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  "With non but the omnipresent stars to witness": Ken Gonzales-Day's Hang Trees  

Catalog Essay for Pomona College Museum of Art

by Rita Gonzalez


In 1908 the United States Postal Service banned the mailing of lynching images. Photographs of lynchings taken with a cutthroat entrepreneurial savvy by professionals and amateurs had grown rapidly in popularity and circulated broadly alongside souvenir postcard images of world expositions, buildings and peaceful promenades. But the early use of these cards to circulate the documentation of such heinous and violent acts is startling when one considers that the format for the postcard (frontal imagery and a divided back for text) had been endorsed by the postal service only two years prior. Almost one hundred years later, the artist and writer Ken Gonzales Day is re-circulating these cards, but in his series of Erased Lynchings , it is that which is excised and re-circulated that haunts and challenges the contemporary viewer.

Gonzales-Day has consistently been concerned with the relocation of history into the present. His pursuit of historical materials is steeped in the conscientious considerations of historiography but shaped by the associative and eclectic forms of contemporary art. Not merely an exercise in revisionist history, Gonzales-Day's work has been sustained by an open-ended and phenomenological yearning, not for any one historical truth but for a layered and even poetic understanding of the past--the past as absence and as presence. For the Pomona College of Art Project Series 30, Ken Gonzales-Day: Hang Trees , the artist is exhibiting photographs that dialogue with the well-trafficked traditions of landscape and auteur images of the West, as well as the vast trove of vernacular images that document an unacknowledged facet of American history.

The historical framing of lynching has polarized debate for the most part along a black/white binary. The challenge of undertaking a book and photographic series to address varied narratives left out of the debate through an examination of the history of lynching in California certainly runs many risks, especially in this moment of racial, cultural and class discord. There exists a risk of downplaying the horrors of white on black violence and diminishing the aftereffects of lynching in the South, (e.g. What we have here is a more nuanced rendering of lynching in America ). But Gonzales-Day's is a multi-faceted approach to history in that he is attempting to clarify the historical record and to amplify the ways in which we approach and engage historical narratives.

The images of lynching that once circulated legally--and then through a widespread underground network--came back into popular consciousness most recently with the 2000 publication and subsequent exhibition of images from the private collection of antiquarian James Allen. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America featured mass-reproduced postcards and personal snapshots collected by Allen. The accumulation of these atrocious cultural artifacts and their contextualization was the subject of intense critical debate. Criticism was leveled on a number of counts: the images had been dangerously circulated in a highly seductive format (in both coffee table book and dramatically designed exhibition); the photographs had been decontextualized (especially when encountered on a coffee table); and the images had been commercialized. It was around this moment of intensified debate about the legacy of racialized violence that Ken Gonzales-Day began his research into the legal and extralegal practice of lynching in California.

Gonzales-Day's exhibition for Pomona College Museum of Art features three strands that emanate from his scholarly research: the documentation of "hang trees" which he began in 2002; the "erased lynching" postcards which are digitally manipulated and printed to mimic their original format; and a new series of portraits that is loosely and evocatively related to the themes of embodiment and disembodiment in photography.

The series of "hang tree" images involved the performance of the photographic encounter with the landscape. Gonzales-Day's images are above all about the trajectory of the image--and in this case, the trajectory of the photographer with large-format Deardorff camera is part and parcel of the traffic of the image. How did this (type of) image come to be placed before us? Rather than a spectatorial encounter drowning in affect that renders one speechless ("without sanctuary"), we are left in a space that opens up a dialogue with the visual and textual forms of historical address.

In looking at images of frontier masculinity in the West, the photographic typologies of mastery, dominance and submission are clear. Whether these images occur in the classic western or in images of vigilantism, the facts of racialized violence are narrativised in strikingly similar--and enduring ways. An interest in pursuing the pornographic dimension of bondage and torture imagery pushes the network of associations with the interplay of sexuality and power, as well as the conscription of images into private & public economies of desire. As Susan Sontag once noted, "All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic." In looking for a way to deal with gender and sexuality in the spectatorship of brown bodies, Gonzales-Day was interested in reinserting (and reasserting) the body in photography of Latino masculinity in the American west.

Gonzales-Day's image, "Anthony" (2006) performs a complex dialogue with the images of brown and black masculinity in the West--and not just the images of its victimization. The portrait calls to mind In the American West , a photographic journey undertaken by Richard Avedon with his own Deardorff from 1979-1984. Going through those images of ranch hands, drifters, members of the Loretta Lynn fan club, oilfield workers, mental patients and migrant workers, one is struck by Avedon's selection of subjects and his own desire to depict the westerner as outsider. Perhaps one of the most sexualized of his photographic subjects is Juan Patricio Lobato, Carney. Lobato is pictured in a tight-fitting black t-shirt worn with the front pulled behind his neck to expose his jutting torso where packs of cigarettes (Lucky Strikes?) have been tucked into his black jeans.

Feminist and queer portraiture has set out to explode the radioactive history of inventorying/quantifying long associated with scientific collection and conscription as well as modernism's distanced lust for the other. Just as Gonzales-Day activates the latent dissonance of the bucolic landscape in his portraits of oak trees, so too does he mobilize or queer the portraiture of brown masculinity in the west. Thus, a project that began with elucidating regional historical inaccuracies has evolved in unexpected ways--through the choreography of erasure (in the Hang Trees and Erased Lynchings ) and in a contemporary inhabiting of the authorial conceits so critical to the fabrication of the American West.

Rita Gonzalez



1 Dora Apel, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob . New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

2 Jennifer Sternad Flores, An Interview with Ken Gonzales-Day . The Harvard Advocate (Summer 2004): 33.

3 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others . New York: Picador, 2003: 95.