Recently, I posted a comment on Facebook about similarities I see between the current cancellations of concerts, film shootings, celebrity appearances, business transactions, etc., in anti-LGBTQ states and cancellations in the 1960s in response to racist segregation in Mississippi. I would like to explore the issue further and consider what we might apply from the past to our current situation. Making and exploring such comparisons can lead to dangerous rhetorical and historical simplifications.  Michael Warner refers to such simplifications as a symptom of “Rainbow Theory,” a pluralism that often implies “a fantasized space where all embodied identities could be visibly represented as parallel forms of identity” (Warner 12).  Making any comparison risks minimizing one or both moments in time, and risks homogenizing marginalized groups, as if their concerns and struggles are the same and can be easily compared.  I do not consider African-American and LGBTQ parallel forms of identity. They are responses to different types of power, require different strategies for survival, and have different relationships with visibility and reprosexuality, the latter of which Warner defines as “a relation to self that finds its proper temporality and fulfillment in generational transmission” (Warner 9, 11-16).  I am interested in the parallels found in the arguments for discrimination against both groups, hoping that a broader audience who may see clearly the flawed arguments in favor of racial segregation will be able to apply that recognition to the flawed arguments in favor of LGBTQ discrimination today.  I write this from the perspective of a white, middle-aged, heterosexual woman, neither African American nor queer. This does not make my observations unimportant, but contextualizes them within my own experience and limited perspective.  I will start with a look at 1960s segregation in Mississippi, then shift to current LGBTQ discrimination, making comparisons here and there that will allow for some conclusions for your consideration.


It is no secret that the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation did not end violent racism and discrimination against African Americans. Jim Crow laws and other segregationist practices re-enslaved African Americans, often leading to their arrest for infractions such as loitering, and punishment in the form of hard labor on farms or in mines. In addition, discriminatory lending practices and other forms of commercial-based racism prevented progress toward equality up to and beyond the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Mississippi was deeply entrenched in the battle for civil rights in part because so many of its white residents and politicians fought vehemently against equality and integration. One state organization tasked with maintaining the status quo through censorship and surveillance was theSovereignty Commission.” The stated aim of the commission was “’to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government’.” Among other things, the Sovereignty Commission attempted to control media messages in and out of Mississippi so that they would be in line with “positive or ‘corrective’ portrayals of Mississippi,” which the commission considered “’the most lied about state in the Union’” (Classen 39). They provided “commission-written stories” and “advice to editors . . . on how to address and frame new civil rights events” and also omitted stories deemed out of step with Mississippi values (Classen 40). Black residents of Mississippi in the 1960s report that people were murdered for providing information from newspapers outside of the approved sources (Classen 75). Selling unapproved newspapers or magazines put you under harsh surveillance, and the Sovereignty Commission attempted to revoke the licenses of those selling newspapers critical of segregation (Classen 75, 79). According to Sam Bailey, who worked with Medgar Evers to fight for integration and to publish newspapers that revealed the truth about Mississippi, the local papers, controlled by the Sovereignty Commission, “weren’t going to print nothing unless you were accused of raping a white woman or killing a white. Then they would put you on the front page” (Classen 76). One step in the process of fighting segregation in the south involved alerting celebrities to discriminatory practices in the hopes that they would cancel appearances, bringing attention to government sanctioned racism and forcing segregated venues to refund ticket holders. The successful efforts of black student groups and civil rights organizations in Mississippi resulted in canceled appearances or performances by the stars of TV shows such as Bonanza, Hootenanny, and The Beverly Hillbillies, by musicians such as Al Hirt and Birgit Nilsson, and by NASA administrator James Webb.


White Americans have long justified the slavery of, discrimination against, and segregation of African Americans on religious and scientific grounds. In 1946, Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo wrote, “[p]urity of race is a gift of God … And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.” Bilbo claimed his Christian God was the “original segregationist.” A 1959 court case in Virginia in which an interracial couple fought their arrest after they were married in another state and returned to Virginia was presided over by Judge Leon M. Bazile. When Judge Bazile sentenced the couple to one year in prison unless they agreed to leave the state for 25 years, he proclaimed, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents . . . The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Bob Jones University, the South Carolina University that did not admit Black students until into the 1970s, and was denied IRS tax exempt status in the 1980s for its rules against interracial dating, rules that were only lifted in 2000, was named after Bob Jones, Sr., who, in his Easter 1960 sermon, said the following, quoting from the 26th verse of the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “’And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . ‘ But do not stop there, ‘. . . and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.’ Now, what does that say? That says that God Almighty fixed the bounds of their habitation. That is as clear as anything that was ever said.” He goes on to say that White Christians have always tried to help Black Christians in the southern states. Everything is fine, he says, with the exception of a few disturbances, but problems will continue in all nations that try to blur the lines their God intended to make between racial groups.

There have also been arguments providing scientific evidence for racial segregation. This is often referred to as “Scientific Racism,” and it was popular in and outside of the United States. Scientific Racism makes aporia-filled scientific claims about the inferiority or superiority of certain races, usually that the so-called white population is more advanced than the so-called black population. It provides the foundation for arguments made in criminology about race-based “tendencies” toward crime, and in eugenics about who should mate to produce a superior race. One’s African-ness, then, could be used as tautological evidence of degeneracy, both biological and psychological, just as one’s “white-ness” could be used as tautological evidence of being “honourable” and “square-dealing” (Dyer 65). This is also the foundation for claims that Black men have some immoral,  innate drive to rape White women. The “real” concern, some white Americans would claim, was that segregation was essential for protecting their girls and women. Furthermore, Mississippians also felt their “cherished, distinctive way of life” threatened by “malevolent interlopers” (Classen 43, 94).


The current “religious freedom” laws in the U.S. claim to have their precedent in court decisions and acts signed into law in the 1990s. The first, in 1990, was a Supreme Court case in which the firing of two Oregon drug counselors was challenged, but upheld. The two counselors worked for a private drug rehabilitation organization, but participated in a religious ceremony at their Native American church that involved the ingestion of the hallucinogen peyote, illegal in Oregon. Justice Scalia saw allowing for such lawbreaking on religious grounds a slippery slope for which people could claim exemption from “civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind” for religious reasons. In 1993, President Clinton signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which stated a government can “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion only if it advances an important government interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. This instituted a test for the Supreme Court to levy against laws someone claimed restricted their religious beliefs and practices. The court would have to ask, “Does this law substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion?” and, if so, “Is this burden in the interest of advancing important government interest?” and, finally, “How can this government interest be upheld with the least restrictive burden on a person’s exercise of religion?” In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply to states, so states started developing their own Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs). 31 states have their own RFRAs. University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock explains, “The state court decisions interpreting their state constitutions arose in all sorts of contexts, mostly far removed from gay rights or same-sex marriage. There were cases about Amish buggies, hunting moose for native Alaskan funeral rituals, an attempt to take a church building by eminent domain, landmark laws that prohibited churches from modifying their buildings – all sorts of diverse conflicts between religious practice and pervasive regulation.”

