A Merit Badge for Art: Zack Bent at Gallery 4Culture
This morning on Another Bouncing Ball, Regina Hackett takes issue with Buffalo Trace, Zack Bent’s current exhibition at Gallery 4Culture. Buffalo Trace consists of photographs and objects related to family playtime structured as lessons the artist learned from the Boy Scouts of America, which he picked up from his own father in Southern Indiana. For Bent, who once spent a week inside of Crawl Space Gallery envisioning his family of four (along with wife Gala Bent and sons Ezra and Solomon) as contemporary frontiersmen, the concept was a logical progression:
While living in residence with my family at Crawl Space Gallery last year, I read [Michael Lafaro’s] Daniel Boone: An American Life to help get into pioneer think as we attempted the role of contemporary frontiersman inside the gallery. […]
Lafaro writes: “Boone mirrored one very central American concern—the conflict of civilization and the wilderness. Which was the ideal state?….These contradictory impulses are still with us. Farms and forests, factories and parks, energy economics and ecology- all are pairs of opposites that are integral though unreconciled parts of the American self-image that Boone represents.” […]
For this project, Buffalo Trace, my family has appropriated scouting as a tribal play frame. […] Central to American scouting traditions, and in the footsteps of Boone, has been the focus on the conservation and preservation of nature, and a sense of social responsibility. Though earnest in these attempts, the Boy Scouts of America have failed in both areas in recent years. In this project I have not sought to directly comment on contemporary controversies. Instead my aim has been to reference scouting traditions (honor, merit, first aid etc) while allowing my family to become a tribe of scouts that aims to understand its own limitations in relating to each other, to the natural world, and to the divine.
What the artist intends, of course, and what the audience (or in this case, a critic) perceives are not always the same thing. Troubled by what she (correctly) identifies as the problems with the Boy Scouts of America, Regina calls into question the artist’s positive identification with an institution that fosters “homophobia,” “anti-eco greed” and “war mongering” (all true, with damning citations provided).
For me, it is precisely this ambiguity in my perception of the Boy Scouts that makes Buffalo Trace work as well as it does. How different is teaching children to learn the positive lessons embedded in the loaded framework of scouting from teaching them to function in American society (which is, well, fundamentally war-mongering, capitalistic, and all the rest)? Reading what Bent has to say about his own work gives me a sense that he’s well aware of the overlap.
The show’s title, Buffalo Trace, is taken from a region in Southern Indiana where Zack Bent’s father was once a Boy Scout—and where the Eastern American Bison used to make their annual migrations. The bison are now extinct, and the indigenous people who lived off them sustainably for centuries before white people started playing pioneer on their homeland have basically joined them. This is our history, and it doesn’t disappear when we turn a blind eye to the destruction and suffering that are the foundation of our entire way of life.
Many of us currently living on this legacy tacitly assume our only choices are ignorance and despair. The South and Midwestern United States—Bent’s old neck of the woods, and mine—are chock full of folks fighting tooth and nail to enshrine their own ignorance (and might even seek to impose it on you, if you stick around). Despair, on the other hand, is the commonest trap for the wise. But Zack Bent proposes a third way, and at the end of the day, even his toughest critics admit to being “won over.” Like the subtle religious allusions he also handles with care and nuance, Bent shows us (and his own children) how to find and use the good lessons that are hidden among the thorns in our own traditional systems. There should probably a merit badge for that.
Zack Bent’s Buffalo Trace is on view at Gallery 4Culture through May 29.