Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Marion Palfi: Post-World War 2 Photographer of America's Social Problems

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The social situations that mainstream America wished to avoid dealing with were what Marion Palfi gravitated toward from the time she arrived in the US during World War II until her death in 1978. Having escaped from a totalitarian society, her great expectations of America were shattered soon after. She would not merely settle in where racism, violence, greed and poverty were a strong but hidden undercurrent. She discovered and was shocked by the American paradox: even with “freedom” and equal protection under the law, social and economic injustice were not only still possible but rife. Within the context of the Constitution, some in the US could exploit the system and make others live in misery. Palfi’s photos ask us what factors were and still are at work to vitiate the ideals of the great American experiment.

Palfi’s commitment to revealing this American paradox, and her aesthetic and journalistic sensitivity, make her one of the most interesting photographers in post-World War II America. She is also one of the most neglected. Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America is the first solo exhibition of Palfi’s work since a retrospective at the University of Kansas in 1973. It has been organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), University of Arizona, and is drawn from the CCP’s Marion Palfi Archive. Much of the archive was lovingly donated by Palfi’s husband, Martin Magner, who was also an émigré from Nazi Germany and who worked for NBC and CBS, directing innovative and socially committed TV shows.

According to the CCP’s bio, Palfi was born in 1907 in Berlin. Her father came from an aristocratic background and was a German theater producer and director. She received a privileged education and briefly pursued a successful career as a model and actress. Yet, Palfi abandoned all of this and began an apprenticeship at a Berlin photographic portrait studio (perhaps due to the politicization of popular culture at that time). By 1932 she had opened her own studio, which she moved to and operated exclusively out of Amsterdam until just before the German invasion of Holland in 1940, when she fled Europe for the USA.

She valued the diversity she found in the USA, and she felt great compassion for the suffering of folks because of their minority status. Her breakthrough project was Great American Artists of Minority Groups and Democracy at Work through which she met her dear friend Langston Hughes. Other highlights include her photo essay on Jim Crow laws and lynching There Is No More Time (1949), Children in America (1950), Suffer Little Children (1952), her inclusion in Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man show at MoMA (1955), You Have Never Been Old (1959), and First I Liked the Whites, I Gave Them Fruits (1967). Palfi called herself a “social-research photographer” who often immersed herself in a community while documenting its challenges and hardships. She did photo-essays, exhibits and books dealing with racism, segregation, poverty, prison conditions, neglect of the elderly, child abuse and the lives of Native Americans. Her work was used by activist groups to press for social change.

In her photo Josie Mill, Wife of a Lynch Victim, Irwington, Georgia (1949) we see a woman whose husband has just been dragged from a jail cell and hanged by an angry white mob. We are engaged by a photo of a suffering person with no recourse to justice in a country that calls itself a nation of laws. Yet, we can never be fully engaged or understand the horror of this person’s experience. Her eyes are averted in an act of furtive agency, a possible show of covert moral judgment, a ploy to hide a sickening awareness of the horror or her shock and grief. Although little action is accorded to her, she retains her humanity and awareness of the wrong that has occurred. We do not, however, see anger or hatred, unless this is being strategically concealed as well.

Palfi shows what are we left with when nothing can be done and one is left at the mercy of an inhumane community. This is what she saw in Nazi Germany and did not expect to see in the country that fought and destroyed the Nazis. The victimizers are never present in her photos, they scurry off to their homes; we just see the effects of the harm. In Somewhere in the South (1946 – 1949), we see a hidden agency again, as the two black bus riders openly show discomfort at being forced to remain silent lest they be beaten or lynched. We do not see nor need to see the white riders, their presence is clearly shown in the distress and silent anger and resentment underlying the expression on the faces of the riders.

In Nurse George, Louisville, Georgia (1946 – 1949), we see a black woman tending to white children with care and concern. There is, of course, great irony here as black women were often compelled to tend to the young of white women and did so with loving kindness. The eyes of Palfi’s subjects are often the keys to a deeper understanding of her work and in the background we see a white child staring at the nurse. What does she feel toward Nurse George? Will she grow up to harbor racist feelings regardless of this selfless care? How could that happen? What must this girl be thinking?

In the Shadow of the Capitol, Washington D.C. (1946 – 1948), we see three black children in an alley or narrow street within sight of the seat of American power. Implicit in the photo is their own lack of representation as one of the children looks at the camera askance. In a 1949 photo which was untitled, we see an African American woman outside standing next to a post of wood which seems reminiscent of either a gallows or a church pillar. Is it concern or anger she inadvertently shows as she experiences this moment of apparent privacy? And what of the woman in the photo Greenwood, Mississippi (1963)? Her arms are raised as if to say that she is innocent, harmless, while her expression, again, is stoic and deliberately, perhaps, not revealing her real emotions.

