Love's role in art is a dizzying contemplation. "Love for Love," part of the Cheekwood exhibition More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s, attempts to reframe this contemplation through basic human interaction. "Love for Love" originated in the beating heart of Arizona-based social practice artist Gregory Sale, when he started distributing tens of thousands of buttons inscribed with meditations on love that had been written by his poet and writer friends. Back in 2008, "Love for Love" was called "Love Buttons, Love Bites." Today those writer friends have been replaced by prisoners, refugee populations and underserved youth, whom Sale refers to as "voices less heard." But in both iterations, the love buttons are meant to be taken and worn by the public. Sale's art depends on audience participation in the same way a protest movement or political campaign requires civic engagement.
In a traveling exhibition that boasts names such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Yoko Ono and Louise Bourgeois — all united under an overarching theme of love — the artist who covers the most ground in More Love is Sale. While his work largely exists in the form of wearable objects, it's his social engagement that makes it art.
Sale has received the most attention for his 2011 project, "It's not just black and white," where he worked directly within Arizona's draconian Maricopa County Jail system overseen by Sheriff Joe Arpaio — known for singling out Hispanics and forcing the inmates to wear pink underwear and handcuffs. Because of Sale's interest in prisoners and the American prison system, he sought to meet the men on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security almost immediately after arriving in Nashville for the exhibition opening. Arranging visits with death row inmates in any part of the country is not an easy task, but because several Riverbend prisoners had a history of collaboration with local students and professors at both Vanderbilt (under the leadership of philosophy professor Lisa Guenther) and Watkins College of Art (with a group of students and professors known as "Unit 2"), Sale had an in.
When Sale met with the prisoners, they told him they wanted to get a message to the young adults in their old neighborhoods, to remind them that they had other options. Sale says that this, to him, felt like a clear assignment. In response, he asked them to draw a red or orange circle on a thousand 3-by-5-inch notecards. By doing this, he explained, they would be "sketching the participatory framework that would invite gallery viewers to write their own love poems and messages."
It would raise a critical question in the minds of all participants: What does it mean to write about love in a circle drawn by a man on death row? The inmates cooperated, and set out to draw the circles in time for the opening of the More Love pop-up gallery last month. A member from Watkins' Unit 2 informed me that one of the inmates, Derrick Quintero, proudly left his thumbprint in each one that he drew.
During his stay in Nashville, Sale spent a lot of time driving around in a rental car, drinking green tea and talking to everyone he met. He hosted writing workshops with young adults at an Independence Living program at Monroe Harding, as well as the Stay Real program at Oasis Center. Evidence of those collaborations has not yet been seen by a larger public, and whether or not the death row inmates will achieve their own "clear assignment" to reach out to this youth group also remains to be seen. After all, love is a work in progress, and social practice projects take time to unfold.
So how is this art? Sale seems just as likely to run for public office as he is to create an art work — "Love for Love" could easily be construed as an experimental political campaign. But what he does is primarily funded by museums and arts grants. (He recently received a Creative Capital professional development grant.) As a former government-employed arts administrator, Sale understands the limitations of red tape all too well. And as an artist, he is driven by a creative process that has undetermined outcomes. Being that it isn't overtly concerned with the end goal, the artistic intent oriented toward experimentation reigns.
At the Cheekwood pop-up opening for More Love, an enormous circle drawn on the gallery wall designated the space for gallery-goers to tack up their own love-focused graffiti circles. Sale noticed that it filled at a relatively slow pace. While Cheekwood's involvement in Sale's project exceeded his initial expectations, the city itself has been slow (perhaps hesitant) to react or reciprocate. "But that's OK," Sale reflected. "Concerning my work in incarceration, this has opened a portal. But sometimes my engagement with places only goes so far. Sometimes it is just getting coffee and not getting married. You can go to dinner, go on three dates — and not get married."
Full disclosure: Veronica Kavass worked as a visiting curator at Cheekwood in 2011.