“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”
“We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”
– John Berger (1926-2017) Ways of Seeing
This multi-media selection of works by over two dozen artists explores what and how we see today, revealing the visible and hidden forces shaping both what the contemporary world looks like, and how we consume and interpret that information—how visual and psychological perception are evolving in the 21st century. The degradation of the environment is laid bare in Nick Brandt’s photographic elegy to Kenya, The Ravaged Land, while Hans Op de Beeck’s lyrical animation, Night Time, mixes nostalgia and desire in both praise and mourning for the unseen worlds of darkness and dreams. The power of visual perception to shape human lives is revealed in thought-provoking works by Hank Willis Thomas, Ken Gonzales-Day, Travis Somerville, Paul Rucker, Graciela Sacco, Terence Hammonds, and others, which address the legacies of 20th-century racial, social, and political strife. Steve Mumford’s monumental Empire invokes the tradition of Western history painting in recreating an image that has appeared frequently in the media since the early 2000s: jumpsuit-clad prisoners being boarded onto a U.S. aircraft. The prisoners are blindfolded, and the soldiers look askance, neither gazing directly at their captives nor at the viewer. The global pervasiveness of conflict has engendered the normalization of shock and numb; wanting to look but not to see, we lose sight. As many of these artworks reveal, we are disturbed by violent, unjust, or tragic incidents, yet accustomed to their regularity, and may be blind to their causes and costs.
Mateo Maté employs camouflage imagery to illustrate how the technologies of social and military power are embedded in domestic and public space; in an age of increasing surveillance, what we do not or cannot see is that we are always seen. The formal complexity present in Wu Jian’an’s paper collage, Peter Demetz’s wooden sculpture and Walter Oltmann’s wire Child Skull offers few clues about the subjects’ identities, further reflecting the mysteries and limitations of visual perception. Norbert Brunner’s alluring mirror and George Legrady’s multi-media wall installation exploit these limitations—You Are Enchanting only delivers affirmation to viewers precisely centered in front of the work while Legrady’s Refraction series requires viewers to walk past images in order to see the multiple black and white photographs interlaced through a lenticular process. In both works, the images viewers see as they approach change as they move through space. Using a studio backdrop and a halftone screen created from hundreds of handmade holes in various sizes, Isabelle Le Minh’s photographic installation creates a clear, recognizable image from multiple screens. Like a 21st-century digital image made up of pixels, when seen from afar, the image coalesces into a celebrated 19th-century celebrity portrait of the Countess of Castiglione, though when viewed up close, her features become illegible. Ryan and Trevor Oakes redefine the limits of perception by creating drawings in a way that mimics the design function of human vision. Using a concave easel and a headrest, the brothers draw directly onto the inside of a sphere, thereby avoiding the distortions that occur when the world is traced onto a flat surface. By sketching landscapes and interior spaces with their eyes out of stereo alignment (they cross their eyes to bring the scene into focus as they draw), the images in front of them float onto the paper, accurately capturing both depth and perspective.
The gulf between what is seen and known—between appearance and reality—is illuminated in works by Alain Declercq and Kevin Cooley, both of whom describe their photographs of explosions as “fighting fire with fire.” Declercq’s Blast series is a pictorial archive of chemical compounds used for weaponry photographed at the moment of combustion, while Cooley creates his Controlled Burn explosions in his studio, exploring the duality of creation and destruction inherent in fire, and referencing the use of smoke signals as a form of communication. Michael Waugh’s large-scale drawing, The Unraveling (The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, part 8), depicts a thin, hobbled horse in the foreground, a farmhouse in the background, and a figure on horseback appearing to flee the scene: the entire image is comprised of hand-copied text from a 150-page sub-section of the 2011 U.S. Congressional report on the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Like the crisis itself, The Unraveling is dizzying and difficult to fully comprehend; although the micrographic words are legible enough to confirm the source material, the narrative of the text is lost within the image. The imminent abandonment of the animal becomes both a metaphor for the willful ignorance of the federal agencies tasked with regulating the financial industry (as few if any members of Congress read the report) and an illustration for Berger’s adage, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice”—an act those in power often refuse.
The proliferation of visual information presented daily on platforms large and small—in the midst of pulsating cities and within the intimate interactions between self and screen—alters the consumption and communication of the signs and signals that describe what is happening in the world around us. How can we distinguish which city’s Rush Hour is captured by Grethe Sørensen? Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Zero Noon, a clock that runs on internet-refreshed statistics, conflates time and data into a screen-based experience of consumption. Collapsing the immediate distance between what is seen and what is known, Zero Noon depends on the viewer to connect these indices of change. While technology provides unlimited access to information about our changing world, the segmentation of facts and fictions found on Twitter and other social media feeds designed to garner “likes,” allows readers to ignore or deny that which is unappealing or inconvenient.
