As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now opens in The Drawing Center’s Lab gallery on April 12, 2019. The works in multiple mediums in this exhibition offer examples of how we might reimagine historical narratives in order to contend with the traumas of contemporary life. These works of consummate draftsmanship exemplify the skill of drawing and the imagination of artists at work turning fantasies into plausible realities—absurd, amusing, and sometimes terrifying. Whether exacerbating the contradictions of present society or imagining genuinely alternative utopias, the participating authors and artists traverse science fiction, popular culture, and genuine aesthetic thought-experiments. Spanning a historical era transformed by war, racial and economic inequity, authoritarianism, and the persistent fear of imminent apocalypse, these works offer alternative understandings of our present by rewiring the past.
History is always up for grabs. For centuries, writers, philosophers, and artists have speculated about historical narratives that run counter to actual historical events. What if, in 1859, John Brown’s successful raid on Harpers Ferry led to the establishment of a socialist nation called Nova Africa? What if, a few years later, in 1865, Susan B. Anthony became a gun-toting outlaw? A British General Strike in 1926 was a triumph? The Axis powers won World War II? Dewey defeated Truman? Raccoons or mosquitos evolved into the earth’s dominant species? Working towards utopian, reactionary, or simply ambiguous ends, the artists, writers, and amateur science fiction enthusiasts in this exhibition use the playground of history as a foundation on which to construct alternatives to the stark realities of the present—whether amplifying its inherent contradictions or imagining a better world.
Presented in As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now are early speculative fiction publications from the mid 20th century, including the British wartime fanzine Futurian War Digest and ongoing science fiction magazine Interzone (1982–present), on loan from the Special Collections of the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Book covers for Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle, Norman Spinrad’s Iron Dream, Martin Cruz Smith’s The Indians Won, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee are accompanied by album covers from the discography of Sun Ra and prints of Jack Kirby’s Lord of Light series, as well as the original ink drawing for the cover of Avengers #87, featuring Marvel’s T’Challa, the Black Panther, illustrated by John Buscema. These items are complemented by contemporary works on paper by artists including Huma Bhabha, Joe Bradley, Vivian Caccuri, Keith Mayerson, and Cauleen Smith.
Organized by Giampaolo Bianconi, guest curator, and Isabella Kapur, Curatorial Assistant, The Drawing Center.
Image: Sun Ra, Sun Ra Discipline 27-II, 1973. Cover artwork by: LeRoy Butler, Album cover, 12 3/8 x 12 3/8 inches. Collection of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis. Reproduced courtesy Sun Ra LLC.