Category Archives: race and privilege

This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat

Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen

Corine Vermeulen

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.

Rise Up!

I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.

Robert Arneson. Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

Robert Arneson.
Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.

The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.

In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.

This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.

DSC_0001

Wangechi Mutu

Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.

The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.

The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.

Multiply, Identify, Her

After taking in ICP’s HCB and Erwitt rooms, I went downstairs to see the Multiply, Identify, Her portion of the museum. This exhibition featured around ten different women photographers—or artists working in photography/videography-related media—all working on various representative projects.

ICP’s write-up is mostly art-speak gobbledygook but the general theme of the rooms as being about representation and identity holds up. Yes I have problems with the way that museums tend to pigeonhole non-white and/or non-male photographers as working exclusively in the representation and identity realm. And yes it certainly feels like this exhibition is designed to counterbalance the “neutral” while maleness of the HCB and Erwitt rooms. But taking the show on its own terms works well enough.

The last couple decades of photography have been wonderful for increasing access to the ability to create photography* and with this increased access has been an increased awareness of representation. What the male gaze looks like. What the white gaze looks like. What it means to represent yourself and how that exists in conversation with the ways that viewers are conditioned to look at images.

*Reminding me of an old twitter debate about the Kodak 1 and whether consuming photography or creating photography is more important.

I’m very glad that so many of the photographers in this exhibition are non-white women as it allows for many many different approaches and actively discourages me from writing about the exhibition in a general way. Each artist is dealing with representation issues in her own way and so I can only touch on the pieces that really struck me.

Christina Fernandez. Untitled Multiple Exposure #7 (Bravo), 1999.

Christina Fernandez’s rephotography/reenactment project is interesting in how it addresses both the way that photographic representation often relies on tropes and how those tropes are part of our cultural literacy and baggage now. In this case the way that natives get used as unnamed models of some sort of “pure” past is a particularly insidious habit that repeats over photographic history. The way Fernandez embraces her own indigeneity and makes the statement that both she has a name and is still living in the present are important. It’s very easy to present Nativeness as a thing of the past.

That the resulting layered images don’t quite work is also something I really like about these. Reconciling the tropes as someone who’s subject to them is an impossible task which is also impossible to escape.

Lorna Simpson. Blue Wave, 2011.

Lorna Simpson’s hair pieces are a lot of fun in a provocative way. They remind me of Ellen Gallagher’s Wiglettes but rather than critiquing the beauty standards of the past there’s an element of looking forward and celebrating the possibilities of creating new standards.

Simpson’s work also does this thing where it simultaneously makes the hair the focus of the piece while drawing our attention to the models’ faces.

Roni Horn. This is me, This is you 1998-2000

My favorite piece is Roni Horn’s “This is me, This is you.” I love how it goes right at the ways family photography is its own difficult way genre where picking that one good photo is impossible. There are always multiple nice photos and they’re always somehow both indistinguishable from each other yet distinctly different.

Horn’s photos of her niece also capture that wonderfully awkward transition age between childhood and adolescence—an age my eldest is about to enter. It’s an age where everything is awkward but you’re just learning how society expects you to be. It’s an age where you’re still a kid but also trying to be “grown up.” It’s really the first time that concept of representation is something that begins to matter.

Gina Osterloh. Press and Outline, 2014.

And Gina Osterloh’s movie/dance with her shadow is one of those subtle things that I increasingly appreciate the more I think about it. At first it’s merely neat. But the way it touches on how so much of the way society pressures women comes down to literally their silhouettes is kind of genius. The dance and way that her shadow is distinct but also inescapable suggests the push-pull nature of trying to control her silhouette while also being beholden to its demands.

I also very much like the idea of including Osterloh’s film in an exhibition of photography. Not just because the way that film and photography are related but in how light and shadow are the basic ingredients of photography itself. All photography is the same dance between light and shadow and seeing which position within there works best.

