March 2 – April 27, 2019
Saturday, March 2nd from 12:00 – 5:00pm
Saturday, March 2nd
7:00 – 9:00pm
White contains all wavelengths of visible light, and in turn humans have deposited within it our multitudes of meanings, reflecting opposing and essential facets of human experience. Inspired in part by James Baldwin’s observation that “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality,” Subversive White presents a response to a specific strain of white that has permeated our national dialogue: the ugly, enduring premise of white supremacy and the host of oppressive systems that it engenders and enables. The artists included in Subversive White pull at the veil of whiteness, investigate the tendency of white to imply both beauty and menace, take aim at the false notions of ethnicity and biology, and the presumed opacity of white and its ability to cover, obscure, or erase. Throughout the show, white reemerges as a purifying flash of light and heat, a conflagration with the potential to reveal the phantasms within. Artists include: Enrique Chagoya, Sonya Clark, Claudio Dicochea, Ben Durham, Angela Ellsworth, Rob Kinmonth, Carrie Marill, Trina McKillen, Mark Mitchell, Ann Morton, Fiona Pardington, Ato Ribeiro, Julianne Swartz, and Hank Willis Thomas.
The painter Claudio Dicochea employs the format of 18th century Latin American Casta paintings—diagramatic schemes depicting Colonial family units, from the palest-complected to darkest—but substitutes archetypal figures from comics, science fiction, cinema and popular culture in a riot of associations connecting us all in a common generative flux. Dicochea’s 081217 is stark and wraithlike, referencing the date of the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dicochea cross-breeds three iconic automobiles: the 1917 Ford Model T, 1969 Dodge Charger, 2010 Dodge Challenger, and explains his haunting family portrait in this way: “The bottom portion is the vertically compressed 2010 Dodge Challenger, after it was used to maul peaceful demonstrators at the Charlottesville rally. The driver injured 19 people and killed 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer. The Dodge Challenger is the updated version of the Dodge Charger, which was a model made famous by the television series The Dukes of Hazzard, which ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985. The vehicle is more famously known as the “General Lee,” an enduring symbol of Confederate pride. It is named after general Robert E. Lee, who himself was born less than two hours from Charlottesville. The top is a Ford Model T, which was produced on August 12, 1908. This was the first automobile to make full use of Henry Ford’s famous factory line production method and was intended to generate a mass consumer market for automobiles in the US.” Dicochea depicts the embrace of American consumerism and American racism, an intertwined history of violence and coercion that has given rise to this ghastly present-day progeny.
The photographer Fiona Pardington addresses generations of racist psuedoscience in Phrenology Head, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital, Paris 2011 (With thanks Musée de l’Homme (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle), Paris), a striking portrait of a 19th Century phrenological bust. A system of cranial measurement that supposedly corresponded to character traits, or “mind organs,” phrenology was primarily a method to justify pervasive and immoral notions of ethnic superiority. Pardington, a native of New Zealand who scours cultural institutions for these obsolete medical models, found this pale, mustachioed visage abandoned “in the car park storage of Paris’s Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital, along with a group of other casts; they’ve basically been forgotten.” While the models have been discarded, the pernicious habit of generating scientific facts as a rationale for existing biases reaches deeply into our present moment. It’s a form of delusion that is aptly represented in the unblinking eyes and methodically gouged, segmented cranium of the Kremlin-Bicêtre man.
Rob Kinmonth’s eerie, intriguing photograph of George Washington’s dentures on display at Mount Vernon, are similarly representative of a nightmarish moral schema that yet permeates our contemporary discourse. The dentures—a tortured and weathered shade of ivory, screwed into a brass structure—are conjectured to have been made from teeth pulled from the mouths of slaves on Washington’s plantation. Remarks Kinmonth, “Over the years, people have recreated Washington in many different forms to satisfy their own purposes and desires. Our collective memory of him, real and imagined, is forever entwined with our lives as Americans.”
Examining the present-day structures of our national bureaucracies, and the way they perpetuate this legacy of oppression, Ben Durham’s Chain-link Fence Portrait (John) portrays one of the artist’s adolescent acquaintances whose mugshot ended up in the public domain. The subject’s likeness is executed in undulations of handwritten text on handmade paper, and the entire composition is systematically contorted by an underlay of chain-link fence. Durham describes the person he once knew with a series of associative memories, his words the only delineating line. “I strive to find some way to tell the subject’s story and yet I know I will fail to do so,” says Durham. “Whiteness in painting and drawing is not neutral or a blank slate but always for me an absence, a record of what we can or cannot see. This balance and the question of who deserves visibility and attention and what attentions are valued and facilitated by our culture is at the center of my ongoing inquiry into memory, representation, and the criminal justice system.”
Hank Willis Thomas’ lenticular work, Le Blanc Imite Le Noir, requires that its viewers alter their location and vantage point in order to perceive the work, as the image shifts and the text changes. The piece is simple at first glance—black text on a white background. Yet no single view grants access to the sum of the composition; its simplicity is a riddle, and the message contained within and projecting from its white lenses is in a constant state of flux.
From the insistent protuberance pushing beneath the skin-like surface of Julianne Swartz’s Stretch Drawing (Thick Jut), to The Gaze, Carrie Marill’s still-life in which a chalky, stolid embankment is fractured by blasts of organic growth, white becomes a method of resistance and a cipher; a place where meanings may turn radically below the surface. In her Proof-Reading series, Ann Morton’s white handkerchiefs include a disclaimer: a careful inspection will reveal the false claims of purity permeating our current conversation, from the bleached dentition of so-called leaders to the straightjacket of our criminal justice system.