Current lawmakers were emboldened to apply RFRAs to LGBTQ discrimination by the 2014 Supreme Court decision that allowed Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties (a Mennonite-owned cabinet making company) to claim that the parts of the Affordable Care Act that cover contraception inhibit their religious beliefs and practices. Indiana governor Mike Pence cited this 2014 decision in support of his state’s 2015 RFRA law, which would count businesses and corporations as individuals who could also say a given law (like the federal law that opened marriage to all Americans in 2015) infringes on their religious freedom. After protests by companies and celebrities against the proposed Indiana law, Pence signed a revised version that prevents businesses from denying anyone services based on sexuality or gender identity. This brings us to today, when Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kansas are considering or have already passed legislation under the guise of “religious freedom” that will allow businesses or individuals to refuse service to the LGBTQ population. A 2015 executive order by Kansas governor Sam Brownback removes a previous order that protects state employees from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Brownback explained that his action would “protect all Kansans without creating ‘protected classes’.” Mississippi governor Phil Bryant explains that his state’s RFRA will “’protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of persons, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government’.” North Carolina governor Pat McCrory supports Mississippi’s bill, which should be no surprise given McCrory’s support for his state’sPublic Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which “bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex.” This act insists that users of multiple occupancy public restrooms must use the restroom that corresponds with the sex indicated on their birth certificate, and that although any board of education or public institution can provide single use or changing facilities, “in no event shall that accommodation result in the local boards of education allowing a student to use a multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility . . . for a sex other than the student’s biological sex.” Recently, South Carolina also introduced a law requiring public bathroom use to correspond with biological sex. I cannot find specific language in the bills that explain how they will be enforced. Do residents need to start carrying around their birth certificate or state I.D.? Perhaps handmade calling cards will be necessary for individuals whose bodies will likely be read as opposite their biological sex, as in the case of Charlie Comero? It is also unclear how states allowing for discrimination against LGBTQ communities in the form of refusing services or employment will deal with the fact that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted section VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to preclude LGBTQ discrimination and that the Supreme Court has already decided in favor of the rights of LGBTQ people in a number of cases. Celebrities and businesses ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Sharon Stone to PayPal to A+E Networks to 21st Century Fox to Nissan to John Grisham to Ringo Starr have canceled plans to work in the aforementioned states, signed petitions, made statements, or donated the money made during an appearance in an anti-LBGTQ state to an LBGTQ organization.


The reasons provided for LBGT discrimination are varied, including those on the basis of religious and scientific grounds. The religious claims to allow for discrimination are based on the idea that a Christian business forced to provide service to a homosexual or transgender individual or couple impinges on that Christian business’s religious freedom. (As an important aside, although Christian groups, politicians, and individuals are the ones creating and enforcing and insisting on these laws, the laws apply to any religion that believes LGBTQ populations are sinful.) Addressing Christianity specifically, the biblical evidence against homosexuality is not particularly strong. The Old Testament Leviticus insists that a man who lies with a man as he is to lie with a woman should be stoned, but there is some debate within Christian communities regarding whether or not Jesus addressed LBGTQ populations, and even if he did it is still debated whether or not it is the place of Christians today to judge anyone. A great deal of concern is raised for “the children” to excuse LBGTQ bigotry and discrimination. Dr. Keith Ablow, a member of the Fox News Medical A-Team, encouraged his own readers/viewers to boycott the 2011 season of Dancing with the Stars because it featured Chaz Bono, in transition from female to male: “The last thing vulnerable children and adolescents need, as they wrestle with the normal process of establishing their identities, is to watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts, the injection of steroids and, perhaps one day soon, the fashioning of a make-shift phallus to replace her vagina.” He insisted that we should “empathize” with Bono’s “gender dysphoria” and celebrate her achievements, but not support her decision to betray her biological sex. His attempts at empathy, already quite shaky, are obliterated when he makes a comparison to “someone who, tragically, believes that his species, rather than gender, is what is amiss and asks a plastic surgeon to build him a tail of flesh harvested from his abdomen.” If the echoes of 1960s segregation are not yet apparent, consider this similar claim: “they” will rape our girls/women. A group calling themselves “Campaign for Houston” made this argument and helped prevent anti-discrimination laws from passing in Houston, Texas. The group’s campaign was successful due to television ads such as the one containing this message: “No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom. And if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger. Vote no on the Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance.” The group’s website describes itself in this way: “Campaign for Houston is made up of parents and family members who do not want their daughters, sisters or mothers forced to share restrooms in public facilities with gender-confused men, who – under this ordinance – can call themselves ‘women’ on a whim and use women’s restrooms whenever they wish.” They claim proponents of bills allowing individuals to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender with which they identify, intend to “make ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identification’ two new protected classes.” These messages make a far too easy link between “sex offenders” and “gender-confused men,” not to mention they assume “gender-confused men” identify as women “on a whim,” and not after years and years of agonizing self-doubt. They transcribe what they see as scientific or psychological tendencies of transgender people into moral arguments about the safety of vulnerable cisgender populations.  They assume that transgender individuals are the ones who should be feared, rather than the ones who are statistically, factually, and consistently the target of violent attacks, often for appearing to be in the wrong bathroom. The Houston group and others like it make assumptions about heterosexual cisgender men as well, who are seen as just one small step away from becoming a rapist. As if to make clear how easy it is for a heterosexual man to become a sexual predator, Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and former U.S. Presidential candidate, confessed to a crowd at a 2015 National Broadcasters Convention, “’Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today’.’” Huckabee insisted that the new ordinances allowing bathroom choice based on self-identified gender were part of a “social experiment” in which children are “forced” to share bathrooms with “a 42-year-old man who feels more like a woman than he does a man.” Huckabee and other conservatives likely agree with the Campaign for Houston’s fears that allowing such LGBTQ freedoms is equivalent to “an attempt to re-structure society to fit a societal vision we simply do not share or can support.” Their cherished way of life is under attack.


