About The Exhibition
In his Profiled project, artist and art historian, Ken Gonzales-Day has mined the collections of established museums such as J. Paul Getty and the Smithsonian, among others, photographing portrait busts in an exploration of Western assumptions about beauty and human value through the material legacies of slavery, colonialism, and white privilege. Gonzales-Day is an internationally known artist based in Los Angeles where he is a professor of art at Scripps College. His conceptual, research-based practice focuses on historically constructed systems of race and the limits of representational systems.
Washington & Lee University
April 26 – May 28, 2021
Time: May 11, 2021 05:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
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Erica Turman, “W & L’s Staniar Gallery Presents ‘Profied’ by Artist Ken Gonzales-Day,” The Columns, Apr 21, 2021
Additional press: Augusta Free Press
Darcy Olmstead and Andrea Lepage
December 16, 2020.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Much of your work, especially the Erased Lynching series, probes archival silences, or what we might think of as those aspects of culture that resist material preservation. Did your understanding of the archive shift during your work on Profiled?
To answer the question, yes. It did change my understanding of archives in all kinds of ways. The project changed my understanding of everything, really. It was life-altering. The part of the Erased Lynchings series that’s probably important to acknowledge today is that it continues.
The emergence and circulation of vintage photos, postcards, and stereo view cards has been a part of the experience of being a photographer, since I was in school. Then, increasingly as a nation, we became more interested in looking for traces of historical information. For example, what did downtown look like 50 years ago? Using photography to find out about the past was something we’d all been doing for a long time. With the internet, with eBay and different kinds of auction sites, we all started seeing many more images.
Some of the first postcards that were in the Erased Lynchings series exhibited in 2006 took me a very long time to find. A lot of people think there’s only one set, but there are four. Not all four have ever been seen, and there’s a fifth set on the way. But basically, it takes me a long time to find 15. I had an exhibition, and the book was coming out, and so I literally had a deadline: “This show is opening in six months. You have this much for the wall space.” At that point, I had roughly 15 cards. I’d made a selection. I arranged the grid that has been reproduced a lot, and that became the first set.
The art making is separate from the collecting archival side of the work. At the most basic level, you could see my understanding shifted in the sense that the project continues, and the project continues not because I necessarily want it to. It has a life of its own. As an artist, it’s often best to have a series end at some point. I always tell students, “Don’t create a project that goes on forever.” Because our understanding of everything changes over time. It’s like trying to rewrite a paper a semester later. It’s hard to do because you’re thinking about the past and the context is always changing.
At the most basic level, my understanding of the archive shifted in that way. Even now as I continue to exhibit that work, the viewers are no longer the same. I’m no longer the same artist. A lot of things have changed—that part I hadn’t expected or anticipated.
Your relationship with the archive in Profiled is also different in that you’re working with institutions in Europe and the United States. Is it more difficult to gain access to the archive in high-caliber museums? Do the institutions you’re operating in provide a different perspective on archival silences than your work with more obscure archives in the Erased Lynching series?
That’s a great question. The principle was the same. Even though people often see those projects as being almost completely different, for me, it was the natural next step. In a nutshell, in the Lynching in the West (Duke University Press) book, I wrote a chapter on the idea of racial formation, where I looked at Enlightenment notions of human difference, the self, and the individual that were beginning to emerge as representations.
At the time, they did not know what a Mexican American was, or a Latinx, but they understood that difference mattered and created new ways to represent it. I was interested in thinking about how those ideas about difference—European ideas—manifested themselves and come over to the States and impact our understanding of racial formation. That was the larger idea.
As I was looking for photographs of individuals that had been lynched or were prisoners, there was no such thing as a ‘Latinx folder.’ You stop there, you’re done, your project is over, you go home, read a book, do something else. Or you figure it out. Gee, I know that these people exist, I know they’ve existed for a long time, how might people have seen them in the past? Oh, let me look under ‘labor,’ let me look under ‘agriculture,’ let me look under ‘criminal.’ That’s where I found a lot of the cases.
Along those lines, some of the photographs I looked at in the archive are not photographs. They’re copy photographs. I’m looking at representations of representations. Among those kinds of materials, one finds images of sculptures, of objects, of displays, of people in museums, of things like world’s fairs. Very few of us have been to the world’s fairs. We’re not old enough, but we’ve been there by looking at the photographic documentation that still exists.
