'We Have a Dream,' the group show at Detroit's Inner State Gallery up through Feb. 21, examines the nation's progress — or lack thereof — since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s celebrated 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
The national narrative, of course, is generally one of advancement and moral uplift — a stirring speech by a great orator that helped move the nation toward a better future.
But many of the 42 artists in this show, a high percentage of whom are alumni of Red Bull House of Art fellowships, appear to dispute this happy storyline. Indeed, any number of pieces in this punchy, interesting show seem to describe a country that's run off the rails in the intervening half century.
Nothing sums this up better than "Stenography," Mike Popso's multi-media installation starring a beat-up Underwood typewriter, a photo of a hawk roosting on a "One Way" sign pointing right, and red-and-black typewriter ribbon that's wrapped, rope-like, around the whole ensemble.
The apparent comment on the power of the press — all tied up and useless — seems inescapable. So, too, the direction the artist feels the country has taken since 1963, clearly rightward and more conservative. The insertion of a large, brass bullet in the mechanical guts of the typewriter just underlines the harsh social critique.
Likewise with Ron Zakrin's "The Red Hills of Georgia," in which two children, one white, one black, play on swings that hang from the long barrel of a tank. It's as if King got his fondest wish — black and white children in harmony with one another — but sadly, all in the context of a hyper-militarized society.
Perhaps the most despairing of all is "Man's Best Friend," Jeremy Deputat's photograph of a grim-faced young black man aiming a pistol right at the viewer. It's a profoundly disturbing image. But on account of its lush colors, it's also profoundly, disturbingly beautiful.
Not everything here is hopeless, of course. Ryan C. Doyle gives us an amusing take on the old Uncle Sam recruiting posters, in which King's face substitutes for Sam's above the legend, so apt after events in Ferguson and Staten Island, "I want you to breathe."
And two large photos connect King's message to images of little kids reading, an association that would probably have delighted the civil rights champion. In "Lore of Logan," a beautiful little girl with dreadlocks reads at a library table piled high with books on race and art, her face a study in concentration.
In like manner, Sal Rodriguez's black-and-white "Determined," clearly shot in the stacks at Detroit's John K. King Books, shows a pint-sized bibliophile seated on a milk crate studying the titles before her, the whole scene bathed in soft, hopeful afternoon light.
'We Have a Dream'
Through Feb. 21
Inner State Gallery
1410 Gratiot, Detroit
11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Saturday,
by appointment Monday - Friday