You can interpret the title of Kerry Skarbakka's new exhibit, "This is Not What I Imagined!," in all sorts of different ways: Is it personal? Is political? Is it meant as commentary on the state of the nation and its level of civil discourse?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Skarbakka, an assistant professor of art and photography at Oregon State University, has all of that in mind in "This is Not What I Imagined!"
The show is open now at the Joan Truckenbrod Gallery, 517 SW Second Ave. in downtown Corvallis, although Skarbakka is continuing to add works up until a reception, scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 20.
The show is intended to be part of a nationwide effort, "For Freedoms," a platform for civic engagement, discourse and direct action that will involve artists in all 50 states. In Corvallis, a variety of exhibits and other events are scheduled up until the November elections, although Skarbakka emphasized that the effort is nonpartisan.
For Skarbakka at this point in his career, politics is blending with his personal narrative — and so viewers can expect a dose of both while viewing "This is Not What I Imagined!"
"Is your life what you imagined?" Skarbakka asked in an interview this week. "Is the country going the way you imagined?"
To try to explore those questions, Skarbakka, 48, was forced to delve into his personal background: How did a young white boy growing up in a religiously fundamental family in rural Tennessee wind up teaching at a university in Corvallis? What other paths could his life have taken? Could that same white boy have fallen prey to hatred and intolerance?
"What happened to change this person's trajectory?" Skarbakka asked. "What were the reasons?"
"The idea of the show is to create a certain amount of discomfort," Skarbakka said. "Is this where I want to be?"
Skarbakka is continuing to tinker with the exhibit in the days up to its Sept. 20 reception, but chances are good that the exhibit will include a striking image hanging from the ceiling of the gallery: "American Muscle: 2010 Dodge Challenger" is a photograph, printed on a vinyl banner, depicting the undercarriage of the vehicle.
It's the same make and model of the vehicle that was driven into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, killing one of the protesters, Heather Heyer. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a Kentucky native, was charged with second-degree murder.
Viewers of "American Muscle" at the exhibit will be underneath it. It's unsettling and provocative, and that's what Skarbakka intends.
Because the show, to some extent, also is meant to track Skarbakka's personal story, it likely will include some of his self-portraits. A press release about the exhibit says that it "draws from Skarbakka's personal narrative and explores systems of conflict, control and ideology driving our socio-political discourse."
The idea is to generate plenty of that discourse, but it's come at a price: "This is the most unfun project," he said. "I do it because this is what I make. But it's not fun."
Despite that, Skarbakka hopes that the exhibit (and the rest of the "For Freedom" projects) help to trigger some searching discussions — even among groups who don't often find much reason to talk with each other.
"How can we get the America we'd like to have? ... Is there a better conversation we can be having about this?"