Refracting youth, and a nation

| 11 Apr 2017 | 04:55


The rectangular artworks — some framed, some bare — hugging the white walls of a sparsely furnished SoHo workspace appear viscerally dystopian. Images of a pixilated face, a bright pink arm grabbing the silhouette of a baby, and demonic splashes of paint coalesce into a hauntingly beautiful allegory of the existential crisis America has slipped into post-November.

The catch? Not a single artist represented in the gallery can vote or step into a bar.

New York City is a world-renowned mecca for artists, innovators and misfits, but it’s been surprisingly cold to adolescents. Of the hundreds of galleries spanning Chelsea to Harlem, only a handful are willing to lend the spotlight to teenage artists. Of those few, none is disposed to let the young creators direct their own show. From this struggle for visibility rose Teen Art Gallery, a haven for young art students.

Founded by then-high school senior Audrey Banks in 2011, T.A.G. provides students who are between 13 and 19 years old the opportunity to showcase their art in professional settings, or anywhere outside of a school auditorium. Six years on, T.A.G. has arranged about a dozen shows, expanded its applications to international artists, and is in talks to establish chapters in Illinois and Australia.

The organization’s most recent show, “TAG: Do You Mind?,” debuted on April 7 in a former West Broadway chocolate factory. Curated and directed by Gustie Owens, Jonathan Katz and Amelia Connelly, all high school juniors, the eclectic 35-work exhibition comprises oil paintings, collages, photographs, short stories, poems and films produced by teens across the country, and a few from Pakistan and Canada. T.A.G. received more than 400 submissions for the show.

“It’s been exciting and shocking to see that so many people from such a wide range of places have submitted and been so enthusiastic about the show,” said Katz, 16. He attributed the influx of submissions to the lack of opportunities for teenage artists to exhibit their works, persistent social media marketing, and the appeal of a show curated exclusively by teenagers. Knowing that their contemporaries are organizing the show makes teen artists more comfortable and eager to participate, Katz said, because “They know that we will express them in the truest way.”

Unlike T.A.G.’s past exhibits, which were free of themes, “Do You Mind?” was developed around the topics of mental heath and politics. The resulting collection is an undulating, postmodern rumination on race, selfhood and technology, imbued with a deftness that may seem, to some, unattainable by adolescents.

Jumbling photographs with gold splatter paint, mixed-media artist Arden Wolf, 18, explored the thrill and mayhem that materialism and social media can bring to the lives of young adults. Through a visually arresting painting of a baby sleeping in a maelstrom of rainbows, Angela Xiaoyi Han, 19, sent a “hopeful message of freedom of choice” with respect to gender and sexual identity. Anna Frants, 16, drew inspiration from Richard Wright’s “Native Son” to produce a poignant painting of a crying black man crippled by systematic racism. In his 35 mm series “After Hours,” photographer Matt Weinberger, 18, explored the fine line between performance and sincerity when people pose in front of a camera.

“We are all constantly observing others and being observed,” Weinberger said. “I like my work to provoke thoughts on things we do without considering why we do them.”

Connelly, 17, hopes that the show will debunk the misconception that teenagers are incapable of maturely and innovatively tackling complicated social issues. “Teens are often undermined in the art world,” she said, because “people don’t look to the 17-year-old in the room to give them a critical analysis of events.”

Owens said all three directors wanted to include a variety of perspectives in the show because minority voices and stories are heavily underrepresented in the art world: “As teens, we want to break away from that limitation and bring as many diverse perspectives as we can.”

To ensure that their show honors diversity in both medium and narrative, the T.A.G. team increased outreach efforts through their recently revived ambassador program, which enlists students nationwide to inform teen artists in their local schools and community centers about the opportunity to submit and showcase their works through the organization.

“We hope that this show can reveal to viewers the devotion of teens to art and the role they can play in shaping the art world for years to come,” Owens said.

“TAG: Do You Mind?” runs through April 12 at 325 West Broadway.