Some parallels between 1960s segregation battles and the current efforts to discriminate LBGTQ discrimination have already emerged in my essay thus far. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates insists, “Race is the child of racism. Not the Father” (p. 7). Race is not some naturally occurring state that has been corrupted by racism, but was invented to categorize certain groups as inferior and others as superior. Race was born of racism. On a very broad level, the same could be said for sexuality and gender identity. All of these categories are discursive constructions. They were developed over time and employed to name and interpret groups of people. As Judith Butler has argued, not only gender, but sex, too, is constructed. The moment the concept of sex or gender enters discourse/language, which is a condition of its existence, it has social denotations/connotations (Butler 9-10). It is not, then, that sex is natural and gender is cultural. Instead, they are both named, socially meaningful, historically contingent terms and states that did not come before language. Gender and sex are unified in the performance of identity, and bodies are “always already a cultural sign” (Butler 90). Regardless of the scientific language used to describe a body part, that body part always signifies culturally, and that cultural signification is not separate from, but imbricated into scientific language. Discursive or social construction, however, does not make lived experience less physical, nor does it negate the meaningful difference between sex and gender for someone who is transitioning. This became powerfully apparent to me while teaching a class on women in art history. On the first day I asked my students to define “woman,” which eventually led us to discuss the categories “sex” and “gender.” I planned to carefully direct the students to the conclusion that there is little to no difference, and that they are both discursive constructions, but several students rightfully derailed my plans, pointing out the importance of being able to use those terms in different ways so that a transsexual or transgender person can identify as a gender different from their biological sex. My students insisted that the difference mattered even if the categories are each subject to considerations of cultural and temporal contexts. The difference matters not only because of the personal need to find the right combination, but also because of the constant threat of violence for those not looking, acting, talking, or performing in ways that are perfectly readable and legible according to prevailing social norms.

Since the advocates of anti-LGBTQ legislation so often express fears that their rights, their way of life, or their “daughters, sisters or mothers” will be violated, it seems reasonable to consider some statistics that reveal who has reason to be fearful. Violent crimes against members of the LGBTQ community have gone up in recent years, with 2015 seeing the highest rates yet. Tragically, these attacks and murders are sometimes at the hands of family members. In addition, a 2011 national survey revealed that “transgender people are four times more likely than the general population to report living in extreme poverty, making less than $10,000 per year, a standing that sometimes pushes them to enter the dangerous trade of sex work. Nearly 80% of transgender people report experiencing harassment at school when they were young. As adults, some report being physically assaulted [in] trains and buses, in retail stores and restaurants.” Meanwhile, states that have instituted laws that prevent discrimination and/or allow individuals to choose their restroom have had no increased reports of bathroom-related attacks or sexual assaults. The numbers have not gone up and there have been no reports of transgender abuse of such laws.


Those who oppose changes our society has to make to “reduce the harassment regularly experienced by transgender people and others who don’t match people’s stereotypes of what it looks like to be a man or a woman” have turned to religion, science, and concerns for the safety of “daughters, sisters, and mothers” to cling desperately to a vision of the world as outdated as racially segregated bathrooms. The way of life that Mike Huckabee or Campaign for Houston or Keith Ablow have come to cherish will be somewhat altered by allowing transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, just as it was for “most white Mississippians, as well as some black citizens, [who] believed the strict segregation of entertainment to be necessary and natural” (Classen, 87). LGBTQ individuals require protection because they have yet to receive the same rights and freedoms available to heterosexual cisgenders on a daily basis. This was also the case with African Americans when race became characteristic of a “protected class” legally shielded from discrimination. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act some U.S. governors consider the precedent for enacting discriminatory legislation can be used, somewhat ironically, against them: “Does this law substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion?” I don’t see how having to take photos at a gay wedding or allowing transgender individuals to choose the restroom they use does this, but let’s say yes in order to continue to the next question. “Is this burden in the interest of advancing important government interest?” Yes, in terms of preventing discrimination against what the EEOC has deemed a group worthy of protection against discrimination. “How can this government interest be upheld with the least restrictive burden on a person’s exercise of religion?” There is no biblical evidence that making a cake for a gay wedding, hiring someone even though they do not conform to standards that dictate how a “woman” should look and act, or letting someone choose the bathroom they use prevents someone from being Christian or practicing Christianity. I started this post thinking about two instances in which celebrities active in visual culture took a stand against discrimination, but some analysis has already been made on that topic, plus the lesson here is about recognizing a civil rights issue as a civil rights issue, and thinking carefully about what it means for a body to matter The history of the category of the “human,” explains Judith Butler, “is not over, and the ‘human’ is not captured once and for all. That the category is crafted in time, and that it works through excluding a wide range of minorities means that its rearticulation will begin precisely at the point where the excluded speak to and from such a category” (Butler 13). The type of discrimination being written into law is far greater than a battle over bathrooms. At its core, it is a type of discrimination that attempts to put limits on “human.”



(L) Visitor Sue Danielson from Kentucky has her photo taken in the kimono; (R) Publicity photo for the program released by Boston Museum of Fine Arts


In August, I attended a 2-day symposium on museum studies. The director of that symposium led us in a discussion of controversies related to cultural sensitivity. One case study related to that discussion was the recent “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The symposium director insisted that she could find nothing offensive about the program, despite the arguments provided by protesters about the dangers of cultural appropriation. I understood and sympathized with the protesters, but found the program troubling for slightly different reasons than those they provided.

First, some background information on the exhibition and the program. (As you will see in the links, I depend to a large extent on information from bloggers, particularly regarding information available only in Japanese. I have done my best to make sure the information I am providing is accurate.) In 1956, the Boston MFA acquired French Impressionist Claude Monet’s 1876 painting, La Japonaise, as part of their permanent collection (see painting in background of images above). The painting features Monet’s wife, Camille, wearing a formal kimono called a uchikake. In addition, she is holding a fan and surrounded by images of various Japanese paper fans. Monet painted his brunette wife wearing a blonde wig to emphasize that she was a Parisienne, a Parisian woman, and not, as the title indicates, a Japonese woman. The title we know today was not necessarily the one Monet preferred, and the year of its completion he exhibited the work with the title Japonerie, to mean western works that imitated Japanese objects. Monet does not seem to have considered the painting a success, and even the MFA suggests that “Monet, deeply in debt at the time, chose the subject in hopes of attracting a rich buyer.” Perhaps the artist was motivated by financial debt to try to create something that would have wider appeal and sell quickly. In 2013, MFA engaged in a year-long restoration of the painting, a project partially funded by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, and NHK promotions, their subsidiary handling cultural projects and events. NHK was especially interested in assisting MFA with the restoration because they were working with the MFA to organize a 2014 touring exhibition entitled “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan” and featuring work from the MFA. NHK asked permission from the MFA to create 2 replica kimonos like the one in Monet’s 1876 painting. The exhibition traveled to the United States, Canada, and Japan, but the kimonos were only available at the Japan sites, and then later at the MFA.  In Japan, visitors were given the opportunity to pose wearing the kimonos and have their photo taken. The Setagaya Art Museum also provided a blonde wig to visitors, and supplemented the photo opportunity with a workshop on the history of the overall styling of the period, including makeup. In 2015, when the paintings from the touring exhibition were returned to Boston, the MFA developed a program called “Kimono Wednesdays” in which visitors, like those at the Japanese venue for the touring exhibition, could have their photo taken wearing a kimono. This sounds like an ideal approach given the popularity of selfies. The MFA also offered a “Spotlight Talk” entitled “Claude Monet: Flirting with the Exotic.”

