In Spite of Modernism: Contemporary Art, Abstract Legacies, and Identity

On View: January 29 - March 26, 2022

Main Galleries

In Spite of Modernism: Contemporary Art, Abstract Legacies, and Identity features five contemporary artists who challenge abstract styles narrowly associated with Modernism. Each artist applies styles like geometric abstraction and flat, colorful compositions – those developed by various communities around the world – into their paintings and fabric-based works. In doing so, the artists confront the Modern movement’s exclusions of race, gender, and sexuality, and offer a more inclusive interpretation of the history and artistic styles that gave Western Modern artists global recognition.

Throughout the exhibition are attributes stereotypically classified as mid-twentieth century “Modern,” among them flat surfaces, geometric shapes, linear designs, and bold, vibrant colors. Although Modern artists’ visual expressions were complementary or reactionary to one another, each movement fostered social circles that were often distinct, segregated, and male-dominated, and produced styles that were uncanny to those already existing within communities of color. Ongoing racial and gender discrimination combined with limited retellings of Modernism to this day have further siloed artists of various identities. In Spite of Modernism pays tribute to the diverse Modern artists like Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, and George Morrison working throughout the mid-twentieth century, who overcame adversity and set the stage for the contemporary artists in this show. Additionally, the exhibition highlights the scope and legacy of abstraction despite the Western Modern movement’s hold over particular designs.

The contemporary exhibiting artists recognize the global exchange of abstract styles and reclaim their presence outside dominant Western and heteronormative art histories, either by incorporating references to culture, gender, and sexuality or by drawing upon side-lined histories and influences of Modern art. These references range from African American jazz and hip-hop music, Korean bojagi prints, to the designs of Filipino vinta boats. By also using craft materials such as silk, denim, and leather, they confront Modernism’s elitist qualities and acknowledge abstraction’s legacies in the craft traditions of diverse and often working-class communities. The artists ultimately assert that abstraction has and continues to manifest in various media and across all demographics, despite Modernists’ claims that it inhabits the realm of painting or in the genius of a particular type of person.

In Spite of Modernism: Contemporary Art, Abstract Legacies, and Identity was curated by Haley Clouser, an independent curator and writer, as well as the Curatorial Fellow at deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. The exhibition features five local and national artists including Paolo Arao, Asa Jackson, Julia Kwon, Esteban Ramón Pérez, and Tariku Shiferaw. Read more about each artist below.

Paolo Arao, “Uncharted (What It Means To Be An Island),” 2020, sewn cotton, grommets, wood,98 x 86 in. (each). Courtesy of the artist.
Paolo Arao (New York, NY)

Paolo Arao is a Filipino-American artist working with textiles that are rooted in geometric abstraction.  He mends this lineage of abstraction through the use of textiles; stitching patchworks that explore the elastic nature of queerness and reflects his Filipino heritage.

Asa Jackson, “Urban Planning,” 2021,textiles, oil paint, hair, thread,66 x 64 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Asa Jackson (Hampton Roads, VA)

As a multidisciplinary artist, Asa Jackson’s work explores the cross section of textile from various countries, peoples, time periods, and personal histories. His works are often anthropological studies, representing the lives of myriad people, their collective and individual stories. By cutting and sewing fabrics together, Jackson metaphorically mixes cultures, time periods, people and places into unified works of art.

Julia Kwon, “Homage to the Square Bojagi,” 2016, oil on canvas, felt, and wood,24 x 24 x 3 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Julia Kwon (Woodbridge, VA)

Julia Kwon sews interpretative bojagi—Korean object-wrapping cloths historically created since the early Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910)—and wraps hallow human-scale figures with them to comment on the objectification of Asiatic female bodies. Further, she embeds patterns from contemporary sociopolitical events to challenge the notion of authenticity and examine the complexities of constructing identities within the context of globalism, cultural hybridity, and intersectionality. She also explores community, solidarity, and personal relationship building through various collaborative projects that advocate for a more equitable society for all.

Esteban Ramón Pérez, “DNA (Bad Blood),” 2019, leather, Zepol boxing gloves, vintage Everlast boxing gloves, heavy bag mounts,144 x 144 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Martin Elder.
Esteban Ramón Pérez (Los Angeles, LA)

Esteban Ramón Pérez utilizes his experience as a professional upholsterer and intertwines cultural and artistic sensibilities of his Chicano heritage with the visual language of postmodernism as well as issues rooted in postcolonial history. His work embodies facets of art histories, subjectivity, spirituality, and social issues. 

Tariku Shiferaw, “Love Galore (SZA),” 2021, acrylic on canvas,60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.Photographer credit: Dario Lasagni.
Tariku Shiferaw (New York, NY)

Tariku Shiferaw is known for his practice of mark-making that explores the metaphysical ideas of painting and societal structures. Apart from paint on canvases, Shiferaw also incorporates ready-made objects and materials in his installations, often using transparent and colored mylar, and subverting their utilitarian characteristics in assembly or hanging to create a body of evocative works that question perception and space. Shiferaw’s work may be understood in the framework of midcentury abstraction, but the artist also infuses this formal vocabulary with critical observations from popular culture.


Related Events
Join us for a virtual Artists Talk with guest curator Haley Clouser and In Spite of Modernism artists Paolo Arao, Julia Kwon, and Tariku Shiferaw, on Thursday, February 3 at 6:00 PM. Register here.

For more information on upcoming exhibition programming and updates, visit

Additional Information
Press Release
Exhibition Catalog

Call for Artists

Submit your work for a chance to be exhibited

Support the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington

Make a Donation

Golden: Fifty Years of New Classics

June 15 - September 8, 2024

Curated by Al Miner
Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington is proud to present Golden: Fifty Years of New Classics, an exhibition celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary.

Summer Camp Registration

June 17 – August 16

Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington offers a wonderful and wide range of creative summer camps for your creative students! Camps are offered for kids starting at age 5 and up to teens ages 18.

Zaq Landsberg: Reclining Liberty

August 5, 2023 - July 28, 2024

Front Lawn
MoCA Arlington and Arlington Public Art are thrilled to co-sponsor the installation of Zaq Landsberg’s celebrated Reclining Liberty on the Museum’s front lawn.