by Anthony Harrison

The new exhibit at SECCA has its finger on America’s pulse in the way it contemplates the ineffable, complex facets of life in this postmodern society.

The Winston-Salem gallery is currently displaying Point and Counterpoint, an exhibit of works by the North Carolina Arts Council Fellows of 2014-15. The 18 artists hail from Asheville to Ocracoke, working with every medium from oils to jade.

The collection presents interpretations of the modern American experience, both personal and universal, exploring topics including the value of art as well as the democratic process.

Two pieces, “Soap (Ivory)” and “Gun 2 (Colt 1911),” both carved by Peter Oakley of Banner Elk, epitomize the exhibit. Taken at individual value, both pieces seem rather simple: They are sculptures of a bar of soap and a pistol. But the meticulous craft evident in the carvings stuns the viewer. The bar of soap, specifically Ivory brand, looks precisely like the familiar product, carved out of white marble and sitting on a dark-gray granite base. And laid atop white marble, “Gun 2” so closely resembles the instantly recognizable firearm that one may mistake it for a painted replica until noticing a dull green flaw at the butt of the handle betraying its medium — black jade.

Shown on adjacent pedestals, however, the two pieces represent a yin-yang juxtaposition of good and evil, clean and dirty, which begs philosophizing: What is more important in our society, soothing tranquility or violent security?

Another piece with important implications is “The Power of the Ballot” by Stacey L. Kirby of Durham. The installation is a large stack of old-style voting boxes in the shape of a voting booth, complete with a green cloth privacy curtain.

The monolithic booth impresses on its own, but “The Power of the Ballot” also serves as a piece of interactive performance art.

On the wall next to the piece, teal ballots can be filled out. The ballot asks one simple yet powerful question: “What obstacles did you overcome to vote?” Gallery goers may answer and submit their ballot, which Kirby collects and mails to politicians who voted for House Bill 589, the Voter Verification Act, the bill which requires a form of identification in order to vote beginning in 2016.

Other works in the exhibit ask questions less political, but just as poignant.

Jeana Eve Klein of Greensboro curated a series of pieces by others called “Trading Time.” While Point and Counterpoint also displays Klein’s fiber art — “Four Hundred and Ninety French Knots” — Klein invited others to stitch French knots of their own on small circular pieces of cloth. So here too, interaction from the viewer becomes key — Klein taught each participant how to stitch the knot.

But, as with “The Power of the Ballot,” Klein asked questions of her volunteers.

A card tied on a string hangs below each stitching. They list the age, gender and occupation of the artist, as well as the start and stop time of each piece. Ages ranged from 25 to 69; careers varied from dance instructor to claims adjustor.

But the most touching query was the question, “What is your time worth?”

Answers differed wildly in many respects, but the best stayed brief.

A 69-year-old retired woman answered in shaky cursive, “A lot.”

A male stockbroker, age 64, wrote in stark capitals, “NOT MUCH.”

And a female, 69-year-old artist wrote, “No idea.”

That’s nothing but the full spectrum.

Another interactive piece demonstrated a whole community in its own little ways.

Durham’s Maready Evergreen carved dozens of tiny ceramic buildings and arranged them into “The Long Road.” At a distant glance, the piece resembles a winding city, with small shops predominating, skyscrapers and water towers dwarfing the smaller buildings.

But closer inspection reveals much more. In fact, Evergreen even encourages extremely close inspection.

Each ceramic building — the most minuscule not even an inch high — is anthropomorphous, etched with cutely smug expressions. Magnifying glasses provided on the table displaying “The Long Road” allow the viewer to get to know each building, which Evergreen calls “the Citizens.” And, after inspection, patrons can rearrange the Citizens however they like, crafting a new town.

Every building might have its own personal backstory in the mind of the beholder, just as every person in our society is special and unique, a bitty part of the whole.

Viewers would be hard-pressed to find a piece, or an entire exhibit, better encapsulating American life in this turn of the millennium than Point and Counterpoint.

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