In Case History (1955 – 1957), we see an elderly woman eating among a large group. Her life now takes place amid groups of strangers of her own generation. Is she savoring the meal? She seems to have a faint smile on her lips. Is she grateful or is it just in human nature to make the best out of any situation? In Manhattan State Hospital (1955) we see another group of elderly women biding their time in an institutional setting, one of whom seems to be moving in a determined direction toward something. This movement seems to disrupt the organized placidity of the setting.

In At Madera, California the Bureau of Indian Affairs Has a New School “To Change the Indian Is Our Job!” New Arrival (1967 – 1969), the new arrival is a young Native American woman with a new hairstyle and western clothes, still clutching onto an article of traditional clothing. We see intense anxiety and concern on her face. The lockers symbolize the harsh and sudden change expected of the new arrivals. In (Navajo Relocation: Leaving Home (1967 – 1969) we see another sudden change as a family moves from one desolate area of reservation land to another. The Navajos had been famed for their horseback riding skills and lived a semi-nomadic existence until the tribe was forced to relocate to a desert area. To this day 2.5 million Native Americans live on reservations where their culture was displaced. About 27% live in poverty, 40% of housing is inadequate, 30% of housing is overcrowded, 50% is not connected to a public sewer and it is not uncommon for Native American families to not obtain basic utilities like clean water.

Why has Marion Palfi been so neglected by art writers and historians? My best guess is the still lingering sexism in the art world. We know about Louis Hine and Jacob Riis. In fact, when I Googled “socially committed photographers” I found a long list of men with only one woman – Diane Arbus. Palfi certainly has a body of work that deserves to be placed among the best photography dealing with social issues of the 20th century. Every art writer who cares about diversity in the arts and equal representation of all races, ethnicities and genders should take a look at this show and help Marion Palfi rise to the status she truly deserves.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Information and image, the homeless in London: Bryan Adams at Atlas Gallery, London

Unlike major cities in the USA, the city of London made a concerted effort to assist its homeless population during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. For folks who were sleeping on the streets, the city government rented hotel rooms and provided food for the lockdown. “Everyone In” brought in 6 times the usual number of homeless and some of these folks were moved to permanent housing. In New York City, the state government did little to nothing for the homeless and passed a law to keep them from riding the subway all night. Chicago did nothing and the homeless flooded the subway system after midnight, providing an unsafe environment for themselves and the hapless travelers going to one of America’s busiest airports for redeye flights. Thus, it is estimated that a homeless person during the pandemic in the USA was two to three times more likely to die of Covid-19 than people in the general population.

Although Great Britain showed much more concern and compassion than the USA, Bryan Adams and Atlas Gallery of London still seemed to feel it was a good time to remind folks of the problems facing the homeless during these harsh times and to ask whether enough is being done. Indeed, there was a significant surge in the numbers of rough sleepers in the last part of 2020 and first part of 2021, about half of them on the streets for the first time. It is feared that once Covid-19 is finally eliminated, support mechanisms will be removed and homelessness will become even worse in the city. What is to be done for the homeless after the pandemic? Will they simply go back to sleeping in the streets? During this period of time when compassion has been cultivated to save the lives of our most marginalized and vulnerable, will we just go back to an unacceptable normality with the homeless? Did we just experience a temporary compassion to fit the needs of the pandemic and soon we will be back to what was?

Adams’ photos are stark and uncompromising as the subjects often face the camera naked (to ostensibly divorce them from the visual trappings of their social status, location and time period). Engaging the photos becomes a combination, therefore, of pre-established information and raw image. So we come to each photo knowing that we will see a homeless person and this necessarily alters how we engage the image even without visual trappings. Perhaps this is the perfect process to push us to examine the prejudices or preconceived ideas that we bring to these folks. The photos might confirm what we already feel or disabuse us of misconceptions. But we have to ask: What do these photos do to us in relation to what we already know, believe or feel?

