Echo Enigma at Ark Gallery: Portraits of Empathy
Works by Scott Froschauer
Through June 10, 2018
By Genie Davis
Scott Froschauer’s Echo Enigma at Ark Gallery in Altadena is a passionate and compassionate exhibition that is both visually riveting and emotionally affective. Froschauer says he’s shaping art to create more empathy in the world. That’s a tall order in our highly politicized and polarized time, when we tend to align ourselves on one “side” or another, loving and hating at the drop of a hat, or perhaps the drop of a headline.
Froschauer is more than capable of taking on this challenge. The exhibition, which portrays 11 historical Americans with complex stories that defy easy categorization, is fascinating. Recognizing the diverseness in each person’s stories, the artist presents portraits of each person on distressed mirrors. The mirrors reflect the viewer as he or she studies the work, literally adding one’s personal perception of the subject of the portrait to the viewing experience.
The center of the show is a model for a massively large-scale artwork, “The United Divider,” created of polished, curved, stainless steel etched with the American flag. The flag etching itself is created from lines of text that list names of historical American figures, each complex enough as a person to be named as either hero or villain depending on the viewer’s perspective. The scale of the piece is designed to represent a wall, separating those on either side; the mirrored quality of the work beautifully, mutely presents the idea that America itself is a reflection of everyone who observes it, and that the flag both unites and divides us, just as the title of the piece asserts.
Curated by Kira Vollman, this is an epic show that presents insightful ideas about our present state of mind as individuals and as Americans. It is also a dazzling tour de force as art, from the mesmerizing quality of Froschauer’s reflective surfaces to his beautifully wrought etchings.
Froschauer explains how this exhibition both continues and differs from his past work. “The through-line of my work here is a notion of empathy. It carries from the street sign work I created.” The artist has recently used the shapes of street signs to impart calming, kind messages – rather than traffic instructions – and placed them in a series of outdoor locations.
“Both series are about fighting alienation and negativity,” he says. “The idea I am working with here is that the national dialog is pushing toward the fringes and evacuating the center, and by doing that, it is creating heroes and villains. That’s partially a product of our media, which is looking to enflame our emotional responses and in turn make us more attached to the media.”
Froschauer says the purpose of his show is to “explore a deeper complexity about people we might have jumped to conclusion on.” He is encouraging his viewers to dig deeper, beyond an easy characterization of a person as hero or villain. He wants viewers to see each of the subjects of his portraits as “human beings. And as human beings they carry a complexity.” That is brought to the foreground with the distressed mirror element of each piece. “We see ourselves actually in these portraits, so we can handle our own complexity along with that of the individuals depicted,” he says.
The beautiful, reflective material used in the exhibition is deeply entwined with its subject. “A lot of my work is about immediacy, and about the viewer kind of recognizing who they are in the moment they are interacting with the work,” Froschauer explains. “It is natural for me to use reflective surfaces and mirrors, since the work is about the preconceptions of the viewer.”
The reflective quality also allows viewers seeing themselves literally in each portrait, to receive their own humanity. “I’m asking that you grant the same level of humanity you’d give to the people in each portrait to yourself. We have trouble doing that.”
The artist most wants viewers to know that with these artworks, he himself is “working to make the world a better place.” The thoughtfulness that simply observing these works creates is very life affirming to the viewer, and that is an intentional outcome.
“The whole goal is for immediacy, and slowing down, and self-care,” he attests. “The works here have the same through-line as my street signs. They’re just different mechanisms. The signs say things like ‘breathe’ and ‘relax,’ using the highest level of commanding visual language.” As an aside, the artist notes that street signs offer the highest level of reflexive action because these images are so powerfully ingrained as visual language in our culture. That ingrained familiarity is the perfect way to present and impress self-soothing words on viewers. “My goal is to create more empathy in the world, and the place to start with that is to be at ease with who you are, to be present and breathe. That’s a stepping stone toward empathy towards others,” he notes. “The mirrors in this show are a further step toward representing complex humanity and seeing that humanity and complexity in yourself.”
Ultimately, the final goal of the Echo and Enigma show is to take those portraits of individuals, the names of those in the portraits, and engrave them in the centerpiece of the show, “The United Divider.” According to Froschauer “The flag is also a mirror, a reflection of who we are and of the names of the people in the portraits in this show.”
He adds that “I chose the subjects of the portraits to have one foot on both sides of the political narrative. Depending on which paragraph of their biography you choose to read, you could make –anyone could make – them into a hero or villain.”
Many are older figures, only the last four in the series: Obama, Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton are current and essentially more polarizing.
One of Froschauer’s true artistic loves is large scale work, he says, another is the seductive beauty that allows viewers an easy and accessible way to access his potent messages. “In one way, there’s just a level of beauty in these portraits that can be appreciated, just as the signs can be viewed as just fun. Then you go with deeper understanding beyond that.”
The artist has included one older piece in the show, an image of the American flag that he created from gun powder, titled “Tattered Glory.” He explains “It was made as a discussion about gun violence in America, but it ended up as a kind of genesis for this whole narrative of complexity and the binary narrative of our culture right now.”
When he posted the image of this work on Instagram, Froschauer gained followers who were gun shop owners in Florida, and for them, the flag entirely fit with their vision of America.
“It was hard for me to embrace the idea that they were right, that this country was founded on the use of armed insurrection – that’s America. You can’t undo that. So, it was really my interaction with that piece that led to ‘The United Divider,’ with the complexity of the giant American flag that was a mirror, and imbedded within the piece are the names of these complex American figures in my portraits.”
Asked for a favorite piece in his own show, Froschauer demurs. “I’m in love with every person I did a portrait of…” But he has a particular interest in his portrait of civil rights attorney William Kuntsler, who also represented a man who murdered a rabbi – and got him off. “The JDL would send people to their front door to scream at them 24/7 for a year. It is exactly what I am struggling with in this show. He was really putting the system on trial, and our preconceptions, that we would condemn someone without really giving them a trial,” he muses. “That’s really what my show is trying to do. I see myself in Kuntsler. He was doing through the legal system what I am trying to do through this artwork, showing how our system is really poorly equipped to represent the complexity in people.”
Learn more about Froschauer’s powerful work Sunday May 20th, at an artist’s talk. There will also be a closing reception for the exhibition on Sunday June 10th. Both run from 3 to 5 p.m.
Ark Gallery and Studios
located at 2599 N. Fair Oaks in Altadena, CA.
Echo Enigma, Works by Scott Froschauer
Curated by Kira Vollman
Sunday, May 20, 3-5PM • Artist’s Talk
Sunday, June 3, 11AM-5PM • Open Studio Tour
Sunday, June 10, 3-5PM • Closing Reception