Atlee surprise

One of the things I’ve especially enjoyed about Twitter is the way the multiracial community exists on there. While many of us, correctly, are leery of being lumped into a single box, there’s a lot of value in comparing experiences and seeing how so many of them feel familiar. I haven’t blogged a ton about this kind of thing except when it overlaps with my other interests like photography and baseball (and baseball cards) since it’s tough to do well.

Aside from being a level of personal exposure which is hard in and of itself to write, let alone share, one of the things I’ve taken to heart the most about being multiracial is that the stories I’m often most inspired by are stories where my reaction risks erasing someone else’s experience. All too often the safer thing is to be quiet and not pin my narrative to someone else’s.

The result of this is that I also never expect the things I do write about my multiracial experience to be commented on outside of people I know. The experiences are worth sharing but I suspect that we all feel similar levels of trepidation about recentering them to be about ourselves as well. That the multiracial community doesn’t overlap much with baseball card twitter meant that while I liked what I wrote about Atlee Hammaker, I certainly didn’t expect to find that it touched anyone else in card twitter.

And then Carl (@CeeMX97) started following me. He’s a Phillies fan about an hour south of me down I295 who’s similarly multiracial to me. Aside from talking baseball or cards we’ve also commiserated about things from the dire situation for Japanese and Korean food in New Jersey to how our Asian flush has gotten worse as we’ve aged. Needless to say, my Atlee post touched a nerve with him to the point where earlier this week I found a small envelope with a bunch of Atlee Hammaker cards inside.

Nothing fancy here but since most of my existing Atlee collection is tied up with my Giants collection it’s nice to have duplicates to flesh out the few non-Giants cards of his I’ve got (basically just his rookie card and his 1991 Studio card).

I’m no supercollector but I appreciate having a dedicated Atlee section in my binder. It’s a nice reminder of the ways that my new collection interacts with my childhood one and the difference in perspective that I have now.

Carl also included two signed cards in the package. He does a bit of through-the-mail (TTM) requesting and often includes duplicate cards in his requests for the players to keep. Often the players do keep the extras but other times, like in these cases, it seems that they signed and returned everything.

I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up TTM requests myself. It’s something I can see enjoying by sending to guys I grew up with. It’s also something I can see doing with my kids as a way of encouraging them to write letters and engage with this hobby more. Chris Speier is one of the guys at the top of my “to try” list for reasons I’ve already touched on on this blog so it’s very cool to have one before I even start considering TTMs seriously.

Don Robinson meanwhile is another favorite of mine. I’ve a few of his signatures already but this is the first one featuring him holding a bat. Pitchers with bats is a fun category of cards as it is. When it’s a pitcher like Caveman who we liked in part because of how he approached batting? Even better.

Thanks Carl for appreciating my blog and for the surprise Atlees and TTM duplicates. It looks like I have to start a Phillies pile now.

Black Aesthetics

A short post to wrap up my latest visit to the Princeton Art Museum where I also saw Michael Kenna and Clarence H. White. While Princeton’s Making History Visible show is still up, the museum has added a new, related show to the mix.

Where Making History Visible is about the erasure of blackness from how the US represents itself and transgressive it can feel to add Blackness back into the mythology, Black Aesthetics looks forward. Rather than operating in the realm of white comfort and subverting things, it’s about creating forms of expression and a mythology of blackness that don’t have to be concerned with white comfort.

It’s noteworthy how global this show is. There’s a common culture of forced detribalization and the resultant vacuum of mythology across the African diaspora which influences many of the works on display. So we have art from artists across the globe—the US, UK, Cuba, Bahamas, Kenya, etc.—all of which deal in various ways with creating their own identities on their own rather than letting the dominant white colonial cultures dictate that for them.

Seeing the two exhibitions together is informative since it makes the point that both approaches are both valid and necessary. Putting artists like Glenn Ligon in both exhibitions confirms this. There is great value in subverting expectations of white comfort. But it’s just as important to operate completely outside of the white comfort framing.