At the first “Kimono Wednesday” on June 24, 2015, 3 protestors arrived, and at the second Wednesday, 2 protesters arrived. According to Katie Getchell, Deputy Director of the MFA, the protesters were quiet and did not engage anyone in discussion. After the first protest, the “Spotlight Talk” changed in title from “Flirting with the Exotic” to “Claude Monet: ‘La Japonaise’.” At the height of the controversy, about 24 protesters held signs reading “It’s not racist if you look cute and exotic in it” or “Try on the kimono to learn what it’s like to be a racist Imperialist!.” Such concerns grew with an online presence in the form of Stand Against Yellow-Face @ Boston MFA (now called Decolonize Our Museums).  They also inspired counter-protests at the MFA, featuring signs reading “I am not offended by people wearing kimono [sic] in front of French paintings” and “I welcome museum exhibits that share Japanese culture with the community.” In addition, online counter-protesters chimed in, dismayed at the extreme actions of the “culture cops.” Eventually, the MFA altered the Wednesday program, putting the kimonos on display, but not allowing visitors to wear them. MFA offered a sincere apology, and described in some detail the changes that would be made to the program to account for the unintended offense, including increasing the number of talks offered to contextualize the painting and the kimono.

There’s the magic word: context. Mia Nakaji Monnier, writing on the opinion pages of the Boston Globe, wrote of the controversy, “Context is everything.” Monnier refers specifically to the difference in context between being a Japanese-American in the United States and being a Japanese citizen in Japan. “Japanese” means something different in those contexts, so predominantly white people in the U.S. wearing a kimono to mimick a painting that itself mimicks Japanese culture (or even more dizzying, a painting that mimicks Europeans mimicking Japanese culture) means something different than the same basic act taking place by Japanese people in Japan. I think this context matters and is important to the conversation, but I am interested in another type of context.

The type of context that occurred to me as soon as I heard about this controversy can be summed up by comparing two descriptions of the same event. First, the Frist Museum in Tennessee, the first museum in the U.S. to host the “Looking East” exhibition, contextualizes Impressionism and its participation in Japonisme in this way: “In the mid- to late 1850s the island nation of Japan ended two centuries of self-imposed isolation when it signed treaties opening its ports to trade with Britain, France, Russia, and the United States.” Sounds like a smooth and easy decision by Japan to un-isolate itself. A Japan Times article on the “Looking East” exhibition, on the other hand, describes the shift in Japan’s trade policy like this: “In the decades after Japan was forcibly opened to large-scale international trade in the early 1850s . . .” Now we have gone from Japan making a decision about itself and simply signing treaties to being forcibly opened. That force was involved is indisputable. Under the guidance of and with a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore, Commodore Matthew Perry led a squadron of U.S. Navy ships to Japan to threaten military action if Japan refused to open its ports to trade with the west. Russia, Britain, France, and Holland were all challenging Japanese isolationism around the same time, both before and after Perry arrived the first time, and Japan recognized that in order to avert the possibility of colonization by aggressively Imperialist western countries, it needed to open its ports to trade. Japan was also recognizing the drawbacks of its isolationist strategy, but that does not change the fact that when it changed its policy,  it did so under duress.  Japonisme, the western, especially European, and especially French fascination with all things Japanese, resulted from this tense and complicated confrontation.

Impressionist artists are often identified as the beginning point of Modernism in art history. Impressionists were innovative both in terms of their style (not naturalistic, but blurred and making brushstrokes evident) and in terms of their content (present-day instead of historical). These important changes in art making had reverberations throughout Europe and into the United States, from the mid-19th century through at least the work of American Artist Jackson Pollock in the mid-20th century.  One of the threads that links the work of Monet and other Impressionists to the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock is Primitivism. Like the shift in Japan’s trade policy, Primitivism is sometimes defined in a harmless, innocent way: “The incorporation in early 20th-century Western art of stylistic elements from the artifacts of Africa, Oceania, and the native peoples of the Americas” (Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 14th edition). Other art historians, including me, do not see Primitivism as quite so innocent: Primitivism “is not benignly descriptive; it carries modern European perceptions of relative cultural superiority and inferiority . . . Modern artists thus represented other cultures and appropriated their art without understanding—without really caring to understand—how those cultures actually functioned or how their art was used” (Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, p. 1022-23). Meyer Schapiro agrees:The insight that allowed artists to see the value of “primitive” arts “was accompanied . . . by an indifference to just those material conditions which were brutally destroying the primitive peoples or converting them into submissive, cultureless slaves” (“Nature of Abstract Art” 1937). This does not mean artists associated with Primitivism were evil or do not deserve the credit they receive for their achievements, but it means the way art looks and the subject matter chosen by artists is complicated and never innocent.

Primitivism, as the first definition provided suggests, started in the early 20th century, while Monet (1840-1926) was still alive, but long after his work reflected French Japonisme. Japonisme, however, is a significant precursor, an ancestor of Primitivist impulses. The influence of Japanese art and culture on some French Impressionists was one devoid of concern or consideration for the material conditions of Japan or its citizens, not to mention the forced opening by the U.S. that produced Japonisme in the first place. If you know this, and if you think about the ways that the style and subject matter demonstrated in Monet’s La Japonaise resulted from the threat of military action by an aggressively Imperialist nation, it seems awfully insensitive to invite viewers in the country responsible for that threat to costume themselves in a kimono for a snapshot in front of a painting demonstrating Japonisme.