Taking aim at the repressive gendered iconography of white communion and bridal dresses, Mark Mitchell instead honors the unsung work of those who counter such prescriptive notions, often through the very fact of their existence. Wrapped in white silk and sweetly embroidered, with a braided cotton fuse, Mitchell delivers a bomb from the past in Cracker Party. Remarks Mitchell, the piece is “a tribute sculpture to the George Jackson Brigade, an intersectional armed resistance group of the late 60’s and early 70’s active in the Pacific Northwest. They were comprised of two gay ex-cons, two lesbians, a sex worker and a Black Panther. I made this bomb to celebrate their legacy.”
With similarly delicate sensibility and explosive implications, Trina McKillen’s The Children (Communion Dress) is a souvenir of the generations of sexual abuse committed by the Catholic Church, the garment’s symbolic childlike innocence forever connected to the immense perversions of patriarchal power. In Subversive White these ritual objects reverse the dynamic of repression and themselves become powerful storytelling objects. Angela Ellsworth’s intricately patterned Seer Bonnets, head-coverings comprised entirely of pearl-tipped corsage pins, recall the transcendental gatherings of the plural wives of Ellsworth’s traditional Mormon heritage. Beyond the censored and officially-sanctioned accounts of history and religion, secret stories are pulsing, forging new forms from the rituals of the past.
Textile and performance artist Sonya Clark tests the interactions between elementary human materials: textiles and text, storytelling and symbols such as flags, beads and human hair, and fuses stories both universal and personal. In Whitewashed, tones of Sherman Williams paint (titled with the actual paint colors: Incredible White, Storyteller, and Natural Choice) create the ghostly impression of an American flag, a symbol rendered nearly invisible. The work is remade in each exhibition setting, a continuous bodily investment in this pale version of our country’s banner.
Craft as an iterative function of the American experience is integral to Clark’s experience as a first-generation immigrant—raised in Washington DC by a Jamaican mother and father from Trinidad and Barbados, Clark’s distant ancestors had in turn, survived the carriage from West Africa on a slaver’s ship; a Scottish great-grandfather connected the family to Europe. Clark’s Octaroon is a rectangular, flag-like juxtaposition of African braids; the piece’s title refers to Clark’s 1/8 Scottish heritage, just as in the context of human slavery the term “Quadroon” was once used to describe persons of ¼ African heritage. Clark’s Slave Collar addresses the legacy of slavery with an unflinching look at its historical origins. Words that encapsulate the practice of dehumanization and slavery are inscribed by a series of punctures through handmade cotton Khadi paper. Clark explains that these works, “are based on the parallel legacies of Empire building through slave labor in the Roman Empire and in the USA. Many of the enslavement practices of ancient Rome were employed in the Americas, including things like slave collars. ‘Tenemefugiafugio’ is text directly taken from an Ancient Roman slave collar. It translates from Latin as ‘Keep me so I do not flee.’” For Clark, addressing the violence and iniquities borne by African-Americans in our society is only the first sentence in the story. “Anger is justified, and then what? Because anger is simply an emotion. I’m much more interested in what happens next. How do we move forward? And how far have we moved forward?”
Enrique Chagoya seeks a template for change in a reflection upon our disparate human narratives and our shared human experience. His accordion-folded painting Aliens in Borderlandia borrows its shape from pre-Columbian codices, prehistoric Mayan and Aztec books in which figures and events are depicted in graphic, nonlinear form. This compositional strategy, and the tongue-in-cheek “everyperson” stereotypes populating Chagoya’s bright unfurling of pale handmade Amate bark paper, present the possibility of cultural retelling and remaking through our shared stories. Chagoya remarks: “When we live within borders, everyone is a stereotypical alien at either side of a border. In this codex I diluted ethnic/gender stereotypes from many places (Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America)… Walls dehumanize us with stereotypes. However, the fact is that we are all coming from the same genome, and we are the same species. Our differences enrich our life and in history, when those differences mix and integrate, they create new cultural legacies.”
Despite our various cultural precepts, ultimately concepts of whiteness and darkness are subsumed in the interplay of elements and electricity, sensation and understanding, that underpin our shared human experience. Ato Ribeiro’s works, like the early African-American quilts that influence them, contain forms that shift and expand as our eyes adjust to repeating variations in line and shape. As a Ghanian-American artist, Ribeiro’s artwork embodies a vocabulary of histories and materials compiled across continents and cultures. Ribeiro’s marqueted geometrical forms, hand-fashioned entirely of found and discarded wood, present a coded language, contemporary evidence of a shared heritage that is independent of words and has existed for centuries. Between You and Me, Ribeiro’s work for Subversive White, was, remarks the artist, “designed by blending a series of communicators inspired by African American quilts from the Antebellum South, Kente Cloth, and a hybrid fusion of the two… Through collecting, joining and refining salvaged pieces of wood, the work’s composition has been organized by separating woods that resemble specific skin tones. Darker pieces of wood are totally surrounded by lighter woods and framed by a fusion of the two to reveal a message communicated through an Adinkra Symbol entitled ‘Nea Onnim No Sua A, Ohu’—‘One who does not know can know from learning.’ Though I understand that all human beings are created in the same manner; by piecing various histories together, our current political climate reflects a desperate need to be reminded once again. Between You and Me remains optimistic, focusing on how bodies of color have and will continue to overcome dealing with various forms of quotidian violence. We should never feel the need to justify why we are who we are; simply being will always be enough.”