So Adams is not proselytizing or arguing so much as he is asking us to become aware of our own emotional responses and how they are triggered. He might be asking what is necessary to change our pre-established conceptions. Can such a raw image do it, or does the image become corrupted based on what we believe? What kind of cognitive baggage do we carry around with us ready to impute on others who have not been as fortunate as us? How does the information we possess affect what these photos can do to us? Can we begin to see in these images what puts people off about the homeless? Can we recognize what alienates us from these folks who stand unassumingly in front of us? What stops us from real moral and social action concerning this group of “outsiders”? How much emotion should we feel staring at these images – is it emotion they solicit? Are these photos soliciting anything from us? What makes us feel or stops us from feeling a sense of responsibility while looking at these photos?

Indeed, these are photos of homeless folks who have taken action to improve their circumstances by selling copies of The Big Issue. The Big Issue is a periodical that can be sold by the homeless to earn income. The seller pays a small amount for each issue, but sells the issue at twice that fee. Thus, this is a venture completely centered in a business operation and not a process of begging. This enterprise was begun in 1991 and spawned successful copycats around the world. A little bio is available concerning each of the sellers depicted and the bios mirror the prevalent causes of homelessness. There are, in fact, three big reasons for homelessness – drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and just plain bad financial luck. Sometimes there are combinations of these three factors or one factor leads to another factor which becomes a negative feedback loop. So the information we bring to each photo also can have an optimistic element as we know these are folks who have suffered, could have given up, but are taking action. This is, perhaps, why we see smiles or glimpses of smiles on some of the subjects.

To me this show is all about the information we get and bring to the visual image, the limits of the image itself, how we feel compelled to supplement images instead of absorbing them and whether a lot of this is trustworthy. We can either do a conscientious job by learning as much as we can about those in need and avoiding petty cynicism, or we can do an irresponsible job by clinging to misconceptions and buying into hate. The show seems to be about the need to continually search for the truth about those who have been harmed and neglected by our society. The photos demonstrate that folks in dire need exist and if we truly care about them beyond the pandemic, we will learn what it takes to fully tackle homelessness as the long-persisting social evil it has been and always will be. 

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Kirsten Valentine at Zg Gallery in Chicago: Broken Play (September, 2020)

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In her show Broken Play, Kirsten Valentine bases her paintings on found or discarded photos which she often buys from antique stores in Chicago. Finding these photos is, therefore, a type of chance event and, as John Cage pointed out, relying on chance operations allows an artist to go beyond the limits of her own imagination and will. It is the artist opening herself up to the unexpected and unprocessed and allowing this to push her forward toward meaningful experimentation and discovery. In Valentine’s case, she is also engaged in a type of cultural reclamation by using these abandoned photos. She is partly in and partly outside of the photorealist tradition in that she relies on the photograph in lieu of subjects, but her paintings are never completely finished and often have elements blurred or obscured.

It is important to remember that when many of these photos were taken, film was not cheap. I can recall relatives often exhorting me not to waste film when I was younger and taking frivolous photos of my dogs or goofy friends. It is, however, these photos I now prize more than old images of me standing in front of the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial. The only thing seemingly eternal we can experience are memories. They seem eternal because they exist outside of time, have no beginning or end. But they are a personalized, false eternal as the pain they cause will die with us and the joy evoked will die as well. The photo is an object, an imitation of memory, an aid to experience the eternal in our lives.

Many of the photos Valentine chooses seem to be from those times when folks were deliberately wasteful and took random silly shots of each other. When Valentine went hunting for photos she seems to have looked for occasions when folks disregarded both the advice of relatives and the cost of film and captured something amusing or endearing or provocative in a spontaneous and impromptu manner. In fact, there is a type of candor in these photos that we can probably no longer get with our digital devices. These folks were defying photographic convention and just doing their own thing and they were not shooting for a wide audience as there was no way to publicly share these photos. In the true spirit of chance operations Valentine is not just looking for one thing in the photos she selects; she seems to wait to be hit by something the sitter is not afraid to show to the intimate acquaintance taking the photo, whether it be a form of interpersonal dominance or extreme vulnerability.

These photographers recognized the importance of this “wastefulness” and Valentine validates their recognition. There can thus be a mixture of pathos and silliness as over the years the event or pose was forgotten, the subjects may have passed away and the photos have gone to antique stores. That instant of mirth was captured but now fills us with melancholy. The photo is an attempt to create the eternal or preserve it. In fact, it is no wonder why people do not merely throw these photos away. They seem to feel there is something sacred or valuable about old photos, so donating them to a total stranger is preferable to the trash heap. In the act of donating the photos the giver must hope that someone can use these photos somehow, that they may be of unpredictable value to someone else. Thus, Valentine and the donor meet half-way and close the loop. She fills their hope that these photos were not useless trash.

