Below the Blue Line: The Recent Work of Allison Jacqueline Reinhart by Matthew Ballou

ReinhartCard copy

In January and February 2013, artist Allison Reinhart held an exhibition at the Craft Studio Gallery on the campus of The University of Missouri1. The show, titled Disappeared, featured a variety of media and presentation strategies. Traditional printmaking and mixed media painting forms were present, as well as digitally manipulated prints, found objects, short texts, and – perhaps most definitively – a bright blue line of tape around the circumference of the gallery.

It may seem strange to write a review of an exhibition that took place a year ago. Yet the works have stuck with me. Processing their reality and the truth they contain seems both necessary and beneficial. In this text I have decided to focus on four of the key works Reinhart displayed. These pieces, which demonstrate a variety of formal and conceptual approaches, also outline the artist’s aims and ideas.

Allison Reinhart is a determined artist. Her resolve, however, is not a matter of ambition or vanity; she is not looking to establish her work only for the sake of personal expression. Neither is her artistic perspective purely altruistic, progressive, or socially responsible. To be sure, there is a sense in which she designs her public expressions as political statements, but the intent of her work is less didactic than it is subtly accusatory. In this way her sharp wit and critical gaze might lose the intimation of activism in lieu of simply highlighting the limitations of the status quo in which we all live.

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Blue Ceiling

At a height of 50 inches from the floor 3/4-inch-wide blue adhesive tape – a work called Blue Ceiling – stretched around the entire gallery space. The color blue is often used to delineate between ability and disability in the public realm. Thus the tape became a conceptual approximation of handicap parking signs and parking lot stripes in addition to referencing the notion of the “glass ceiling.” Just as the glass ceiling indicates a separation between women and male-dominated power structures, Blue Ceiling aimed at the distinction between ableist societal norms and the disabled people they constrain.

Two things became immediately apparent to any viewer entering the room. First, all of the artworks were situated below this striking line (only one work, a projected video, broke across the blue line). Secondly, the typical audience member – anyone of average height – would inhabit a vantage point above the line. This calibration of the display space reset a fundamental context of exhibition logic; in standard practice, the center of an artwork is placed between 63 and 66 inches above the floor. Reinhart, in placing her work below the blue line, actively disenfranchised the average viewer and forced them to alter their natural approach to the artworks2. As they proceeded to take in the entire collection of works on view, people experienced a continual sharpening of that initial point: they have become the other, an unprivileged other. This shift of presentation was essential to the meaning of the entire show. The blue line was a soft prejudice with a hard reality: “This exhibition was probably not designed with you in mind.”3 In a statement accompanying the show, Reinhart declared that it was all “Best viewed from a seated position.”4

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April 8th/Three Peaches

The centerpiece of the exhibition, April 8th/Three Peaches was a massive, framed collagraphic print and found sculpture combination. Perhaps the most physically demanding work for the artist to create, it involved her lying naked on a prepared board while gesso dried around the impression of her body. After being properly inked and run through a press, a collagraph can acquire a trompe l’oeil effect through the embossed textures and tonal gradients imparted to the final print. Arranged side by side in the middle of the gallery floor, the collagraph and the supine sculpture – a rough version of the Venus de Milo in miniature – formed a resonant tableau. These depictions of the ideal and the real collided, unavoidably, in the very center of the gallery. The curled, human-scale form of the artist turned away from Venus while the goddess herself stared away toward a wall (at an image of herself that appeared in an adjacent artwork); the lasting tension that existed between the formal unity of the pair and the seeming rejection inherent in their postures was striking. Added to this was the intensity of the Neutral Milk Hotel songs Reinhart referenced in her title for the work. A strange, defiant melancholia became apparent as I considered the artwork in light of the lyrics that inspired it:

Crawl across toward your window
I’m calling softly from the street
Always a lonely widow
Half awake and sleeping on my feet

I’m of age but have no children
No quarter phone booth calls to home
Just late television
Inside my bedroom all alone
Let me stretch upon your carpet
Let me hear the rain tap on your street
Knowing I am safe on the inside
Blankets wrapped and drifting off to sleep

~April 8th, Neutral Milk Hotel

There is no dream
So wake up
Run your lips across your fingers till you find
Some scent of yourself that you can hold up high
To remind yourself that you didn’t die
On a day that was so crappy
Whole and happy you’re alive

~Three Peaches, Neutral Milk Hotel

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How Low?

A scuffed old yardstick with grimy black lettering originally made for the Shriner Habibi Temple in Lake Charles, LA became the sculpture How Low? in Reinhart’s exhibition. She hung the object lengthwise along a section of Blue Line. Produced by the Shriners and Kiwanis Club over the course of several decades all around the United States, these yardsticks sometimes featured a variation on the famous quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“No man stood so tall as when he stooped to help a crippled child”

The question inherent in this piece was important. It called out the paternalism of the overused quotation and focused attention on how that sentiment measured up (or failed to) in the real world. In a world demarked by blue lines of its own, catch phrases and platitudes can never trump ingrained refusals. Crafting an interaction between the good-natured stance of the object (after all, no one would claim that the intent it carried was bad, only limited) and the implication of socio-political impotence, the piece successfully picked at the assumption that pity and charity do more than policy and access could.

Also present in this piece is a challenge by the artist: how low can you go? How low is low enough? Who gets to decide when a stoop is low enough to do the job? Certainly not the child, nor the disabled, nor the minority, nor any other group constrained behind that blue line. Reinhart was able to make a nuanced yet very potent statement within the cohesive relationship between How Low? and Blue Ceiling. This pair carried perhaps the most authority of any works in the exhibition, and they formed a polar opposite to the drama and personal narrative of April 8th/Three Peaches.