Photographing portrait busts from various museum collections, Ken Gonzales-Day’s Profiled project explores the influence of 18th-century “scientific” thought on contemporary perceptions of beauty in science and art. Historically, profiles were used as a tool to assess morality and character and were offered as scientific proof of racial, ethnic, and cultural superiority or inferiority. While the science of “phrenology” is no longer given credence, people continue to be judged as attractive, responsible, trustworthy, and their opposites, based upon facial features. Removing and recontextualizing these images from the past into the present, and in proximity to each other, Gonzales-Day interrogates this entrenched history of the construction of race, creating an image that suggests both contemplation and conversation while subverting historical stereotypes.
Both Terence Hammonds and Nidaa Badwan use light to illuminate and reveal injustices, historical and contemporary. Hammonds’s This is where the beat comes in is an installation of small light boxes, each containing a porcelain relief image of photographs of looting during the 1977 blackout in New York when the economic and social strife in the city was at a boiling point. Lacking access to electricity due to the ongoing conflict on the Israel/Palestine border, Badwan created her photographic series, 100 Days of Solitude, within her tiny bedroom in Gaza, while living in nearly complete isolation from the world for over 20 months. Her painterly imagery, which documents her surroundings and daily activities, are illuminated only by the soft light from a lone window and one bare light bulb, and offer evidence of the artist’s attempt to lay claim to normalcy within a war zone.
Tim Hetherington, Rina Castelnuovo, and Mikhael Subotzky use documentary photography to illuminate human experience and hardship, often in war zones or conditions of strife or imprisonment. Hetherington’s poignant photographs of U.S. servicemen taken in 2007-08 in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan—at that time one of the most dangerous postings in the country—capture moments of anxiety, exhaustion, vulnerability, and camaraderie. The artist, who lost his own life while photographing the revolution in Libya, often spent considerable periods of time with the people and the places he photographed. Rina Castelnuovo documents the political and social structures and unique challenges of her native Israel, capturing the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Her empathetic portraits of people who share land but are divided by politics highlight each subject’s relationship to their environment. “I’m only inspired by human subjects and what surrounds them,” says Castelnuovo. “A beautiful landscape with no life in it remains a beautiful landscape, but I don’t feel the urge to photograph it.”
South Africa’s former President and most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, once said that “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Mikhael Subotzky’s photographs give a 360-degree view of South African prisons, revealing not only the realities of his country’s chronically overcrowded jails and the resilience of the human spirit to persevere within the most severe environments, but also the prevailing systems of power that keep specific portions of the population disenfranchised.
Engaged focus and active participation are needed to decipher the features depicted in works by Toyin Ojih Odutola, Ken Gonzales-Day, Travis Somerville, and Hank Willis Thomas. Employing a unique and precise practice, Ojih Odutola draws with graphite and white charcoal on blackboard, rendering figures in which tonal values are inverted to suggest a negative, in which intricate, sinewy lines delineate interiority, exposing what is beneath and behind the surfaces of skin, eyes, hair—the construction of identity in black, silver, and white. These anonymous portraits reveal themselves to the patient viewer: the delicate details of hair and nape and head becoming perceptible as eyes adjust to the light, and grasp the forms and lines embedded in the surfaces. “We constantly look for motifs, clues, and recognizable elements that we can fall back on,” observes the artist. “I wanted to see what I could do if I minimized all of that and have the outcome be just as interesting if not more interesting when the connotations associated with a broader color palette were omitted.”
Inspired by historical images of violence, both Travis Somerville and Ken Gonzales-Day’s installations focus on the mechanisms surrounding violence rather than the victims, requiring viewers to ascertain what is missing. Somerville’s Crowd Source is based on a photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, two African-American teenagers. Far from a simple meditation on past oppression, the work suggests the persistence of racial injustice in the 21st century: Crowd Source is a contemporary term for gathering wisdom, insight, or support from large groups of people—often via the internet. Gonzales-Day derived his Erased
Lynching series from found lynching postcards and archival source material of Mexican, Native American, and Asian lynching victims in California from 1850-1935. Gonzales-Day digitally removed the victims from the historical postcards, and Somerville drew only the faces of the onlookers; in both works the absence of the body illustrates the erasure of these events from public memory. Both Somerville and Gonzales-Day shift the gaze from the corpse to the mechanisms of lynching itself: the mob, the tree, the spectacle of the event, and the role of flash photography in memorializing a tragic moment and perpetuating myths about “frontier justice”
in American history.
Using retro-reflective screen-printing technology, Hank Willis Thomas obscures archival press photographs of public events that resolve only through flash photography. To the naked eye, the images appear as white-washed scenes devoid of any perceptible narrative; through the augmented gaze of the camera’s lens and flash, the images document instances of racial and social injustice. With All Deliberate Speed both obscures and reveals the Pulitzer-Prize winning, 1976 photograph of a white man assaulting a black civil rights lawyer with a pole bearing the American flag. In transforming the use of a cell phone camera from an option into a necessity in order to view his work, Thomas gives contemporary viewers a choice: to see and engage with history, or to avoid it.
–Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator
Visit site at 21c Museum
Past 21c Museum venues:
DURHAM Aug 2015 – Mar 2016
CINCINNATIA pr 2016 – Dec 2016
LOUISVILLE May 2014 – Apr 2015 in Atrium
BENTONVILLE Feb 2017 – Jan 2018
NASHVILLE Feb 2018 – Jan 2019