Jenny Balisle is a self-described "art nerd."
She constantly adds to a computer doc about new artists she's encountered, ideas for artwork of her own and comments on the community advocacy she's been involved with for years. This is easy to do, because besides being a visual artist, she is the managing director of the Contra Costa Arts and Culture Commission and sits on the Richmond Arts & Culture Commission.
So, when Bridge Storage and ArtSpace offered her a chance for a solo show, she had another idea. "Bridge the Ballot" would both comment on issues roiling the 2020 elections and showcase nine Richmond-based artists, including Balisle, Tiffany Conway, Rebeca García-González, A'aron Heard, Tatiana Ortiz, Robin D. Lopez, Malik Seneferu, Tony Tamayo and Irene Wibawa.
Originally scheduled for Bridge's Main Gallery in April, the pandemic necessitated a pivot—which might well end up exposing the artwork to a broader community. Some of the artists will display their work in the Bridge Office Gallery, allowing visitors wearing masks and socially distancing to view by appointment. All artists will have pieces online in the virtual exhibit. "We had to reimagine what was going to happen," said Balisle.
The show opens Sept. 14, with a virtual Zoom reception Sept. 25, which will feature not only the artists, but two candidates running for Richmond's city council, Najari Smith and Claudia Jimenez. October artist discussions will also be virtual, featuring Lopez, Wibawa and Heard Oct. 2; Seneferu, Conway and Tamayo Oct. 9; and García-González, Ortiz and Balisle Oct. 16.
Balisle's work in "Bridge the Ballot" is overtly political, with pieces such as Warning: Worse Before Better noting the convergence of upheavals confronting Americans. "Covid has made the situation acute," she said. But Balisle sees the opportunity for a reset to better. "'Normal' was not good enough."
Featured artist Rebeca García-González grew up in Puerto Rico, and initially trained with political artists. She was inspired by Alice Neel's portraits and the visual art of Joaquin Segura. It was only after coming to the U.S. in 1985 that she also discovered abstracts and still-lifes. "I had to ask myself what kind of artist I wanted to be," she said. She opted for social justice commentary.
Her three pieces in "Bridge the Ballot" were originally conceived as digital art, using an iPad and an Apple pencil. "I was never going to turn them into paintings," she said. But the combination of her growing outrage with the Trump administration and the necessity of doing more indoor work during the pandemic caused her to change her mind. Now the bitingly satirical works, The Favorite of Emperor Putin, Heads in the Sand and Island Vampires, are all large-scale oil paintings.
In The Favorite, subtitled "after The Favorites of Emperor Honorius," an obese Trump lolls on a cushion at the feet of a toga-wearing Putin, as other recognizable political figures look on. Island Vampires, depicting fanged, wealthy white people about to feast on the arm of an outstretched Puerto Rican, is the artist's attack on the profiteers who continue to descend on her homeland after various natural disasters.
"These pieces embody the contradictions we are all living in," García-González said.
San Francisco–native Malik Senefuru spent years searching for his biological father. As a result, he said, history has become his hobby. His five acrylic-on-canvas paintings in "Bridge the Ballot" weave together portraits of iconic Black Americans, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, with brilliant African-inspired colors and shapes. Solidarity, showing three Black arms upraised, is particularly apt for this time, but Senefuru emphasized that he "tries not to be led by what is happening right now. I'm not a poster maker."
Instead, he said, "My artwork deals with the unknown. I want people to think a little deeper, ignite the opportunity to inspire."
"Bridge the Ballot" opens the door for viewers to see the connections between many of the issues Americans and the world are grappling with. Or, as Balisle describes the exhibit, the chance to see "a visual diary of an inflection point."
Sept. 14 to Nov. 9, Bridge Storage and ArtSpace, 23 Maine Ave., Richmond. Call 510.233.3348 or visit bridgestorage.com for information on viewing the exhibit in person or virtually, and to sign up for the reception and artists' talks.