Alison Pebworth’s thought-provoking ‘Possibilities’

America the ‘Beautiful’
By GREG COOK  |  October 24, 2012

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LOOKING BACK Pebworth’s Beautiful Possibility.
San Francisco's Alison Pebworth had been doing the usual artist thing — spending months working alone in her studio making elaborately symbolic magic realist paintings and occasionally emerging for a gallery show.

"I wanted more life," she tells me. She got herself one of those craft fair tents and erected it at various San Francisco events, filled with art (often resembling crackpot medical charts) and decorated to look like a cross between an old medicine show and a circus tent (admission: 5 cents). Then, inspired by the tours of indie rock bands, she took the show on the road in 2006 and '07, up to Maine and down to Florida, and back home again.

The project became about the conversations she had with the people she met (sometimes added by surveys she administered) and her adventure across America. "I started feeling this responsibility to look back on my country," she says. "And this series was a way to be more accessible."

To be specific, that series is "Beautiful Possibilities," which she has been on the road with since the spring and is on view at 186 Carpenter (186 Carpenter St, Providence) through October 29. They're finely painted banners (Pebworth sure has painting chops), like sideshow broadsides or old trade banners or educational posters — a style that indicates that there is information here to be deciphered. The title banner spells out the phrase in faux wood letters and offers portraits of Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-century emancipated African slave whose biography helped promote the abolition of slavery in Britain; a 19th-century Sauk and Fox chief Tahcoloquoit; and Olive Oatman, a 19th-century girl taken into captivity when her Mormon family was killed by Native Americans in what is now Arizona.

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ROGUES’ GALLERY Pebworth’s Remarkable Tricksters.
Another banner, Remarkable Tricksters, depicts P.T. Barnum, the Yes Men, Karl Rove, and the 19th-century runaway slave and showman Okah Tubbee. Elsewhere, the 19th-century Sauk leader Black Hawk, who unsuccessfully fought US forces to reclaim his homeland, sits balanced as if on a scale opposite Dick Cheney.

Disputes between European-Americans and Native Americans over natural resources is a repeated theme, appearing, for example, in a banner depicting former Republican Congressman Tom Delay as the snake in an American Garden of Eden offering an apple and booze to a Native American Adam and Eve.

Pebworth's complicated references line up somewhat askew, yielding both a hallucination of America and an alternate, muckraking history. The point, it seems, is to prompt reconsideration and conversation (often with Pebworth herself) as you puzzle it out.

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