I am not sure we can say, as others have, that her paintings are remnants of a lost narrative. These are remnants of someone’s eternity, like their very bones. When Andy Warhol was shooting film stock of Ondine just being Ondine or Edie Sedgwick just hanging around, was this part of a narrative? No. A person’s life is not a narrative and this is what photos prove. A narrative is contrapuntal to life.

The paintings are often fragments. Valentine sometimes removes identity, to make these experiences universal? To subsume another person’s memory so that we can fully engage in it? Is she trying to make an experience timeless, common, an aspect of a shared human experience that all of us can recognize? More than anything, many of these paintings are about interpersonal spontaneity and trust which we have largely lost in place of planned poses for Instagram accounts.

In an interview Valentine pointed out that these strangers remind her of herself and others she knows. These are the strangers on the train we never chatted with but we are now voyeurs delving into their private lives. The privacy of these photos no longer matters and the images can now go wildly public. Perhaps she blurs faces to protect the modesty of the person depicted, who never expected to be displayed in an art gallery, who never thought his or her causal life warranted reflection by others.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Last Meal: A Photography Exhibit of "Last Meals" by Jackie Black - Parrish Art Museum (August 2020)

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In the 1960s Lenny Bruce once joked: “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” So, what was going through the heads of some design firm when they chose, basically, a cruciform structure for the common American execution gurney? Was this a tip of the hat to Lenny Bruce? If America executes any messiahs in the near future, we already have the religious jewelry? Maybe everyone in contemporary America should wear a small execution gurney around his/her neck anyway. This seems, indeed, our American god, the god of deterrence. Whether he is effective or not, he is the god we turn to the most in our social-management operations. The god is served by a corrupt priesthood, involving systemic racism in our police departments. Jackie Black’s photography show Last Meal, at the Parrish Art Museum, compels all of us to look at some victims of our prison-industrial complex (many of whom professed their innocence to the end) through their last meals on death row.

Retribution as an act of deterrence is probably the most used and least questioned emotional response in our society. Even severely mentally ill people, people who suffer from schizophrenia, are routinely punished in our legal system as if they were “responsible” for their actions. This is due to a basic fear that if we allow someone to get away with a crime, this will give license to others to commit the same crime. To revisit a story Foucault told, it did not matter to the 18th century French that Robert Damiens was severely mentally ill; he had tried to kill the king, so he had to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Damiens had to be tortured to death as a deterrent to anyone who might consider regicide in the future, even though only severely deranged folks oblivious to the force of deterrence probably considered such foolhardy assassinations.

Retribution as a form of deterrence is like a fixed action pattern in humanity. The male red-bellied stickleback fish will attack anything red during mating season whether it makes sense to attack it or not (sometimes they attack red-colored stones), and any time there is an act of harm, we have to attack someone, because nature blindly stuck this fixed action pattern into us for some basic survival value, regardless of how wasteful and ineffective it might be in truly eliminating harmful behavior. We do not show high ethical values when we do this. We act like a bellicose fish in mating season.

Do we take action to help children who live in violent and economically deprived neighborhoods so that they will not be molded into future criminals? No. We do not worship that God in our society, we worship the prison-building, capital punishment god six days a week. On Sunday we pay lip service to the real God. 65% of white, mainline Protestants support capital punishment as do 59% of white Catholics. 33% of Black Protestants support the death penalty while 37% of Latinos support it.

The meals themselves of these 23 individuals from Texas’ Death Row are revealing. Fast food seems to predominate in the choice for a last meal judging from this show. The prisoners are told they may order anything they want, and it seems often to be some type of fast food dish. The years of formal education that each prisoner completed is also provided along with a photo of what his last meal might have looked like. It seems, perhaps, that lacking an extensive formal education, and the experience this opens for people, the prisoners are not even aware of the multitude of food choices that are available. Like most folks who are born into and grow up in poverty, they seem to gravitate toward the cheapest, unhealthiest, most toxic food.

There are exceptions. One prisoner requested that his final meal go to a homeless person (this request was denied). Another requested “Justice, Equality and World Peace”. A man who professed his innocence ordered a purely vegetarian meal. His last meal was, therefore, putatively based on his ethical principles – evincing proof that he was not a killer of people any more so than of animals. Or, perhaps, he had changed in prison, or, if he had committed the murder, this last meal might have been a final ruse to demonstrate a false innocence. Who knows. These folks are usually poor and, as studies show, one is more likely to go to jail if he/she has to use a public defender, and more likely to receive a more severe sentence. So, it becomes difficult to tell who really was “guilty” and who was not. 20 individuals have been exonerated by DNA evidence while on Death Row. It is, in fact, chilling to think of how many innocent people might be in prison.