In some of those documents’ backgrounds, you can find the sculptures that were displayed. My practice was to ask myself, “Where is that object now? Does it still exist? How does that object function?” That was how I ended up looking for sculptural objects that had been on display at various world’s fairs and expositions that were used by institutions like the Smithsonian and others to educate the masses.
I like to joke that the plaster cast was the first form of photography. Because the idea of the indexical archive that we so desire and relish in our understanding of the photographic, had already been pursued through the collecting of plaster face casts of Native Americans, of prisoners, and was even present in the collecting of death masks, like those of Napoleon and Frederick the Great.
As I was looking through all of these objects, I realized that of course, the old books in the library are wrong, because ideas change. But where would one look for actual historical truth?
My thought was to go back to the objects themselves. Much like my searching for the California Hang Trees, I wanted to go and see for myself. I went and looked for these objects.
Could you speak a bit about your Constellations series? How does this body of work expand upon ideas you have addressed with earlier work?
That series really begins out of a project that is a site-specific artwork for the “Westside Purple (D Line) Extension Project” at the Wilshire/Fairfax station.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is being rebuilt, at least parts of it. I was selected by the Metro, which is our light rail system, to be one of three artists doing that particular station. It’s become a sort of cultural event, in part because LA will be the 2028 site for the Olympics. Currently, it’s very difficult to get from downtown, or even from the airport, to UCLA, so part of the bid for the city was to increase public transportation.
My proposal was to look at LACMA’s collection, and to think of it as a kind of urban excavation. We’re thinking about Los Angeles as a place disconnected from the history of Western European art physically; we have the tar pits right next door. I was thinking about the idea of excavating the collection itself. With much of the museum being replaced, all those objects were being moved out and vanishing into deep storage.
The project began much like all the others, where I’m trying to get into a collection. But in this particular case, there’s a specific outcome: this artwork, which is basically already designed, but not visible yet to the public. The big one is 10.5 feet tall by 120 feet long and the small one is 10.5 feet tall by 60 feet. It’s 10.5 feet by almost 180 feet at 300 dpi in Photoshop. I have discovered the limits of Photoshop, which is 10.5 feet by 60 at 300 dpi with one layer. Each of those sculptures is on an individual layer. Some of them have 60 layers or so.
Just the technical part of trying to make this piece has taken me a long time and pushed the limits of my computer, of my digital storage, of my ability to think—because it includes so many objects. I looked through the 4,455 objects that, at that time, were available in the online collection, using the search term ‘sculpture.’ I have been told LACMA has over 120,000 objects. They’re not all digitized, and they’re not all searchable from the internet.
Talk about the archive. I ended up spending a great deal of time clicking through a very slow website and making a selection of objects that would be destined for this subterranean space. The theme was ‘transformation,’ because the museum is changing, the city is changing. The installation space is a transformative one between coming out of the ground from wherever you were and entering the museum; or leaving the museum and going back underground.
The ideas of excavation, transformation, and an in-between space were central. If we understand the field of art history as something that is challenged, with respect to our changing notions of equity and social justice, then we begin to recognize objects not simply for their aesthetic value, but for their material journey to the collection itself.
In the case of African objects, who might be seen as ancestors by some, being photographed or displayed as sculptural objects may not fully reflect their spiritual origin. Cultures also change, and some objects may no longer serve a spiritual function, or maybe serve in roles we don’t understand.
LACMA has said that they’re going to disband with the traditional categories and the traditional narratives of the encyclopedic museum. I’m like, “Sure, great. What does that mean? How do I get access?” Some of the curators may not be in disciplines that are ready yet or are fully able to articulate what that might mean for their discipline. The objects are not all in stand-alone departments, so I used this idea of clusters or constellations of objects floating in transitional spaces.
For example, ‘arts of the Americas.’ What does that mean exactly? African art versus Egyptian art? In Southeast Asian art, we see images of Buddha. Are those religious figures? Are those sculptural figures? Where do they belong [in a new system of categorization]? Thinking about Korean and Japanese arts as the arts of Asia is problematic… Since that may be seen to devalue any history of conflict, those communities may not want to see their objects side by side. Though they may not be current struggles, they are struggles that remain connected to the objects.
I asked for a “roadmap” from the museum. “What will this new art history be? Please tell me.” Of course, they don’t know the answer yet. I had to create a rationale for assembling these objects. It’s an object and an installation that’s designed to be open ended.
It seemed like there should be some museum narrative to set the path for what the future will tell us about LACMA and its collection. You’d think somebody would come and tell you. Like in the medieval era, Abbot Suger would come and draw out your designs for how many altars and what things go here or there. But no. I asked, and I heard, “Ken, go for it.” I’m like, “All right, fine.”
