As I mentioned last post, I have two new painting assignments that deal with memory. The first, which I will call Project A, I am challenged to use memory as content and for the second, Project B, to use memory as a strategy (i.e. I can only paint from memory). There are a million and one directions I could go with these projects, and at the end of the day, I need to deeply consider how my paintings’ themes and techniques contribute to this contemporary art dialogue.
One of the first few ideas that came to mind for Project A is the fact that white people’s memories have been believed for hundreds of years, over, and to the detriment and oppression of, people of color. AND OFTEN THOSE MEMORIES WERE COMPLETELY MADE UP, either intentionally or unintentionally. I recently watched a Netflix limited series called, The Mind Explained, and one of the episodes is one memory (link here). The episode points out that memories, especially fine details like faces, degrade incredibly quickly, and are very unreliable. There have been countless examples where DNA testing later exonerated people of color from crimes, often falsely accused by white people who “witnessed” them committing the crime. Take for example, Malcolm Alexander (pictured below) who in 1980, was arrested for rape as a result of an uncertain identification from the victim. He was exonerated in 2019 with the help of the Innocence Project. But the fact remains, that he spent time in prison, is life stolen from an unreliable memory of a white person. How much better would it be if white people’s biases and unreliable memories could be challenged earlier?
In addition to the unreliability of memory, the fact remains that I am a white woman in art school and have the incredible privilege to explore any of my memories via art. As an art educator and activist, this is a perfect opportunity to use my privilege to explore but also condemn this historical and present day implicit bias to believe white women’s memories. Exactly how I talk about this visually in an oil painting is still a work in progress. My teacher recommended I research different artists who have explored themes of white privilege – both successfully and unsuccessfully.
Dana Shutz is the first artist in this post, and I am intentionally not including her oil painting in this post. She is a white American artist, who only recently gained more renown via her painting entitled, “Open Casket” which was in the 2017 Whitney Bienniel. The oil painting sparked outrage – it is an abstracted portrait of Emmett Till in his casket. The disgusting irony here is that in the death of Emmett Till, it was a white girl’s lie that led to him being brutally tortured and murdered in the first place. (For more in-depth research, read about civil right’s history here). There have been many opinions about Dana Shutz work, one of which you can read in this article, but since this is my research journal you have to listen to my opinion: the fact that this white woman is profiting from black and pain and suffering is exactly why many people of color don’t trust white women. Time and time again, white women have repeatedly participated in exploiting the pain of people of color for personal gain while simultaneously claiming good intention and innocence. This is NOT what my painting would hope to achieve. Rather, my painting would be to condemn this white ignorance and call out this harm so white people could seriously reflect on how their actions, biases, and beliefs are harming others.
The next artist is Sanford Biggers and again I am not including the work because it is another example of the glorification of black murder. His infamous Laocoön was part of a solo exhibition at the David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach. His work depicts an inflatable Fat Albert, whose body is lying facedown on the museum floor. As it inflated and deflated slowly the viewer easily makes the connection between people like Michael Brown or Eric Gardner, who in their last moments, had trouble breathing. Although Sandford Biggers is an African American artist, the work did not comment or critique the violence, but rather made it into a spectacle. Read an article about the work here.
I am honestly shocked that I am having such a hard time finding white artists who talk about white privilege in their work. Why are there so few white artists talking about this topic? Okay, well let’s move in the direction of artists who deal with the unreliability of memory…
Let’s start with Sunni Fornier. At a young age, Sunni dealt with unexpected circumstances that have caused her to realize the fragility of life. Her work reflects these experiences through her themes of impermanence, time, and memory examining personal histories. Her series of work entitled October 1916, is an assemblage of photopolymer intaglio prints made from copper plate etchings revolves around her grandfather’s rapid decline with dementia.
Okay last artist for this post – Erin Carty. As a bi-racial artist, she seeks to explore with the concept of in-between space — a liminal space — the middle ground between two objects, and the comfort thats she feels there. She takes aerial photos from planes, and combining them with photos her parents took when they were younger to create these new places and new memories.
“By bringing the past and present together, I create these non-accessible places. The viewer will never be able to access them, because those moments were only available at that time. However, I want my viewers to experience that same sense of familiarity in unknown places that I feel. This series evokes my feelings into an actual image, rather than just me dealing with my feelings internally. Sometimes it feels that I’m all over the place, but I feel really secure in that middle ground, and I hope people get a sense of that space and comfort.” – Erin Carty