David Maxim: Giving in to Labor

David Maxim, The First Labor (Nemean Lion)

David Maxim, The First Labor (Nemean Lion)

Essay from STAGES: The Art of David Maxim, 2015

It is not uncommon to hear the work of David Maxim described as “heroic.” His works on canvas can measure upwards of 120” in height and 150” in width. I refer to them as works on canvas because it is difficult to describe them as paintings in any traditional or historical sense. Maxim calls them “constructed pictures.” Sculptural elements often emerge or hang from the canvas, extending 30” or more into the viewer’s space. These sculptural elements resemble archaic tools or weapons: crudely-made shovels, worn squeegees, bulky cudgels, aged construction beams, or globes wrapped in canvas and twine that suggest an ancient cannonball. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for Maxim to seek out as subject matter mythical or historical figures deemed heroes in Western culture. His artwork titles refer to, among others, artistic heroes (Giotto’s Circle, 1985), explorers (Cloud of Magellan, 1980), or biblical heroes (“The Miracles” series, 1980s). It is not surprising, then, that Maxim would eventually undergo what he calls an “intense campaign” of work (completed in less than a year) focusing on the greatest of the Greek heroes, Hercules.

Maxim understands “The Labors of Hercules” series as a “watershed moment” in his artistic career. During this time, the mid-1980s, Maxim began what have become standard or signature steps in his artistic process. He reversed the stretched canvas to reveal to the viewer the frame and supports that hold up and hold together the painted image. He constructed 3-dimensional components for each artwork in the series, and he used those components as paint applicators before tying or otherwise affixing them as part of the completed piece. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the “Labors” series, Maxim explored new ways to embed the human figure in his artworks . . . but more on that later.

Greek mythology tells us that Hercules, driven mad by Hera, killed his wife and six sons. Grief stricken and seeking penance, Hercules visited the Oracle Pythoness, who explained that he should serve King Eurystheus at Tyrins to atone for the horrific act. Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, initially scoffed at the idea as he considered himself superior to Eurystheus, but gave in and arrived at Tyrins, where Eurystheus ordered Hercules to perform ten labors. After discounting Hercules’ completion of two of the labors in which he received assistance from others, Eurystheus added two labors, for a total of twelve. A select overview of the twelve labors finds Hercules slaying or capturing powerful creatures such as the Nemean Lion, the multi-headed Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, or the cattle of Geryon, stealing the belt of Hippolyta or apples from the garden of the Hesperides, and cleaning the Augean stables. Hercules’ reward for completing these tasks is immortality.

Maxim’s “depiction” of the twelve labors of Hercules is not a naturalistic representation of bulging biceps and dying beasts. Maxim does not construct for the viewer 3-dimensional components that resemble the weapons or tools used by Hercules (to make such an argument would be quite a stretch), nor does he place the subject matter in a mythical land of giants, gods, and mortal humans. Maxim’s conceptualism is too strong for this kind of literal translation. I am more convinced that what inspired Maxim about this heroic tale is less the hero named Hercules and more the performance of labor itself.

David Maxim’s studio is in a former sheet metal worker’s union building. His father, a union man himself, encouraged the teenage David to work as a pipefitter’s assistant. At 18 years of age, David operated an industrial crane to move enormous pipe from one welder’s unit to another. Later, he worked on an oil refinery that was scheduled for inspection and overhaul, and assisted on a dry dock lifting lots of metal and cables: “all heavy, butch work,” as Maxim puts it. Maxim’s work as an artist was likely affected by the machinery and paraphernalia of such employ, and this inspiration is visible in the wire and pulleys found in sculptures like White Thought (1984), or the twine and hardware found in most of his sculpture and wall pieces. But it is Maxim’s familial connection and personal experience with manual labor that emerge most prominently from “The Labors of Hercules.”

The First Labor in Maxim’s series, for example, refers to Hercules’ slaying of the Nemean Lion. The artwork consists of a reversed canvas—stretcher frame and supports exposed—and two cudgels, handles extending to the right with the thickest part resting on a panel extending out from the left side of the canvas. The cudgels can be moved up and down by (the labor of) the viewer, and comparing the cover image of this catalog to the reproduction of The First Labor inside the catalog demonstrates how and in which directions the cudgels move. Hercules carried one club with him into the lion’s cave, but overcame and killed the beast with his bare hands, strangling it to its last breath. The cudgels then, only confusingly infer Hercules’ weapon of the legend, in that they are a pair. Rather, their meaning becomes clearer if the viewer sees them as human limbs. This is one way Maxim embeds the human figure deeply into the work in this series, but he pulls back from making direct connections to the myth.

The paint in The First Labor is splattered on the canvas, much of it applied by the two cudgels. The paint does not suggest splattered blood, nor does it take the shape, even in the most abstract sense, of a human figure engaged in battle with a lion. The labor depicted in the artwork through the trace of paint and the movement of the cudgels, is that of the artist. Maxim’s psychological and physical sweat, and his deep respect and appreciation for labor, all emanate from this artwork with tremendous pain, passion, and dedication.

In anticipation of the possible assumptions of some readers, I am not saying that Maxim sees himself as a hero (god-like or otherwise) who performs a series of labors for the immortality afforded to the likes of Da Vinci or Van Gogh. I am not saying artists are inherently heroes or that they are granted immortality through their works of art. What I see in Maxim’s work is a much more grounded, material concept of labor. I understand the “Labors” series as a nod to everyday work and everyday workers. This series is about labor, whether completed by an artist, a pipefitter, a teacher, a migrant farm laborer, a parent, an insurance claims inspector, or an electrician. The artworks in this series are the literal results of the movements of Maxim’s body: of his arms moving the cudgels or other 3-dimensional components; of his torso shifting to move paint-soaked implements from the floor to the canvas and across from one side to the other; of his legs moving him away from and back to the canvas as he applies the paint; and of his hands attaching the cudgels to the canvas. They are about the choreography of mind and body as Maxim predicts and analyzes the results of the aforementioned movements. The primary body embedded in Maxim’s work, and particularly in the “Labors” series, is the body of the artist performing the labor of art making. Maxim’s lifelong experience with and respect for manual labor, for the real work that people do every day, made the twelve labors of Hercules the ideal subject matter for him. Hercules’ heroism derives in large part from his accomplishment of these physical tasks and that, I believe, is the true source of inspiration for Maxim.

It is telling that the only truly representational artworks in this catalog are the charcoal drawings of the constructed pictures in his “Labors” series. These drawings demonstrate Maxim’s skills as a draftsman, and his impressive ability to create representational artworks when that is his goal. They also show the significance of balancing mind with body in thinking through the physical engagement of the painted structures, before, during and after their creation.

