not be the last art installation at the Honors College – Sullivan-Gonzalez said he aims to host art installations at least every year, if not every semester.

A reception surrounding the piece was held last night as a part of the August Oxford Art Crawl. The art installation will be on display at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College until Sept. 29.