Few of the prisoners referenced in this show had much of a formal education. Many did not seem to even make it to high school. Statistics show that as of 2016 about 49% of prisoners on death row had not graduated high school. 44% had a high school diploma or GED. 9% had some college. This would seem to indicate that if we were really serious about eliminating crime in the USA, we would focus more on helping children get into and stay in school in lieu of the building of more and more prisons. California spends about $65,000 per year on the average prisoner and $12,000 per year on the average student. New York spends $70,000 per prisoner as opposed to $22,000 per student. We worship the god of deterrence and not the God of Mercy and Justice.

You have probably read Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. At the end, it is only the victim of a senseless ritual who realizes how evil and unjust the ritual is. Everybody else believes in it. The statements made by prisoners about to be executed also show that these men are fully aware that something wrong is occurring, even if they do admit their guilt, even if everyone else is convinced that capital punishment is right.

Robert Madden said, "I apologize for your loss and your pain. But I didn't kill those people. Hopefully, we will all learn something about ourselves and each other. And we will learn to stop the cycle of hate and vengeance and come to value what is really going on in this world”. Thomas Andy Barefoot said, "I've been praying all day for (the victim's) wife to drive the bitterness from her heart because that bitterness that's in her heart will send her to hell just as surely as any other sin. I'm sorry for everything I've ever done to anybody. I hope they'll forgive me." The defiance in Johnny Garret’s statement, a man who had 7 years of formal education, speaks volumes: "I'd like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my ass." David Wayne Stoker said, “I am truly sorry for your loss…but I didn’t kill anyone.”

Nanette Carter at Skoto Gallery, Chelsea, Manhattan (March 2018) - Cantilevered pieces

When Al Loving abandoned the geometric painting that had garnered him a solo show at the Whitney, he abandoned his place in the established and respected circle of white artists he had been affiliated with. Loving stated that he wanted to see what creating art as a black man from the black experience might be like, and the trajectory of his commercial career plummeted. As was the case with Norman Lewis, it was felt that Loving was now indulging in a limited type of black esotericism instead of shooting for the ‘universal human statements’ the white guys purported to be offering. In reality, the black experience of enduring and responding humanely to forms of oppression offered the most universal response and Loving attempted to convey this through his torn canvas pieces and other works during the rest of his life.

Nanette Carter was deeply influenced by Loving, who was her mentor for many years, and has adopted some aspects of Loving’s technique, but most notably replaces Loving’s materials with oil on mylar. To a great extent she carries on the language Loving attempted to create to express the black experience through abstraction. This language was born, partially, from the African American quilting tradition as well as a tradition of thrift and recycling to express poverty, adversity and conflict as well as the joy of community and the moral and spiritual insights that one gains by standing in opposition to a dominant culture of excess, violence and bigotry.

Carter’s mom was a dance teacher who often designed and sewed her own outfits and when Carter was a child she was influenced by how her mom worked in differing materials to create fanciful articles of clothing for performances. This mirrors, to some extent, the fact that Al Loving’s mom was a quilt-maker. She was also fascinated by landscapes she noticed from airplane flights and how fields suddenly changed shape, color and texture for unknown reasons. Her father was in politics, and from the visitors to their home, and the discussions that ensued, she became interested in social and political issues in her native New Jersey as well as in the US and the world. So Al Loving, dance outfits, landscapes and local politics were some of the factors that pushed Carter beyond a type of figuration that has been more common among African American artists and into a type of collage-like abstraction.

Carter’s current show at Skoto Gallery is called An Act of Balance and is inspired, to a great extent, by the cantilever. Indeed, these pieces are from her Cantilever series. This is an architectural term for some type of structure, like a beam, that is only connected on one end, but which can support a substantial amount of weight. Any cantilever is going to look suspicious and risky; ideally you would like to have that type of support held in two places, and so it becomes a perfect type of metaphor for lives under stress and pressure, or folks who are struggling against odds to not only hold their lives together but to somehow prosper, succeed and maybe even change things for the better around them.

In many of the pieces you see small structures jutting from the bottom of the piece which are meant to have contact with the ground, often with cantilever devices above them, followed by bulky masses of differing textures and colors rising up. One gets a sense that in order for the bulky, accumulated bunch of things not to fall over one must engage in a rigorous, continual and vigilant balancing act (thus the title of the show). In some pieces these small structures from the bottom seem to serve as invisible sources of strength rising with the bulky materials like the lattices which support vine-like plants. Carter seems to ask us what these sources of strength might be in our lives, what comprises the bulk supported by these lattices?

