Seemingly doomed CCAD show, 'November,' comes to fruition at last

Joel Oliphint
A photo from "when I see me," a series of large-scale self-portraits by Benjamin Willis in new CCAD Beeler Gallery exhibition "November."

As CCAD Faculty Director of Galleries Tim Rietenbach and local curator Heather Taylor prepared for a late-2020 exhibition at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery, the word “November” began to sound like the title of a horror movie. Forecasting ahead to the ominous month, experts predicted a second wave of COVID-19 cases would hit around the same time as the country’s contentious presidential election.

The experts were right, of course. The election and its aftermath were unlike any others in recent history, and COVID cases have continued to hit record highs all throughout the winter. In fact, the pandemic pushed the exhibition into 2021, surrounding Taylor’s show with the type of uncertainty that came to define 2020.

“Every time you and I talked, we would ask, ‘Is this thing still gonna happen?’” Rietenbach said to Taylor, a CCAD alum, in a conversation at Beeler Gallery this week. “It was this idea that it was doomed in some way.”

After multiple pivots and delays, Taylor persevered, curating a 12-artist, lens-based exhibition loosely themed around the idea of navigating 2020 as an artist. The show, a collaboration with Cincinnati arts nonprofit FotoFocus, opened on Tuesday and retains its original title, “November,” as a reminder of the recent past and the feeling of uncertainty that has by no means disappeared in the interim. (The exhibition is free and open to the public, but advance reservations are required.)

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Artists from Columbus (Dru Batte, Cameron Granger, Bobby T. Luck, Calista Lyon, Benjamin Willis) and elsewhere contributed new video and photography works all made during the pandemic. Some of the pieces immediately bring to mind the current sociopolitical context, such as Austin artist Dawn Kim’s “GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST,” a video collage culled from footage of the elevators in Trump Tower. Kim zooms in on the faces of a cast of recognizable characters from the Trump sphere, zeroing in on the moment just before the elevator doors close and revealing split-second instances of candid vulnerability.

Elsewhere, an 11-hour film by New York’s Lexie Smith shows the artist separating grains to make bread, hinting at a kitchen endeavor embraced by many during the pandemic. (Nearby, the brick of bread Smith made from the grains sits on a pedestal.) Cameron Granger produced a short, hyper-local film exploring Columbus neighborhoods and ideas of Blackness and policing, which screens on opposite walls in its own room. Other video work appears in the same large room, with sounds often commingling in ways that suggest both chaos and commonality.

“I like to be totally consumed, and I feel totally consumed by the show,” Taylor said. “When you're in a cacophony of sound, and there's four or five different things happening around you, I enjoy that. That's something that I wanted from this show — to take people out of this reality that we're living in and give them this abstract experience.”

Taylor reached out to local photographer Benjamin Willis months ago, during the uprisings that shook the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. It was a tumultuous time, and also a period of intense isolation for Willis.

“I'm a pretty voracious reader,” Willis said this week by phone. “I'm inspired by the things that I read, and a lot of what I was reading was deconstruction of masculinity and the construction of Blackness and Black creativity. And it was really important for me to put the theory into practice.”

To do so, Willis completed a series of nude self-portraits titled “when I see me,” turning the lens on himself to explore his own body. “I had a completely different thought process for the work. This is very unlike the work that I think most people are familiar with,” he said. “This is a really introspective piece with a lot of stuff that I was grappling with through quarantine, like being isolated.”

In revealing his body in these large-scale photographs mounted on the white walls of the Beeler Gallery, Willis interrogates several ideas at once. “I had the time to really sit with myself and work through things like shame, guilt and ego to arrive at a place where there's this reconciliation of, ‘Here's who I am. Here's what I look like,’” Willis said. “I’m really trying to challenge what can be shown, and why it needs to be shown.”

The photos will inevitably make some people uncomfortable, and that’s part of the point. “You have to sit with it and engage with it and think about why you’re reacting to it the way that you're reacting to it. … You got to confront the things that maybe you thought you had a grip on, but really you don’t. Why can't you look at this African American, this Black body? Or why can you — are you taking a weird or strange amount of joy in this Black body? Why is that the case?” he said. “We breed a culture of shame and silence, and to see the pieces [in the gallery] like that — to know that they’re of me and I made them — helps me move through [the world] and know that I should not be ashamed of my body and who I am and how I take up space.”