Maxim breaks down the heroism of Hercules to the work of interacting physical forces. On the most basic level, this translates into two cudgels pressed against each other or against some resistant energy outside of the canvas. It also refers to the artist struggling with inert matter and material, spontaneously developing a zen-like series of movements that become or replace artistic or aesthetic decisions. Maxim gives in to the labor of artistic production so that it can become the subject matter and function at an allegorical level for broader concepts of physical effort. It is in this shift, in this giving in, that Maxim asks important questions of the viewer: What is the value of labor? What does “work” finally amount to locally, nationally, and globally? What are the real costs of losing sight of labor’s importance to the growth and stability of any culture?

It is not surprising that Maxim describes his “Labors” series as the beginning of a productive period of exploration and discovery. For Maxim, the series opened doors to new artistic styles and techniques, and inspired him to focus his work on content relating to thoughtful human issues. Taking the time to explore the questions Maxim asks in “The Labors of Hercules” makes the series equally inspiring to this viewer.



Artists from L to R: Modesto Covarrubias, Angie Wilson, Ali Naschke-Messing

Curatorial Essay for exhibition at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, March 10-April 15, 2012

MarinMOCA’s Emerging Artists series features the work of Bay Area artists who do not yet have gallery representation, but whose work stands out both formally and conceptually. The 2012 Emerging Artists exhibition title, a play on the term “Indexical Marker,” refers to 2 key aspects of the work. The artwork is “indexical” in that it points to something else—it directs the viewer’s attention to and often becomes a trace of another occurrence or physical object. Traditional photography, for example, has been referred to in semiotic theory as an indexical marker because a photograph is a sort of record of another moment in which someone or something was in front of a camera, and it serves as a trace of its subject because it is literally produced as a result of the play of light and shadow across that person or thing. “Makers,” the second part of the title, refers to the ways the artists employ craft-based tactics in their artistic practice. To refer to these artists as “makers” acknowledges the historical divide between the creation of so-called “fine” art, and the craft traditions of making objects, of “making do” with everyday materials often degraded by art institutions.

Modesto Covarrubias utilizes knitting in his performance and installation pieces as a way to investigate psychological and emotional connections to physical environments. His knitting performances produce objects that serve as a trace of the actions of the performer, and his installations often engage the decor and design of a room, bringing attention to aspects of the space otherwise unnoticed by the viewer.

Ali Naschke-Messing’s thread-based installations poetically echo existing architectural forms or subtly chart the daily movement of light and shadow across the wall, ceiling, or floor. The daily movement of light and shadow may seem common, but it simultaneously hints at the grand, celestial movements of the planets. Her installations often indicate the everyday, while also hinting at the infinite. Her work is as much about the act of viewing as it is about the intricate form of her installations, as they require a form of patient looking akin to listening to a whisper.

Angie Wilson’s primary medium is used work shirts, physical traces of anonymous laborers, woven into Persian carpet motifs or other craft objects. Wilson’s artwork simultaneously weaves together questions of outsourced craft production, the mass production of the handmade, and the growing importance of re-usable materials.

INDEXICAL MAKERS are artists whose conscientious use of materials encourages us to patiently re-view our immediate physical environment, and to be mindful of the makers behind the seemingly simple, everyday objects within that environment.

-Heather Murray, Curator

Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Agent of Change

Mary Lindheim (L to R): Bottle, Iron Woman, Sun Vase

Mary Tuthill Lindheim (L to R): Bottle, Iron Woman, Sun Vase

Curatorial essay for exhibition at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art: December 10, 2011 – January 15, 2012

Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Agent of Change encourages the viewer to consider the historical and material importance of an individual who created with a true awareness of the impact an artist can make in and out of the art world. Mary Tuthill Lindheim (1912 -2004) integrated her life and artwork in such a way that a simple chronological exhibition layout would fail to capture the inspirational spirit of this incredible Bay Area artist. Therefore, visitors will find the artwork arranged according to the ways Lindheim served as an agent of change. As a fiercely independent woman, as an environmentalist, as an activist for social justice, and as a ceramicist, Lindheim fought against inequality. These four ways in which Lindheim served as an agent of change should be considered lenses through which to view and analyze her work. The four sections of the exhibition overlap in many ways, and the artworks in one section should not be seen as valuable only according to that section’s theme, however, I believe that a consideration of these particular artworks through these particular lenses enriches our understanding of the individual pieces, of the collection of work as a whole, and of Lindheim as an artist.

I, Mary, am a woman of intense and deep feelings.” Mary Tuthill Lindheim’s sculptures of the female figure and motherhood reflect the experiences of a strong, independent woman growing up in a culture suspicious of such characteristics as unfeminine, but in a family that encouraged such characteristics to flourish. At only 10 years old, Lindheim was given permission to travel on horseback with a family friend for 500 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona. Her father, Ernest Tuthill, was an Episcopal minister whose public stances for worker’s rights and against racism inspired Mary, but embarrassed her mother, Laura Tuthill, who regretted marrying, as she put it, “below herself.” Mary married early, at 16 years old, but the marriage lasted only 2 years because, as Mary explained, they were “incompatible sexually.” Mary had many romantic relationships, none lasting more than 7 years, and two, to brothers, ended tragically when Norvin Lindheim died in 1939 following a routine surgery, and Donald Lindheim, whom Mary married in 1941, was killed during military service in World War II. None of her relationships resulted in childbirth, but after staying with a Native American family in New Mexico while on a months long solo camping trip, Mary was asked to take with her a young girl in the family so as to provide her with a good education. Mary did so, and many years later, when the girl, Yvonne Yazzie, was in her 30s, Mary became her legally adoptive mother. This biographical information sheds a different light on the works included in this section, and one might notice that the female figures, such as Iron Woman , Standing Nude, or even the non-objective Green Goddess depict forms in active poses with strong, precise, confident lines, and a notable weight and volume. They are not lacking traditional notions of feminine beauty, but neither are they damsels in distress. Sculptures depicting a maternal relationship, such as Mother and Child, present a nearly non-objective mother serving as a protective shield, cradling the infant form, yet giving it considerable space and freedom. Source, a stone sculpture of another strong female figure, suggests through its title the concept of woman as the source of life, as a productive artist, or perhaps as “Mother Earth.”