To me, the source of strength for any one or group that is suffering is the hope or desire that one is a strong enough cantilever that can endure and rise above and then become the agent for change one wants to see. In Carter’s pieces we see that these structures do not represent the stability anyone might have craved, but this could be one’s current reality, and it might be one of the necessary stages some of us are both cursed and blessed with in our development to become more compassionate and humane actors in a thoroughly corrupt world.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Historical Amnesia - Group Show at BronxArtSpace (February 2018)

BronxArtSpace is an invaluable resource in New York City which provides opportunities for curated group shows and performances that allow artists the space to experiment and do work outside of commercial considerations. The most recent show, Historical Amnesia, was curated by Gabriel de Guzman, who brings together five amazing artists around the theme of forgotten histories and “…the lasting effects of colonialism, exoticism and intolerance on today’s culture.”

When Islam arrived in the Philippines in the 1300s, through traders and missionaries from Malaysia and Indonesia, it began to supplant a type of polytheism, magical ritual and shamanism of the indigenous population. In the late 1500s Miguel López de Legazpi arrived from Spain expressly to “save” the Filipinos from both paganism and Islam and a type of religious war lasted into the 1800s. Spain finally gained ascendency and many Filipinos converted to Catholicism, until the US took control of the Philippines and US missionaries attempted to introduce various forms of Protestantism. So Philippine history and culture have been continually altered by warring dominant cultures as this chain of islands served as a battle ground between countries and religious ideologies. What is left of indigenous Filipino thought, religion or culture? How has the character of the Filipino people been developed or affected by the abuses to which they have been subjected throughout history? Can the Philippines finally chart a course toward autonomy, self-development and unique identity?

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You are probably not going to get these answers through National Geographic or other glossy magazines, which tend to sell the exoticism of the Philippines to the potential American tourist. Sara Jimenez has, therefore, in response to the tendency to overlook the tragedy of Philippine history and current social problems for the delightful pleasures the country might offer to wealthy foreigners, created a type of exotic creature called the Antipode for this exhibit. This is a long, willowy creature composed entirely of nature images from National Geographic articles about the Philippines. Of course, an “antipode” is the direct opposite position of another place on the planet earth and figuratively the antipode for the Philippines rests at the heart of white, European culture. This sculpture was apparently inspired by some strange sea creatures which have recently washed up in the Philippines, allegedly spawning legends and articles in National Geographic. The Antipode defies categorization and seems to point to terrible omens for the future. It represents, perhaps, exoticism as “historical amnesia” - a pleasant cover-up for what the major powers have done to these islands and both a creation of and a curiosity for the West. The Antipode represents the Philippines as part of a cabinet of curiosities for its former colonizers and current tourists.

Joiri Minaya also takes the theme of exoticism as a starting point for her work. Of Dominican descent, on her website she mentions a type of gaze that is thrust upon her due to her race/ethnicity which “others” her. “I turn it upon itself, mainly by seeming to fulfill its expectations, but instead sabotaging them, thus regaining power and agency. Inter-disciplinarily, I explore the performativity of tropical identity as product: the performance of labor, decoration, beauty, leisure, service.” Documentation of a performance series she engaged in at Wave Hill, a garden and arts center in the Bronx, is presented in the show. Women dress in floral outfits to either blend in or stand out from the flora at Wave Hill. Women are literally equated to or contrasted with the exotic foliage as an example of the restrictive effects of objectifying and commodifying women from non-dominant cultures. Recall Gauguin and how the liberatingly exotic was exemplified by the naked female natives and their jungle surroundings. She also seems to satirize the concept of the allegorization of women, in general, based on the woman’s ability to provide sexual pleasure to men and to spawn offspring. Throughout history the “fertility” of women has been equated to the fertility of the land and throughout western literature a woman has often been presented as the spiritual fulfilment of the wandering, searching male. The capacity of a woman to provide sexual fulfilment and offspring allowed her to become symbolic of the fulfilment of spiritual desire (represented by the male sex drive). So the vagina becomes the basis of much of what art, religion and literature has extracted from women for use in very linear and bizarre allegories of spiritual development. As the restrictive outfits in Minaya’s performance impose limits to the freedom and movement of the women wearing them, this allegorization of women and the equating of women to the non-human and exotic is a type of imposed and restrictive history.