 

Princeton Roundup

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick walk through the Princeton Art Museum. Not enough to do a proper writeup of either of the shows I saw but I can’t let them just go uncommented on either.

Making History Visible

Titus Kapha. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016

Titus Kaphar. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016.

Making History Visible is a show about American myths and heroes and what’s left out of the standard representations of our history. It’s a small but very good mix of 19-century works with modern interpretations that remix and reframe our understandings of those works.

Titus Kaphar’s work is the clear focal point of the exhibition as his tarred portraits demonstrate how comfortable—especially from a white comfort point of view—the 19th-century works are. The recognizable form serves as shorthand for the setting but the black tar which obscures the portrait facial features is unsettling.

The tar works on so many levels. Aside from the literal implications of tar and blackness it confirms how we never see non-white faces in these kinds of paintings. Even if they’re there we’ve been trained not to notice them. They get cropped out of reproductions or obscured in shadows due to poor lighting. Making us look and notice, even if we can’t see a face is an important-enough intervention. The way that the tar works as hair texture in an Ellen Gallagher kind of way is almost a bonus.

Faith Ringgold’s Declaration of Freedom and Independence is very similar in how it takes a text and form which we’re used to seeing as “americana” and tweaks it so it’s uncomfortably obvious how the comfortable representation is really white america. There are also Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker pieces which do similar things where we’re asked to loo closer and recognize how the artists are subverting the form.

All in all it’s a smart little exhibition which manages to make the white comfort nature of the art museum into a feature and is definitely the kind of subversion that I’d like to see more of in Princeton.

Transient Effects

Howard Russell Butler. Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Howard Russell Butler.
Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Transient Effects is a selection of Howard Russell Butler’s eclipse paintings and represents an exhibition which recognizes the artistic merit of science and craft. Butler’s paintings were intended to be observations and records of the eclipses. Accuracy is of the highest importance and much of the exhibition discusses his notes and painting methods.

As a photographer it’s interesting for me to see painting described this way. Photography is so much about observation and seeing and gets criticized both when it’s too obsessed with accuracy and when it “lies.” So much of the endless digital versus film debates are about the process of taking time to “slow down and think” yet for some reason the idea that painting should be in the mix never enters that argument.

The idea of presenting all art as observation and process is fantastic. One of the reasons why I love it when science-related pieces make it into a museum is that issues of use and process are inherently brought with them and I’m reminded how much I miss that information in the rest of the museum. Also, as a design major I recognize that there’s a lot of art in science and engineering which never gets properly recognized unless it’s photographed or painted.

Also, as paintings themselves and having just seen the eclipse this summer, it was especially wonderful to see Butler’s paintings and be reminded all over again of the event. The paintings do capture details like the blackness of the disc and the deep blue of  the sky which I remember but haven’t seen in any photos. It’s also wonderful to see how different each eclipse is and be reminded again about how much I want to see another one.

Atlee

Being mixed race means that I grew up constantly being put into different “what are you?” boxes.* Society likes to sort us and I often describe my maturation in terms of which box I was most-likely to be sorted into—my standard description is along the lines that I was “chinese” when I was in grade school, “mexican” as a teenager, and only became white as an adult. But I was never actually any of those things. I only use those descriptions as shorthand for being aware of how society types me, what triggers that identification, and what behavior I may need to modify for my safety in that situation.

*I’ve written more about my background but my thinking has evolved a bit on that in the past four years.

I preferred to identify myself as not having a box at all. Even though I was lucky to have many mixed-race friends in school I never really thought of them as my group. None of us had identical racial backgrounds and, so while we could discuss a lot of common ground in terms of experiences we shared, we all had very different identities.

It was only in high school when we had stars like Dean Cain and Russell Wong that the idea of a “hapa”* box became feasible. I wasn’t interested but I could see the appeal. There were people like us in mass media and yeah, while they had to play either completely-white or completely-asian roles, at least they sort of existed. By then though I’d also already embraced my non-categoriness and absorbed the idea that I would always have to defer to someone else who was more of whatever part of my identity I was partaking in.

