There is no room left for interpretation when it comes to Estéban Whiteside’s work. And, that’s exactly the point. Pulling from his experiences working at a political magazine in Washington, D.C. Whiteside likens his style to that of a political cartoon. The sharp socio-economic-themed acrylics on canvas feel like walking through a house of a thousand blades. Each, slicing at the flesh of our darkest and seemingly most self-evident truths. Despite the unending tolls of death, incarceration, debt, and disenfranchisement, many of these issues are drowned out by a prevailing counter-narrative. Or, they fade into the afterthoughts of people too mired in the micro-level consequences of their realities to even address the macro-level systems responsible for their fate.
Estéban employs a primary color scheme and a simplistic method of drawing to fine-tune the onlooker’s focus. As I sat people watching through the gallery windows, I witnessed the magnetism of his visual satire first-hand. After several paces and puffs of nicotine, a man I came to know as Adam, entered the gallery. He was drawn in by a painting entitled, Don’t let your kids play football, which depicts two helmet-clad heads, one bearing the mask of comedy, the other of tragedy, with a forbidding message of “Play Now, CTE Later.” “My brother has CTE,” he said. “So does a good friend of mine,” I replied and that was all it took to open the floodgates of conversation. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is yet another example of how our society devalues the mind and commodifies the body of what it deems the underclasses. Given the cognitive implications of the condition, ignoring it perpetuates a toxic culture of immediacy at an unspoken cost because the overarching attitude is that these people don’t matter anyway.
My favorite piece in the show speaks to the subconscious conditioning we receive as children and how ingrained these values are culturally. Naturalization test prep is fashioned after an elementary school activity, a fictional student assigns race to the images of six men based on their labels. The faces labeled “extremist” and “terrorist” are filled in shades of brown. The faces labeled “lone wolf” and “mentally ill” are colored white. The test is graded with a checkmark and reads 6/6 and it’s disturbing because it is so inescapably true.
Meant to serve as a snapshot of the present, Because of The Times reminds us of long-standing realities that remain unchanged. If art is supposed to elicit emotion, Estéban Whiteside understands the assignment. “I just want people to know, whatever your voice is, you don’t have to feel sorry for it or apologize,” he said. “…We have a right to be pissed off.”
Because of The Times will be on view at Homme’s Foggy Bottom annex until February 28, 2022.