There is a flow of silent music in stones . . . Pregnant with vibrations of billions of centuries.” Lindheim maintained a great respect for the natural environment throughout her life, and often settled in locations that allowed her to be surrounded by nature. She understood the smallest stones, pebbles, and shells as providing a spiritual connection from one generation to the next. In addition, she acted on behalf of the environment on a political level, forming the Save the Cove committee in 1959. Lindheim moved to Sausalito in 1952 and within a few years got word that a 36 unit apartment building was planned for the Sausalito waterfront. The Save the Cove committee raised $60,000 to buy the lots in question and prevent the construction from moving forward. She was instrumental in maintaining the character of Marin County that many of us now treasure as current residents. It is important, then, while viewing artworks like Sun Vase or Beach Series #1 to see not only the ways Lindheim literally integrates stones and natural forms into her work, but also to remember that Lindheim’s interest in the environment as an artist was linked directly to a level of activism that produced change in her local community.

Never count the cost of standing up for convictions.” At age 14, Lindheim joined the NAACP and initiated a lifelong fight for social justice. Lindheim met with senators in support of anti-lynching legislation, supported the war effort during World War II, traveled to Sacramento on behalf of veterans’ housing, organized artists against the Vietnam war, and participated in countless other acts of protest against injustice. Lindheim expresses her passion for social justice through her artwork on a decidedly personal level, however, refraining from shocking depictions of lynching or literal representations of Native American genocide. Instead, viewers will find artworks such as Voices of Protest, in which three bird-like figures reach hungrily into the air open-mouthed. Rather than galloping stallions or Greek athletes, Lindheim chooses to depict as voices of protest chirping birds in need of nourishment. She chooses an unassuming group rather than a thunderous single voice or intimidating herd. She seems to understand the importance of protest as necessary no matter one’s position or stature, and encourages her audience to develop a hunger for social justice. Artworks such as Universal Soldier reflect Lindheim’s complicated relationship with the concept of war, having lost a husband to war and been proud of his efforts, but not consistently supportive of war in general. Universal Soldier, made anonymous through abstraction and lacking symbols that might tie the figure to a particular time period, presents a contemplative figure, resting rather than wielding his/her weapon, somewhat unaffected by the bloodied mask pierced by the rod in the soldier’s hand. The title may indicate that the complications of war affect all soldiers, no matter the era, or it may serve as an analogy for the ways we all fight battles.

The potter, if he loves his own work as a creative art, must find his own way.” Lindheim worked in many and various media, but the artworks in this section are all ceramic. This seems fitting for an exhibition entitled “Agent of Change,” as ceramicists not only transform materials like artists working in other media, but they also work as chemists, exploring the effects of heat on different glazes and different types of clay. Lindheim worked with and developed friendships with artists such as Alexander Archipenko and Antonio Prieto, and viewers may recognize the influence of those artists on Lindheim’s ceramic work, but Lindheim was also innovative on her own, developing new techniques and new glazes, including the heavily textured white matte glaze found on Planter. As with any other aspect of her life, Lindheim became an artistic leader in the Bay Area and beyond, serving as chairperson and then president of the Association of San Francisco Potters; teaching at the California Labor School and the California School of Fine Arts; working on the model and layout for the 2nd Sausalito Art Festival, which broke attendance records that year; founding the Designer-Craftsmen of California; serving as 2nd Vice President and Program Chairperson of San Francisco Women Artists; and acting as juror for Marin Society of Artists and the Sausalito Art Festival, among many others. Lindheim was an artist who fought for progressive change within the art world, and who fought on behalf of artists, regardless of the medium. She was an artist and a person deserving of great celebration.

-Heather Murray, Curator

Rusty Scruby’s Haptic Dance


Rusty Scruby, Dock (detail), 2006, mixed media construction, 36 x 96 inches

Essay for catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition Re-Constructed

December 1, 2007 – January 8, 2008 at PanAmerican ArtProjects, Miami

Looking at Rusty Scruby’s work requires a certain performance on the part of the viewer.  It is never enough to look in the ways we might be used to looking.  A strange kind of dance takes place in a gallery featuring Rusty’s photo-sculptures.  We are called by his work to move back and forth, to contemplate the action of vision as such.

Art historian Alois Riegl conceived of the terms “haptic” and “optic” to explain the relationship between artworks and the world around them.  Theorist Laura U. Marks describes Riegl’s Haptic visuality as “a kind of seeing that uses the eye like an organ of touch,” while optic visuality is about “seeing things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms.”¹   The optic indicates a certain separation of viewer and artwork, while haptic is a way of looking “that ‘grabs’ the thing it looks at.”  Rusty’s work initiates a haptic dance, a physical visuality that allows for a unique relationship between viewer and artwork.  It also allows for a unique relationship between viewers as the movements of one viewer to and away from an artwork seem choreographed to weave through the movements of another viewer.  Looking at Rusty’s work is like becoming part of an intricate harmony.

The musical qualities begin at the surface of Rusty’s work, where image and texture, like competing orchestral instruments, maintain a tension that results in an almost pixilated visual effect.  The images never try to be straightforward; they always ask us questions about how we look, why we look, and how looking becomes pleasurable.  There is never one perfect distance from which to examine Rusty’s work because it seems the parts of each work are always at play.  The sides and the front of each artwork (and even the back, if you are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse) elicit wonder and fascination whether you stand close enough to see each piece in the puzzle or far enough away to get the full effect of the composition.

Rhythms, from adagio to allegro, waft across the surface of the work, where seemingly simple palm trees emerge from a calming tropical scene into bold peaks seeking to escape the picture plane.  Complex visual and physical layers, what Rusty calls “frequencies” create a transition from blurred image to crisp reproduction and vice versa.  These frequencies cause a common desert plant or seascape to fragment into parts that compete for your attention, like a foot-stomping performance of dueling banjos.  Rusty’s repertoire is vast and varied; even the facets of his all-white structures invite the kind of experience produced by his photo pieces.  One’s eyes slip and slide across curves and into crevices, examining the association of light and shadow, object and subject, surface and space, artwork and viewer.  Whether or not an image is scattered across one of Rusty’s pieces, what emerges is a relationship between artwork and viewer that is as much physical and analytical as it is optical.  Rusty has been described as an artist, and that is certainly true, but interacting with his work makes clear that he is also the conductor of a modern orchestra, a magician of physics, the leader of a haptic dance.

