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'Hindsight Is 2020' Offers Visceral (Not Virtual) Art Experiences in a Box

I love things that come in boxes. Airplane meals (yes, really) and bento boxes, a good jigsaw puzzle or card game, limited edition CD or DVD box sets, Darin Klein’s Box of Books zine anthology series, Duchamp’s “Boîte-en-valise.” So when I heard about “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” an exhibition-in-a-box organized by Prof. James MacDevitt, Director/Curator of Cerritos College Art Gallery, I jumped at the chance to get one.

MacDevitt created this exhibition almost as an act of desperation. His institution, Cerritos College, has been particularly strict about following COVID-19 safety protocols, banning all in-person activities on campus. While construction proceeds nicely on their new performing arts center, MacDevitt has had his hands tied in terms of being able to organize any shows or events. He finally came up with the idea of a boxed exhibition as a means of offering “a physical alternative to the online exhibitions that have become the new normal.” Two hundred boxes were produced and offered for free to the gallery’s mailing list; whoever wanted one was instructed to come to the college during certain designated safe pickup days. I picked up my box the week before Thanksgiving.

Exterior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh
Exterior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh

As an art project, “Hindsight” arrives as a wonderful and thoughtful year-end gift, and not just because it gratifies my fetish for all things boxed. It’s also one of the few things I’ve seen in 2020 that offers something unique and pointedly relevant, something that manages to transcend our tattered art world landscape of closed museums, appointment-only galleries struggling to maintain their pre-COVID exhibition schedules, distanced outdoor “drive-through” art shows, unappealing online exhibitions and tedious Zoom panels.

First, there’s the process of viewing the art. Upon opening the box you find a neatly packed collection of individually sleeved and labeled works, and you have to take each one out of its sleeve to look at it. There’s an intimacy and an ease to this process that’s delightful — you can lay out and rearrange the works at your leisure. The process would be pleasurable even if we weren’t in a pandemic, but because we are, it takes on an extra dimension of meaning. How many of us are completely fed up with that six-foot-plus gulf between ourselves and the rest of the world, missing the hell out of tactile interactions that don’t carry the risk of catastrophe?

Interior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh
Interior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh

Second, “Hindsight” has many things to say about the long, bizarre, disorienting and for many, deeply traumatizing year that is now screeching to a close. All of the works address some aspect of the times we live in and our current lived experiences. Due to the nature of gallery schedules, in which shows are planned years in advance, I have so far seen only one other show that deals directly with our current situation (Esther Pearl Watson’s terrific “Safer at Home: Pandemic Paintings” at Vielmetter). “Hindsight,” which features 15 artists, feels like a collective cry out of the wilderness, a series of postcards from far-flung pods where people have found themselves coping, raging, meditating, plotting or finding little glimmers of hope.

Partly due to budget constraints and partly due to MacDevitt’s reluctance to make a commodity out of the box, most of the works appear as inexpensive reproductions, taking the form of printed cards, brochures and comic books. Some of the pieces are abbreviated versions of larger works by the respective artists, which are then pointed to in the checklist or in notes. (All works were made in 2020 unless otherwise noted.)

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Interior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh
Interior of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh

Two searing watercolors from Conrad Ruiz depict men writhing in flames: one is an officer in riot gear, the other is a person wearing an elaborate gas mask. The images, which bleed through their borders, carry an immediate and visceral resonance, evoking the California wildfires and the uprisings in the wake of the George Floyd murder, not to mention the general sense that the world has turned into a dumpster fire. Thinh Nguyen’s assemblage sculptures provide wry commentary on this world. “The Day Humanity Stood Still” features a found globe, dressed up with red origami flowers to mimic the coronavirus, sitting atop a wooden stool. “OK Whitey” is a trophy with a hand jutting out of its top making the “OK” sign, a double reference to the dismissive comeback “ok boomer” as well as the purported secret hand signal of white supremacy.

Chester Vincent Toye’s “Shit I’ve been thinking about but am too scared to say aloud” ingeniously replicates the artist’s iPhone screen as a bookmark. Opened to his Notes app, the screen lists such thoughts as “We knew the system(s) was fucked up. Why are we surprised when the fuckery continues?” and “Should I reset my iPhone Face ID to include my mask?”

There are four photographic images from Carmen Argote, two of which are taken from her heartbreaking short film, “Last Light,” made during the initial days of the pandemic. (The film can be seen in its entirety as part of KCET Southland Sessions Episode 10: Civic Imagination). “Last Light” reflects on the artist’s own vulnerability and fragility as she walks alone through a deserted Los Angeles after her recovery from a major (non-COVID-related) illness. At one point she talks about how big everything feels, and how she wants to touch the city; in subsequent still images, she “captures” bits of the city between her thumb and index finger. 

I found one of the “Last Light” photos deeply touching. On a workspace or kitchen counter littered with post-it notes to herself, the artist’s hand tries to capture a glimmer of light seen in a bowl of broth or tea. It made me think of all of us trapped in our domestic spaces for the last several months, trying to wrest an ounce of something out of our daily routines — optimism? The will to keep going? Or just a different way of seeing things?

Back of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh
Back of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh

Comic books, like boxed gifts/products, are always a treat in my book, and “Hindsight” includes two. Badly Licked Bear’s “Hindsight: 2020 Vision (An American Dream)” is a hacked comic epic in the spirit of William Burroughs’ cut-ups. Appropriating well-known graphic art and some text from comics legends like Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, Bear spins a powerful tale of finding connection on the frontlines of the apocalypse. Michael Hanson, who has portrayed Badly Licked Bear as a protagonist in his epic narrative paintings executed on the crumbling walls of San Pedro’s Sunken City, contributes a booklet that is not a traditional comic, but rather a running combination of his own paintings and texts. “_Invisible Man 2119 – Section II: Escape Yourself” is an excerpt from a dystopic semi-autobiographical novel. Although presumably set 100 years in the future, the protagonist’s life bears a suspicious resemblance to our own.

The contents of this box could easily function as a 2020 time capsule, and nowhere is this more evident than in the two pieces that depart from the simple printed format to become legitimate handmade mementos of our time. Jacqueline Bell Johnson’s “External Factors” is a miniature mask souvenir emblazoned with one of several memorable 2020 quotes. Mine bore the hashtag #ShitShow, attributed to “the Internet.” Gordon Winiemko competes with Chester Vincent Toye for the formal innovation award; his “Coronavirus Delivers People AKA Capitalism Delivers People” is an unfurling toilet-paper-sized scroll (remember the great toilet paper hoarding panic circa March 2020?) which is a recreation of the artist’s own filmic critique of capitalism, which in turn is an homage to the earlier landmark work, “Television Delivers People” (1973) by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman.

In the end, “Hindsight Is 2020” is about connection — connecting viewers with art in a more intimate fashion than has been possible this year, and connecting artists with viewers in authentic ways that don’t aspire to a return to “business as usual.”

If you’re interested in getting your own free copy of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” email James MacDevitt at jmacdevitt@cerritos.edu to inquire about availability.

Top Image: Interior detail of “Hindsight Is 2020: Dispatches from the Edge of an Apocalypse,” exhibition-in-a-box. | Carol Cheh

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