What encompasses the idea of America today? Is it the people, the traditions, the history? Or can it be the sum of all, converted into one universal language? It’s more than obvious that language is one of the most diverse aspects of America today. Yet an advertisement for Coca Cola during the last Super Bowl, clumsily summarized the meaning of America with the hashtag #speakAmerican.  Predictably, this created a strong backlash. It also piqued the interest of many artists to ponder the idea of what America is today. As is often the case, artists find inspiration in practically anything and seek to make sense of the world through their visual interpretation of it. 

Enter “The Beautiful,” a current exhibition of contemporary images of America at CLU’s William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art. Incited (or inspired) by the Coca Cola commercial, the show is an exploration of the meaning of the now infamous hashtag and its repercussions for 15 participating artists.

Each work is a variation on the theme. On display is an array of photographs, paintings, works on graphite, digital prints and more that give a glimpse of the multifaceted and multicultural landscape of America.

Christine Wu’s painting of intertwined nude women is more visually tantalizing than a commentary on multiculturalism.  Rather, it tells us about the artist’s personal approach (and cheekiness) to the topic. Her nudes exhibit the softness and sleepiness of a fantasy, with distinct eroticism, and seem to exist in an otherworldly realm.

Take other figurative work on display: Amanda Elizabeth Joseph’s portraits of women who are considered “white trash” stand in stark contrast to Wu’s ethereal nudes. The implication is that the depictions are of an existing social class of flawed and conflicted individuals, victims of more difficult circumstances. Their imperfect skin pigmentation and ragged clothing imply a tough exterior, yet, on closer inspection, there is a subtle pleading in their eyes, disguised by defiance, inherent in the marginalized.

Elsewhere, the contrast is perceptible in the crisp photographs by Toshio Shibata. “Maricopa County Bartlett Dam” is a large black and white print that flaunts the amazing range of textures and rock formations that are naturally found in this area. Nearby, the paintings by Seth Tane offer a distinct view: hyperrealist renditions of trains, trucks, streets, light posts, shipping ports and cranes — a much more distinct landscape than that of Shibata, yet nonetheless beautiful.

Of particular merit are the mixed media photographs of Jessica Wimbley. She achieves an aura of illusion and intrigue by juxtaposing historical portraits with stereotypical images of African American culture. In her work, she depicts universal themes of identity through elements of genealogy, Mother Nature, the artist’s own history and pop culture references. Visually, the work is very engaging; the surface is glossy and rich with translucent cosmic environments that draw the viewer in. 

Dominating the back wall is a large mural by Sonya Fe. The triptych resembles the fresco murals that resulted from the government-sponsored art program after the Mexican Revolution. Many of the qualities of Fe’s work contain the stylistic painterly style of Diego Rivera, one of the better-known painters of that time.  But it also exhibits qualities of the postmodern Cézanne and Picasso.  Fe’s oil on canvas is restless and replete with iconography. It presents elements of Indian heritage, European influence and Mexican-American traditions in a visual narrative that demands closer inspection.

Inescapably, the exhibit exudes an air of patriotism because it presents imagery within the context of a perspective about America. The reality of what America is today, however, is as vast as the physical and psychological landscapes depicted in this exhibit. It cannot be encapsulated by a hashtag or by the work of 15 artists. “The Beautiful” takes a successful stab at it with impressive and diverse work. #kudos.

“The Beautiful: Contemporary Images of America” at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art through Sept. 11. For more information, call 493-3697 or visit www.rollandgallery@callutheran.edu.