February 15 – March 11, 2016
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
“There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the
law and in the name of justice.”
― Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Montesquieu’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments are apropos to our country’s record of injustice and violence towards minorities. The most recent incidents that initiated the Black Lives Matter Movement underscore the problem of whiteness as an ideology of power, racial profiling and the unnecessary killing and beating of Black Americans. The social media made these violent acts visible to all of us, but there is another aspect of violence that has historically been invisible and not reported as much in the national news–the violence and racial profiling towards Latinos. The brutal treatment of Latinos has been reported more extensively at the local level primarily through Spanish social media and has never achieved the same visibility as Black Americans. Ken Gonzales-Day, chair of the Department of Art at Scripps College, addresses in his exhibition Run Up (a reference to lynching and “running the body up a tree”), the invisibility and lynchings of Latinos and others in California by his dramatic and historical reconstructions. He also conflates past violent acts to recent police shootings and beatings– Michael Brown shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri and the beating and shooting deaths of Omar Abrego and Ezell Ford by the LAPD in Los Angeles. The viewer is presented with meditating on past events and comparing them to our present moment in time.
Run Up is not photojournalism or a documentary. It is a series of images more akin to montage both in his cinematic work, the short seven minute video and the photographs that accompany this exhibition. The video in its pointed dramatic reconstruction of the lynching of Charles Valento known as “Spanish Charlie” and two others in Santa Rosa in 1920 is a historical point in time that he uses in this installation as well as incorporating excerpts from it in his photographic montage effects. Cinematic montage operates by using brief shots that are edited into a succession of relationships compressing space, time and information. He accomplishes this in the video but he also incorporates various excerpted elements from the video into his photographic montages as in the case of the staged image of the young black woman protesting the Ferguson incident whose stoic gaze looks to the right as three of the vigilantes diagonally move off into the distance backs turned to her and the viewer. No interaction just silence and a disruption between the past and present–a visual juxtaposition illustrating the disjunction between histories but their relatedness in terms of today’s racial divide and injustice towards victims of brutality.
The lighting and dark background has a nuanced baroque sensibility and emotion is defused. In most of the imagery the dramatic is emphasized as in the image of Spanish Charlie positioned in a Christ like crucified posture prior to his hanging. Spanish Charlie’s anguish is an emotional counterpoint to the onlookers who observe this impending tragedy from a distance. Another image that is intriguing is the staged dramatic and diagonally arranged foreshortened image of the well-dressed suited male body. It has affinities with its position and hand gesture to Edouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1882-1883) with its striking foreshortened body and non-descript background. Manet’s figure is not part of a narrative but an icon in its isolation- a riveting figure that had a sudden and violent death. In Day’s photograph we are not in the world of Weegee’s free-lance hyperbolic photojournalist images of violent mobster killings on the streets of New York with all of their blood and disheveled bodies lying on the street. These sensationalist images were produced to increase newspaper sales. In Day’s work the ambiguity of the figure’s context is aesthetically conceived with its distancing effect and the viewer begins to question its relationship to the series of images one experiences in the exhibition. The image is emotionally removed from any context and his death is sanitized in the shadows with dramatic Baroque lighting highlighting details of the figure.
Run Up continues his Erased Lynching Searching for California Hang Trees and Profiled projects (2000-2015). The photographs and video in the gallery are an artistic riposte to racially instigated lynching and vigilantism towards Latinos that was absent from the California historical record. What Day does is to make the invisible visible by addressing the history of injustice and violence perpetuated against Latinos. His book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (2006), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was a much needed corrective to this glaring historical caesura. Chronologically his text was an independent enterprise and published around the same time as Without Sanctuary focusing on African American lynching. His book however focuses on the California lynching of Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in the American West-transracial lynching.
Into Eternity, a photograph from the Hang Trees project, is a good example of how he reconstructs and dramatized the historical record by means of landscape, memory and erasure. The tree’s physical presence underscores the violence perpetuated at this site. Using light in a dramatic fashion he sets the tree against the black background and highlights the tree’s anthropomorphic qualities in its silence and isolation –a memento mori creating a dialogue with the past and the present allowing the viewer to reconstruct meaning. This tree like others were sites for lynching– sites of memory. No trace remains only the absence of the victim just as “Spanish Charlie” in Run Up is not seen hanging–just events leading to his lynching. We are in the world of absences, erasures and invisibility of marginalized victims of violence.
The discriminatory practice of racial profiling based on one’s race, ethnicity religion or national origin was addressed in Bertillon’s Calipers and overlaps with Day’s Profiled (2011) project. Profiling is used to target a person based on a stereotype of someone’s race. In Profiled (2011) as Day pointed out was not about chronicling “a history of sculpture: it is a conceptual clustering of cultural artifacts, arranged to foreground the emergence idealization and even folly of race, including whiteness.”
Untitled (Malvina Hoffman Collection, Ubangi Woman)
Profiled (2011) published by the Los Angeles County Museum addresses racial profiling and how the human form as a means of representation changed over time. By contrasting the categorical types perceived anthropologically and physiognomically the sculptures he photographed as profiled busts was a study of contrasts between non-western types and the western classical ideal of beauty. The roots of mug shots can be traced to the way the facial profile developed over time as it relates to physiognomy as a science, Lavater’s character analyses, and other quasi-scientific approaches emerging from the mid-nineteenth century and overlapping into the twentieth–century. Bertillon’s Calipers as seen in the video and the photograph is indicative of a technique of criminal identification which is the backdrop of identification procedures still used today. It is the predecessor of how law enforcement agencies use profiling. Originally it was based on the science of anthropometry with its emphasis on doing detailed physical measurements of the body specifically the head and face. In Profiled Day visited various ethnographic museums such as the Field Institute of Chicago to explore the facial profile in the portrait busts he photographed. He questions problems that arose during the Enlightenment regarding gender, class and freedom. In this instance he uses portrait busts he photographed at ethnographic museums such as the Chicago Field Institute to explore how anthropology and aesthetics came into play to depict human forms. He asks us how do we construct whiteness in relationship to the classical canons of beauty compared to non-European types.
Classical art was considered “art” and the non-western busts were not. There are marvelous ironic connections between the contrasting profiled busts he uses. The Ubangi woman in contrast to the anonymous classical head of a woman creates a serio-comedic dialogue of sorts between the outstretched lips of the tribeswoman whose lips almost engulf the classical head with its missing facial parts. The classical figure is literally silenced in its physical presence and the Ubangi woman seems to shout and overwhelm the classical ideal at a metaphorical level. In this post-colonial critique Day’s dialogue of opposing cultures is reminiscent of Frantz Fanon (L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne (A Dying Colonialism) who criticized the pretensions of Europe’s sense of superiority being a universal standard of culture and civilization. Fanon deals with struggle, the struggle for colonized “natives” to rise up and reclaim their human dignity. Fanon’s position like Day’s is an anti-racist humanism. How far have we progressed in terms of racial equity regarding all of the minorities in this country? In the Latino context who has heard of Ernesto Javier Canepa Diaz and Rubén García Villapando who were killed by police? Violence, killings, racial profiling, civil disobedience and injustice are still part of the fabric of our culture. Day’s approach as in Profiled is to have us reconsider the world of appearances and false assumptions about race in this country. No need for Bertillon’s calipers or profiling such as Lavater’s that looks at the superficial physiognomies through the lenses of an outdated positivism. His approach is to conflate past and present moments of intolerance and brutality that minorities have faced. His art is a testament to our times, its injustices and how whiteness as an ideology based on biology ultimately cannot hold up as acts of racial reclamation take place in our country.