Transformative clusters became the symbol. Disciplines, art historical disciplines became boundaries. The curators did retain and do retain their control over certain objects. In terms of asking for permission to go into that collection, I needed an individual from that collection to authorize it.
People wanted to show it, and I’m like, “I can’t, I’m not allowed.” So, I created this other version, The majority are arranged in clusters that are based on the existing categories in LACMA. The floating aspect relates to the idea of constellations. In my mind, these clusters do exist—at least for now in the discipline—but they could be rearranged, rather than having the hierarchy of Western art over other cultures or communities.
I was thinking of ‘cluster,’ but I could also get a cluster of cholesterol in my heart and it could kill me. Didn’t seem like a metaphor I really wanted to embrace. Constellation! Think about the way constellations work. People have looked into the stars forever, and they’ve seen different things. Those things have frightened them, those things have inspired them, those things have empowered them. My thought was that these objects are constellations, and we have yet to draw out the shapes that the future will see. But, I have at least laid out a pathway that reflects the moment that I looked up into the stars. That’s what I saw.
Does your position as both an artist and an educator inform your creative research process?
Yes, of course, it does. Or the other way around. My work was always research based, before I got a teaching job. I was a painting major, art history minor, and I worked in museums. I actually was assistant curator at the Brooklyn Museum when I was just out of undergraduate and left after a few months to stick with my first dream — of being an artist.
I’ve always been interested in art history and have a master’s [in art history] as well. I worked with Rosalind Krauss, Maurice Berger, and a number of others at Hunter and the Graduate Center. I moved from Idaho to New York. Part of my thinking as a young artist was to see as much art as possible. I lived in New York at that time. I wanted to see everything, I wanted to learn everything, I wanted to get the benefits of the marvel that was New York back then — in the ‘80s.
My MFA project was a historical fiction, called the Bone-Grass Boy, where I basically used historical research to recreate a missing history, loosely paralleling the history of my family in the southwest. That was already very research-y and very academic. Because of the ways that narrative photography failed to provide the social liberation I had hoped for, or imagined, my practice moved away from narrative photography to what we might think of as a conceptually-driven practice.
Your work will be on view in a pedagogical gallery space at a university named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Both maintain prominent positions in our institutional history and are a visible part of the campus landscape. Are there conceptual strategies from your practice that you think would be particularly helpful to employ as we investigate our own institutional archive?
That’s a great question. It’s a difficult question. I was at Yale last year at a talk addressing the legacies of slavery in that institution. They were trying to find ways to address it through their collection, and then by inviting scholars and people to respond to that collection, or aspects of their collection, through displays and educational outreach. While I was there, we did a couple of workshops with the student docents in the gallery, with me, and with the other faculty that were available. The purpose of the workshop was to think about how the student docents, who were there every day, would guide people through.
You could add a lot of text, but eventually, walls run out and you can’t make people read. The people that you want to read the text, may not read the text. You have to assume on some level that there is no text at all. Broad questions, simple themes. I tried to encourage them to walk viewers through the process of looking.
What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? What’s it feel like? What did you first see in this room? What’s it next to? It’s a very simple beginning, to ask contextual questions to help people begin to acknowledge the materiality of the art and of the space that they’re in. Who’s in this room? Who’s not in this room? Who’s on the campus? Who’s not on the campus? Who’s here but we can’t see them? Who’s not present whose labor is here? That became a framework for a conversation.
Try to create access points for a potential viewer to engage in any of those questions—it doesn’t have to be all those. It could be that whiteness is the question that you want to address. What is whiteness? Where do we see it? Where do you see whiteness outside the gallery? Where do you see it inside the gallery? Try to give them a set of questions to ask, a handout, a flyer, a video, a YouTube, an Instagram.
Probably, one thing you need to prepare for is a question brought on by Black Lives Matter, but for all of us. Given the realities of slavery, given the realities of racial inequity today, what is the role of the art museum or artists?
The important thing is to figure out what questions we’re asking of the objects and what are the advantages they bring? How does the conversation open up a space? How might viewers engage with questions that they don’t normally discuss? I think the more you ask these questions upfront, the better.
I think you have an amazing opportunity to think of this as the central nugget of something that could be a whole constellation of activities and elements that could really engage the whole campus across multiple courses. Reach out to as many disciplines as you can and get them to connect. The more communities you can engage, the better.