In the age of fake news, alternative facts, and a pandemic that is deeply distorting how people see the world, it is perhaps more crucial than ever to realize that what we refer to as “truth” is constructed through many lenses from many angles. We turn to art for a reflection of the truth, and there’s no better place to start than Gallery 263’s Fact vs. Fiction, a national juried exhibition currently on view through January 9th.
Over a series of emails, I asked Doug Breault, Gallery 263’s exhibitions manager and curator, about how the exhibit came to be. Local art historian and curator Samuel Adams, also the Koch Curatorial Fellow at the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum in Lincoln, juried the exhibition. Adams also spoke about how the particular pieces were chosen.
JUROR’S STATEMENT: “That everyone’s fact is someone else’s fiction is a reality that artists are uniquely equipped to articulate. Those in Fact vs. Fiction build on a lineage of ideas that destabilized faith in the possibility of truth, from the Greek skeptics to Doubting Thomas, post-modernism, and post-truth politics. Works in the exhibition revise well-known genres and narratives, showing how images provoke a splintering of interpretation, if not outright divisiveness, among their beholders. The dichotomy—Fact vs. Fiction—plays out on formal terms as well, with works that raise doubt about one’s ability to perceive form and texture in a stable way. The distinction between fact and fiction often seems personal or even arbitrary. When consensus is not possible and everything feels surreal, these works remind us that fact and fiction are invented categories and the boundary between them is porous.” – Sam Adams (via Gallery 263)
Boston Hassle: What factored into your process of choosing individual arts and pieces to feature in this exhibition?
Sam Adams: It was a privilege to view so many thoughtful submissions. Knowing that I often hide behind political narratives in art, I challenged myself to respond intuitively to visual qualities—from exquisite craft to energetic colors and novel uses of medium. Additionally, every piece in the show contributes an original perspective to the theme, Fact vs. Fiction.
BH: Why the nature of truth and fabrication? How do you hope this display factors into the current moment?
Doug Breault: The idea of fact vs. fiction stemmed from considering the thousands of images we consume daily from social media and the internet, and how we contend with discerning truth from fiction on a daily basis. This prevalence of photographic images has blurred the distinction between image and reality, often desensitizing and creating distance between what we see and how we feel. We feel bombarded and overstimulated. The artists included in Fact vs. Fiction create artwork that occupies a space between documenting and designing an image, while connecting to their emotions and perspectives as the maker. These artists are attempting to digest the world around us in a way that unravels what we know as truth with fictions imposed through imagination or perspective.
BH: What percentage of the exhibit is in what medium, and how can they each uniquely capture and convey different facets of your theme?
DB: This show presents the work of twenty-five artists who explore truth and fabrication through their work in photography, video, painting, drawing, mixed media, collage, and sculpture. Fourteen of those artists are working with photographic based images. Our gut reaction is to believe a photograph as truth, even citing a photograph as a piece of evidence. The old saying “the camera doesn’t lie,” is incorrect, because the artist alters both the way the world fits into a rectangle and manipulates it. Photographs can posture a subject to be contextualized in a peculiar way, like the meticulously arranged photograph of an old, white sneaker by Sandra Stark. EJ Barnes, an editorial cartoonist, fictionalizes factual persons and objects in ways that reveal deeper truths through layered drawings. Each artist in the exhibition has a unique approach to the binaries of fact and fiction, exploring the potentials of materials, abstraction, and storytelling through visual language.
SA: From puffy paints and performance to deconstructed law books and fabric-wrapped furniture, few works in the show conform to a single medium. Even in our era of Photoshop and post-truth politics, photography still seems to signify truthfulness in a way that other mediums do not. Of the 23 artists in the show, 14 work in photography or photo-adjacent fields. But, each in their own way destabilizes photography’s claims to truth value, either with a high level of artifice, or by overpainting, embroidering, collaging, and otherwise manipulating the image. The photography and drawing largely address issues of history and representation, while abstract sculpture and painting engender an ambiguous perceptual experience, wherein form and texture become hard to decipher.
BH: What do you think these pieces say collectively about the nature of truth (in its past, present, and future iterations)?
SA: One of the many lessons I take from this configuration of artists is that fact and fiction are not universal or watertight categories. It seems we often decline to acknowledge things we know to be true, sometimes even putting our faith in speculative or incomplete truths. Because artists train in the fields of representation and interpretation, they are especially good at holding opposing truths within a single work of art. Making space for truths that conflict with my own is something I aspire to, as the conspiracies and misinformation whirling around us do not seem likely to disappear.
DB: Artists in this show seemingly begin with an element of truth, and unfold that original image using color, material, or context to expand beyond the surface story. Collectively, the work communicates that the traditional methods of discerning truth may be flawed.
BH: How can viewers enter in conversation with these art pieces, and what action do you hope they take after interacting with this exhibition?
SA: The selection of works also sensitizes one to the sorts of minute manipulations that we see every day in ads and news pictures. For all the textual-linguistic fact-checking that goes on, perhaps this exhibition will encourage deeper visual fact-checking. I also hope visitors will walk away wanting to support artists in their communities who are hurting badly right now and need love, advocacy, and financial support.
DB: A common thread in the work selected for Fact vs. Fiction is an element of mystery. The artists have purposely excluded a piece of the puzzle or layered additional elements, like Lily Coleman stitching red thread into her photograph, to allow space for questioning the intervention by the artist. Viewing the work physically is a different method of observation from how we react to the rapid scrolling of the internet. Zoe Barbano Grinder’s piece, “A Little Called Pauline in Green and Pink”, combines the tightness of striped, sheer fabric with a mirror to create a warped space, where the viewer ideally should feel uncomfortable with their image or even their position in front of the mirror, but still transfixed. The boundaries between what we see and what we know about an image can work like a puzzle, trying to make sense of an image that may be distorted or manipulated by the artist’s hand.
On view from December 3rd–January 9, Fact vs. Fiction features the work of twenty-four artists working in media as varied as photography, video, painting, drawing, mixed media, collage, and sculpture. Info on Gallery 263’s response to COVID-19 can be found here.