jc lenochan, a veteran teacher and professor, looks at race in his works, which are done on black boards as a reference to what normally passes for knowledge and insight in American schools. One large (very humorous) work, depicted on a blackboard, evoking Duchamp and Picabia, is of a “deracing” machine: a giant construction in which a person can climb an escalator and descend through a cleansing mechanism to have his/her race removed. The implication seems to be that race is a deliberate construction meant to create a power imbalance between societies and classes. In another work we see a giant version of the artist himself with various members of other ethnic/racial groups brushing him, sardonically trying to get his “whiteness” to rub off on them. This seems a take off on the idea of dominant culture whiteness rubbing off on others in the cultural assimilation process. In reality, in regard to white folks assimilating folks of color educationally and culturally, there is research which indicates that white teachers often undervalue and fail students of color due, in part, to the inability for whiteness to rub off on folks who do not want to absorb whiteness as a part of their education. lenochan also addresses the theme of boxing in some of his latest work as it relates to issues of race and social class mobility.

Kris Grey is represented in this show through a videotape of their performance Homage. (By way of explanation, to be ‘queer’ means to defy a binary gender stereotype and so Grey uses the possessive pronoun ‘their’ instead of ‘his/her’ in describing their performance.) As is pointed out in the show booklet, “Grey’s work provokes a discussion of transgender politics by revealing the body as a site of vulnerability and trauma.” In this performance Grey inserted 10 three-inch needles under scars left under their pectoral line. The needles force the scars to become more visually prominent. From parts of the performance I observed, Grey inserts the pins with relative aplomb, despite the blood which flows from the wounds, as we see members of the audience wincing. Actually, watching the audience feel emotional pain, and feeling discomfort and pain myself, based on what Grey was experiencing, was the most meaningful part of the performance for me. Grey finds a way to connect with folks and to engender a fellow-feeling through his experience, and thus make personal history meaningful to others, based on the transitioning process for genderqueer people.

Finally, Jade Yumang presents a number of soft sculptures based on a specific issue of Drum – the first magazine in US history to show full frontal male nudity (December, 1965) and an innovative periodical in LGBT history. This was a more in-your-face and unapologetic non-hetero magazine that caught fire around the country until it was quashed by the US government. It seemed to model itself, somewhat, on Playboy, as it contained naked photos as well as thought-provoking articles. Its founder, Clark Polak, in fact, once stated that he was not shooting to become the MLK Jr. of the gay world, but instead the Hugh Hefner, perhaps realizing that private “vice” often becomes public “virtue” anyway. The issue Yumang references is from May, 1966 (volume 6, issue 1, 1966), which was seized by the post office as pornographic (Polak was, ultimately, indicted by the federal government). Yumang takes pictures and text from the issue, prints them on fabric and cuts and sews them into “abstract, queer forms.” Yumang informed me he is referencing memory quilts normally meant to remember or celebrate a relative. Each piece refers to a page from that historically significant issue. Yumang scanned pages and transferred them onto fabric, quilted them, and then made this into sculptures with materials from the era. Yumang explained that “…fabric is a form of second skin and historicizes a particular period via style/fashion. Quilting is also a way to protect or envelop someone (duvets) or something (moving blankets).” The show runs until March 24.

We are all connected - Anne Siems at Littlejohn Contemporary (February 2018)

Bruce Wilshire, in The Primal Roots of American Philosophy, argues that even though the US government almost completely eradicated Native American religion and culture, there were those among the white, dominant culture who became deeply influenced by Native American thought. Indeed, Wilshire argues that the influence was so deep that Native American thought forms the core of the American philosophical tradition and differentiates US philosophy significantly from European philosophy. To Wilshire this is seen most clearly in folks like Emerson, Thoreau, James and Dewey. I mention all this because Anne Siems appears to play with the notion that women and children from the dominant culture might just be one short step away from full blown paganism, or, perhaps, might be there already. Her marvelous, winsome and enchanting work, currently on display at Littlejohn Contemporary in Chelsea, appears to take the historically unique American artistic tradition of folk art portraiture and to deliberately infuse it with shamanistic and transcendental meaning.

Folk art portraiture from early 19th century America possessed certain conspicuous characteristics. Perspective was abandoned for a flatness of finely defined, boldly colored and symmetrically arranged images within the context of a non-specific source of lighting. The painters were shooting for a semi-idealized likeness which displayed identity without reflecting personality or emotional state, but which might betray class status. These painters were, generally, craftsmen meeting the needs of their sitters. Animals often are presented in the paintings but they tend to serve moralistic or emblematic functions and nature is a pleasant backdrop often denoting property ownership. These were basically pre-photographic images serving the function daguerreotypes would soon serve as personal and occupational photography. Psychological insight into the sitter was not the point. Documenting the person’s attainment of a social niche within the burgeoning American society was the goal.

