LACMA PAC Prize: Profiled

 

By Ken Gonzales-Day

Edited by Edward Robinson, Asst. Curator of Photography

A PAC Prize Book, LACMA, 2011, Los Angeles.

Excerpt:

A professor who happens to be black is arrested for breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A Pakistani-American man is shot by police in Los Angeles—he is autistic. A Latin-American is late for work after he is pulled over and questioned on suspicion that he may be undocumented. The ACLU investigates accounts that U.S. citizens perceived to be Muslim are unduly questioned about their religious beliefs by border patrol agents. Each represents a contemporary example of racial profiling. Together, they form the backdrop against which this project evolved. Racial profiling, discriminatory treatment of persons of color, remains at the center of political debates about crimi-nal justice, terrorism, national security, and immigration reform despite the fact that scholars and scientists increasingly argue that race has more to do with culture than biology.

In order to decouple the appearance of difference from moral, legal, and spiritual judgments, thinkers have drawn attention to the economic and political invisibility of whiteness, from housing loans to the locations of supermarkets and fast food chains. But while studies have been made of literary and art-historical depictions of race in text and painting, the sculpted figure and the portrait bust have garnered little attention. Profiled addresses these forms.

This project surveys depictions of the human form as found in some of the most prestigious collections in the United States and Europe, spanning mainly from the eighteenth century until the present day. Yet Profiled is not 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. My aim is to provide a new context for considering these ambiguous and sometimes troubling objects, some of which might otherwise be withheld from public view. So, like the protagonist in a mystery novel, I set out to look for clues in a vast cultural warehouse of sculptural depictions of race spanning more than two centuries and stretching across two continents. The images gathered during this investigation are presented here in an artist’s book (thanks to the support of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s PAC Prize) that conceptually reframes Western figurative sculpture through the lens of race and material history. As noted in the Petrus Camper epigraph, an Apollo or a Venus came to symbolize a particular conception of human “achievement.” As such, their marble limbs may tell us as much about the times in which they were made as the subjects they depict.

The profile was long a favorite site for moral and character valuations, even before the genteel paper silhouettes of the Victorians or the photographic mug shots of the criminologist. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, author Johann Kaspar Lavater wrote his influential Essays on Physiognomy, proposing the importance of “physiognomical lines,” as he called them, to elucidate character analysis. Informed and guided by a fascination with measuring everything from the angle of the forehead to the proportions of the body, the Enlightenment’s longing for knowledge contributed to the othering of difference across a wide range of subject positions, from gender and sexual orientation to the identification of “primitive” races: the Oriental, the Jew, the Noble Savage—to name just a few. Over time, numerous texts, treatises, and pamphlets have continued to shape ideals of beauty in the arts, humanities, and the sciences.

The project began while I was a Visiting Scholar and Artist-in-Residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2008–09. The idea was simple enough: I set out to photograph every portrait bust in the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Villa, in Malibu, as a way of thinking about race, even if that race turned out to be mostly white. I initially intended to shoot them all in profile as a way of suggesting a comparison to the historic use of the facial profile in the mug shot, with its obvious associations with the “science” of physiognomy, character analysis, and the many pseudo-sciences that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.

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