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T4 See video here

The title of this video references Aktion T4, the Nazi Party’s euthanasia program before and during the Second World War. In this piece, Reinhart photocopied a color print of a propaganda poster produced in support of Aktion T4. By creating additional photocopies one by one – each one being made from the previous copy and therefore losing contrast, resolution, and registration – Reinhart was able to produce a fading effect. After a few additional elements were created, a video of the hundreds of sequential images was compiled. Projected into the gallery space, the work crossed over Blue Ceiling extending equally above and below it.

The original poster depicts a disabled person, patronizingly steadied from behind by a smiling handler. Splashed across the poster is a text in German that states:

“60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money, too. Read New People, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.”

In Reinhart’s video, the disappearing act of the “person suffering from a hereditary defect” becomes a metaphor for a more generalized failure to see and accept differences and otherness. As the image cantered in a skewed transit of the wall, eventually pixelating into white, viewers were left straining to see even the former prejudice of the source image. The horror that resulted from Aktion T4, the methodical destruction of whole classes of people, became an unseen footnote sidelined by broader horrors.

The place of money in that campaign is not lost on Reinhart, and anyone who has paid attention to politics in America over the last couple decades would not miss the connection to ongoing issues here. Basic healthcare, quality insurance, and efficient social services are but a few of the many arenas of concern where people struggle to have access and proper representation. Central to why these points of contact between governments and individuals are fraught with angst is the fact that they so often come down to money.

Even today, politicians pit middle class sensibilities and pocketbooks against people who require basic services to maintain a baseline quality of life day-to-day, week-to-week. The looping video presented the truth: society’s responsibilities cannot be swept under the rug, whether by political expediency in 2013 or bigotry in 1943. Our protagonist reappeared in the white field again and again, each time only to take his place beneath the smiling handler and fade away, repeating the cycle. This work, like so many of the others Reinhart created for the exhibition, made the claim that not only are we all complicit in these problems, but also that we are all damaged by these problems.

The damage is moral, social, and physiological. In her video, the artist asked us to consider future generations of humanity and the adaptive potential of the species, not only the moral horror of culling disabled people. Recently, reflecting on the video, she stated that the “figure with obvious disability is removed in one swift motion while the healthy specimen (and he is just that), who is encouraged to reproduce, fades away slowly. Such a homogeneous gene pool would never survive any kind of cataclysm because of an attendant lack of diversity (i.e. adaptability). Mutation is inevitable, so the mutant will always return, as will his different needs and caregivers… Eventually the cycle repeats.”5

Some Background

Key to any deep understanding of these works is the fact that Allison is disabled. It is as she states on her website:

Born 8:03AM on 25 February 1985.
Genetically atypical since 1984.

Yet the specifics of her life – the wheelchairs, rotating aides, wrangling with state and federal agencies, as well as a backstory of parental malevolence and weirdness – are less important than her intention to use these things toward a unique, definitive expression. Her so-called “case” and “condition” are less determinative factors in her artistic subject matter and aesthetic sensibility than are the ways in which the foundational structure of society has – in the words of her exhibition title – “disappeared” her and other people who experience disability.

Civilization has always been uncomfortable with the otherness of disability; the very core of our municipal planning, educational strategies, and social contracts are expressly designed without the other in mind. Societies in general are geared toward the normal person, an idealized version of humanity none of us actually embodies. The averaged abstraction that is the “everyman” is nonexistent. This is because – after all of our averaging – the fact remains that “none of us are only one thing”6 , particularly when it comes to the very ideas of normalcy and disability. It is easy to collapse individuals with overt disabilities into the simplified definition of whatever condition with which they live. Conversely, it is hard to identify and correct institutionalized systems of refusal and denial. This is why we have always lived in overlapping shadow worlds where people eek out their own private versions of normalcy in spite of the overarching norms. It is also why civil and human rights have had to be, since time immemorial, a continual project of people of good conscience.

Reinhart’s perspective is, in part, aimed at putting the lie to the tyranny of the average, of the ambulatory, of the thoughtlessly inaccessible. She is keenly aware of how a world designed for the access of typical, able-bodied people is essentially a world of denial for her. Thus her life has been one of creative adaptation, of finding new, absolutely specific, and often rigorous ways to achieve what the average person might do offhandedly a dozen times a day. Likewise, her work is a negotiation between personal potential and logistical possibility, and this tension is part of her core subject matter.

Overall, the works in Disappeared made claims about personal history, situational awareness of the self, and a strong sense that adaptation is not only a personal effort but also one of socio-political necessity. Her work demands access by showing the gates and closed doors and undignified inconveniences that surround us. Disability does not absolutely define the scope or structure of her work, but it is one of the filters through which she processes knowledge, meaning, and experience.

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For more information on Reinhart’s work and ideas, see this short film created by Keith Montgomery for The University of Missouri’s Celebrate Ability Week 2011.

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Footnotes
1 Full disclosure: Reinhart is a former student of mine.
2 “Show is best viewed from a seated position.” Allison 2 Reinhart, “Viewing Notes for Disappeared.” February 1, 2013.
3 Allison Reinhart, “Viewing Notes for Disappeared (First Draft).” February 1, 2013.
4 Allison Reinhart, “Viewing Notes for Disappeared (Final Draft).” February 1, 2013.
5 Allison Reinhart, email to the author. December 17, 2013.
6 Interview with the artist, August 23rd, 2013.