So Anne Siems starts with the elements of this strikingly unique and white, dominant culture American tradition, in which nature tends to serve a decorative function, and subverts its elements and conventions to remove the sitter from a social niche to a deeply embedded place within nature. Wilshire points out that science views nature in a limited manner by using what is “orderable and predictable and quantifiable”. We thus become folks “…who appear to ourselves as those who order, predict, quantify, manage and control.” We lose an “intimacy with the world” that folks in a pre-scientific setting often employ to add layers to their experience, insight and relationships. Therefore, Siems often makes the bodies of her women and children transparent or translucent, perhaps as a stylized counter-convention to indicate how indistinguishable we are, in reality, from the natural world.

She might be alluding to the fact that despite the reality that most people now live in cities, we are still biological organisms and the result of the processes of natural selection. All of the emotions we use daily were naturally selected before we built cities, just as much as our prehensile thumbs or other physical features, so that they could serve a survival function. These emotions, combined with advanced communication and cognitive processing skills, allowed our development as social creatures capable of radically altering our environment – but this does not remove us from nature. Even the cognitive abilities which have provided the illusion that we are divorced from nature were selected by nature to ensure our survival. Science has brought with it an anti-nature or anti-transcendental ideology which we have inadvertently and unquestioningly adopted. Siems’ sitters are, however, the ideologically liberated who openly enjoy their participation in a direct awareness and interaction with the natural world.

Even the delicate “whiteness” of the faces of the women and children in these paintings was selected by nature. You probably read that England’s “Cheddar Man” had brown skin, showing that 10,000 years ago whiteness did not yet exist in Europe. Whiteness became a new development due to the lack of harsh sunlight in northern latitudes. A dark skin tone is due to the presence of the pigment melanin in one’s skin, as melanin protects one’s skin from the UV rays in sunlight. An abundance of melanin in one’s skin was not needed as folks moved northward where sunlight is less intense than in equatorial regions and darker skin colors disappeared to a great extent in Europe just as the eyes of fish living in darkness disappear over many generations. In nature if a trait is not used an organism tends to lose it over generations. These lily-white women and children in these paintings are as connected to nature as a mud dauber, and possibly more so, as they can comprehend and accept nature.

Whereas nature was used emblematically in folk art, Siems tends to use it to invoke a sense of union with other aspects of the natural world as well as a type of shamanism. We see, for instance, a child covered in mushrooms. The mushrooms in the painting visually compliment the girl’s being as mushrooms still compliment the beings of those in non-industrial societies who use mushrooms not only to provide sustenance but also to provide visions. These visions constituted the first human religious experience as some shamans used mushrooms to help them reach a hallucinogenic state to connect to a spiritual realm where supernatural assistance could be obtained to alleviate suffering in their community. Nature itself has not just provided humanity with nourishment and survival but has continually provided the means to uplift, console and heal. It is part of the partnership we entered into and which we have violated through a world economy that does not function within the sustainable parameters set by the natural world.

We also see a child riding a bear and another standing amicably with one. The bear, to ancient folks, was a symbol of death and resurrection. Our first symbols came from a close observation of nature and the death and resurrection theme was begun at the point where folks perceived the cyclical nature of the natural world. The bear literally goes underground and disappears for a period of time during cold weather to re-emerge in the spring, mirroring the change of seasons and the renewal of life. James Frazer, in fact, believed that it was agricultural rituals around the theme of the resurrection of crops which ultimately provided humanity with their first gods and mythological heroes – Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz et al.

By beginning with the American folk-art tradition and tweaking it in this manner, Siems is demonstrating a possible shift in perspective that can nudge us away from the delusion that we are separate from nature merely because we have separated ourselves from most of it. She invites a new approach to rediscovering nature for ourselves wherever we may be located. We are all connected, we are in union with nature every moment of the day, we simply refuse to recognize this or allow this awareness to take root and develop. The creatures with whom the sitters in Siems’ paintings interact seem to welcome their human companions with an esprit de corps as we would be welcomed. Indeed, the cognitive capacities which have lead to the delusion that we are apart from nature and can only measure and exploit nature to our profit and comfort may, in fact, hold the key to leading us back to a greater union and relationship with nature. Siems appears to affirm the capacity for the type of consciousness that can ensure that graceful reunion.