*I’m using “hapa” in this case specifically because of its extremely-limited half-asian/half-white meaning which the multiracial asian community jumped all over in the late 1990s/early 2000s because of the gaping absence of any other term to self-identify as. It’s no longer a term I use to describe any group of people even though I do still use it to self-identify—with family from Hawai‘i, I feel like it does capture some of my specific story. But the fact that it all-too-often loses its Hawaiian context is a big problem. As is the fact that it all-too-often is limited to just asian/white people.

It’s not that being mixed-race means that I’m insufficiently anything. It’s that I’m aware of the limits of my experience of my culture. I know that there’s always more to learn and more family history to uncover. I know that my culture and experience is best described in terms of where my ancestors came from rather than who I am.

Sometimes though I wonder if things could’ve been different. I’ve seen my sons’ friends ask if mixed-race parents like me are the parents of his similarly-mixed-race friends. It’s not just that there’s a cohort of mixed race kids. Many of the parents are also mixed race now and, while kids are still grouping by type—it’s amazing how engrained that idea of what a family unit should look like is—I get the sense that much of my sons’ generation has a much different understanding of how culture works and that there is a benefit to being typed into a box which kind of fits you.

Representation is always good. But it’s more than that. What seems to be a lot of the driving force in this though is that they understand what they might grow up to be like. Which is really where the family-unit typing seems to come into play. Kids learn early on that they’ll grow up to look like their family. A lot of the “what about the kids” panic with mixed race couples stems from the fear that the kids won’t look like their parents. And while that’s bullshit, I have seen that as kids learn how race works really early and that, once that view is in place they see racial differences as overriding any other similarities.

So it‘s a good thing that my sons’ generation is growing up where mixed-race adults are common. I’m kind of jealous. I’m glad I had peers but I can see how different things are to just see what you could look like as a grown up.

It was only in getting back into baseball cards that I realized that there were a couple of years in the late 1980s when my classmates had accurately identified a mixed-race adult for me to look like.

Atlee Hammaker 1983 Topps Atlee Hammaker 1984 Topps All Stars

When I was ~10 everyone started calling me Atlee. I was a Giants fan and I supposedly looked like our pitcher, Atlee Hammaker. He’d been a star, of sorts, a few years earlier but by the time I was a fan injuries had kind of derailed his career. As a result, he’d developed a bit of a reputation as being a headcase—specifically the type of pitcher who’s great when no one’s on base but loses his composure as soon as anyone reaches base.

I hated that nickname and being told that I looked like him—mostly because, in my view, he wasn’t that good. Looking at his stats now gives me a better sense of it. He was in the midst of going from a decent—albeit injury-prone—pitcher to a replacement-level one. A decent career with a few high points—just not the trajectory any kid wants to be associated with.

Getting back into cards though has involved me googling around about players whose cards trigger my memories. In Hammaker’s case, I discovered that he was mixed-race, specifically German/Japanese—very close to the same thing I am. I’d had no idea when I was a kid—no one else did either—but finding that out kind of softened my memories. Rather than seeing his cards and having a visceral “oh god I hated being called Atlee” reaction, I’ve warmed to him and begun to wonder how I would’ve reacted if I’d known as a kid.

Would I have latched on with the same sense of ownership that I latched on to Scott Erickson—who grew up a stone’s through from my house—a few years later? No idea. But I suspect I would’ve been more supportive instead of rolling my eyes each time he got the fidgets when someone got on base.

And no, I didn’t grow up to look like him. That’s not how any of this works. But as someone who rarely smiles in photos, I am enjoying looking at his cards from the 1980s and being amused at how he never smiles and always has the same deadpan expression on his face. I’d like to think that his special 1984 All Star card is a reflection of his disastrous appearance in 1983 but it’s just the way he always looks.