-Heather Murray

1. Marks, Laura U. “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes.” Framework: The Finnish Art Review 2 (November 2004)

photography unbound: the object between fantasy and evidence


(Artists from left to right: Robert Markovich, Matt Lipps, Mary Younakof, Rusty Scruby)

Curatorial essay for exhibition at Robert V. Fullerton Museum

September 30-December 09, 2006

At least as early as 1858, photography’s role in the West as an indexical marker, as pointing to some objective reality, has been in question. In that year Oscar Rejlander combined approximately 30 negatives to create Two Ways of Life.1 What appears to be a stage set full of bodies is instead a collection of separate images of individuals who did not, in fact, occupy the same space at once. Yet, photography has also functioned in court cases, mug shots, journalism, tourism, and family photo albums as “evidence.” Photographs have served as proof that a crime was committed, a criminal caught, a battle fought, a vacation enjoyed, a first step taken.2 As Roland Barthes put it, “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. In short, the referent adheres.”3 In other words, that to which a photograph refers, whether person, event, place, or thing, was in front of a camera at some point in time in order to show up in that photograph. For this very reason, a photograph is believed to function as evidence. The referent “adheres” to such an extent, in fact, that looking at a photograph can result in the exclamation “What a beautiful sunset!” instead of “What a beautiful photograph of a sunset!” Viewers of photography can get lost easily in the real-ness of the image, forgetting the subjective nature of photography as a choice made by a photographer to frame and interpret a scene, not to mention the possibilities afforded by digital technology. There is a sense that even as we recognize the potential for photographic manipulation we believe in the camera’s ability to capture a section of the visible world.

The work in p h o t o g r a p h y u n b o u n d literalizes, makes physical this precarious position occupied by photography. Robert Markovich, Mary Younakof, Matt Lipps, and Rusty Scruby manipulate photo-based images so that the material on which the image appears contributes as much to the power and meaning of their work as the photographed image itself. The artists highlight the tension between the objective and subjective elements of the photograph. The power of the work in this exhibition comes from the effects on the photographic referent of foregrounding the material, object-form of the photograph. The referent is unbound. It is not attached seamlessly to the photo paper, allowing the viewer to see through the paper and deep into the image. However mesmerizing the image might be, the material refuses to disappear behind the referent. These artists take advantage of the ability of photography to fool our eyes, to hinge between constructed fantasy and evidence, all the while preventing us from forgetting its material existence as a constructed object.

Robert Markovich accomplishes this by decontextualizing the California sky. These slices of firmament appear without an identifiable figure or horizon line, without a way to establish a sense of scale, and become enormous, anonymous color fields, imitating the smooth plane of the photographic paper and the gallery walls. The ambiguous identity of the referent and its abstract appearance make it difficult to get lost in the photograph; the viewer is invited to consider the relationship of the image to the material surface. The wall space around the photographs participates actively in the viewers’ experience of the artwork. Furthermore, the symbolism of the sky is also “flattened.” The grand marvel of the sky as representative of an afterlife, of hope and wonder, of natural disaster and fear, is defamiliarized and turned into a series of color bands teetering between two and three dimensions. What in much of the history of photography has served as a powerful allegorical referent has become in Markovich’s work ambivalent layers of color. The image of the sky is now an object.

Mary Younakof takes on the history of portraiture, traditionally featuring royalty, clergymen, and celebrities, but instead chooses dolls as her subject—dolls with alabaster skin, glass eyes, and clothing reminiscent of the mid-late 1800s. Younakof distorts the images, with sections repeated and bent out subtly into the viewer’s space. Such visual effects play on our awkward relationship with dolls—they often represent and comfort us, but they also haunt us as the stuff of nightmares. These particular dolls not only represent a child’s toy (commonly associated with girls), but also modernism and mainstream Victorian values. The distorted representation of such particular types of dolls suggests the complexity of an era associated with the technological advancements and social horrors of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and the so-called “Manifest Destiny” of the United States. Although Younakof seems to parody and question the tradition of painted portraits from the Renaissance into the 1800s, she also makes clear the influence of it on her work, whose monumental scale acknowledges its importance to western culture. This tension between canon and kitsche, fine art and craft constitutes a feminist intervention into the hallowed halls of portraiture.

Rusty Scruby cuts the photo paper into tiny pieces and reassembles it into a fragmented puzzle whose undulating and textured surface attracts the viewers’ attention before they can identify the image. The subject matter disappears, reappears, and becomes animated as a result of the spontaneous visual twists and turns, but one cannot ignore the obsessive quality of the construction. Scruby often uses photographs taken during his childhood as the source of his work, and the effects of the deconstruction, fragmentation, and reconstruction of the photographic paper leads to a particularly intriguing meditation on memory and, by association, history. The photographs, often depicting posed, planned (if only moments before) shots, are already constructed to some extent, but Scruby’s meticulous process emphasizes the slippery hold we have on memory. Past moments are always subjective and always tainted by the ways we want to understand them. Memory is framed by desire. Importantly, however, humans can remember, even if that memory is incomplete or skewed. We can and do write history; we can strive to bring justice to that history even as we work only with fragments.

Matt Lipps revamps the nude into a surreal male figure, with body parts unexpectedly melding and protruding. He appropriates magazine images and collages them onto cardboard stands, making reference to journalism, pornography, and fashion—the blur of bodies generated when flipping through the pages of a periodical. Lipps’ installation, Untitled (Appetite), is lit dramatically to cast shadows against a paper screen and set up to encourage the viewer to walk around the individually constructed figures. The photographic play of light and dark surrounds the figures that seem like a continuously morphing army of queer soldiers, marching to the beat of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” The objectified bodies of men produced for scopophilic pleasure are announced more decidedly as manufactured objects. In some of Lipps’ pieces, the cardboard stands consist of several layers. A clear view of the male body on one layer is interrupted by another layer containing intricate, carved silhouettes of galloping stallions or the fragile forms of flowers taken from a photography manual. The more blatant sculptural construction of Lipps’ work emphasizes the construction of sexual desire in traditional photographic images of male bodies.

Photography that is “unbound” finds ways to alert us to photography’s constructed nature without denying us the visual pleasure provided by the workings of a camera. These artists are careful in their handling of subject matter and material so as not to mute either photographic voice. As a result of such delicate balancing, the work in p h o t o g r a p h y u n b o u n d has the effect of a funhouse mirror—you recognize the distortion, but you still see yourself in the image.

–Heather Murray, curator

1. I am using the George Eastman House catalog record for the date and title of Rejlander’s composite print.

2. I realize this process is never simple and that the interpretation of a photograph is never unbiased. My point here is that photographs have been used in these ways, but not that such uses are innocent.

3. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981: 6.