Ken Gonzales-Day at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Ken Gonzales-Day’s recent show, “Profiled | Hang Trees | Portraits,” at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles is deeply rich and intellectually challenging. A well-established artist and researcher, Gonzales-Day challenges his viewers and the way in which we as a country remember.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Run Up, 2004-12, LightJet print on aluminum, 60 x 75 in. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
The gallery is comprised of two rooms that are joined by a small hallway, yet the space still feels intimate. The nature of the work plays on this feeling and as a viewer, you do not just bear witness to the histories that Gonzales-Day recalls, you feel complicit in them as well. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Ken Gonzales-Day | Portraits installation at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In this show, the gallery combined three of the artist’s ongoing series, as indicated by the trio of titles “Profiled | Hang Trees | Portraits.” In the photos displayed from Hang Trees, he photographs trees that were once used for lynching in California. Directly across from these trees is the Portrait series, displaying portraits of three Latino men, whose age and ethnicity match that of the men who were lynched from the trees facing them. Representing a part of American history that most Americans are often quick to forget (due to a complex layer of reasons: cultural amnesia, a lack of ownership, shame, sadness, anger, and also the tendency to bury history), these trees bore witness to hate crimes, torture, and corporal punishment.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Hang Tree installation at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In these photographs, Gonzales-Day presents large trees with twisted roots, interwoven branches, and thick, established trunks, all indicating their age and wisdom of the years. Large landscape photography is his medium, yet there is something palpable and weighted in these landscapes, leaving the viewer feeling empty, alone, and heavy. His photos capture scenes of stillness, echoing the history held in these remote places. The land holds the history—just as on the coasts of Normandy and Peleliu. Something about the beauty of a place is juxtaposed quietly and undermined by the atrocities and horror that once occurred there.
Ken Gonzales-Day | The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), 2008, Phantom Sightings, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 10 x 14 x 30 feet (Erased Lynching series is visible on far wall). Courtesy of Ken Gonzales-Day.
In his installation The Wonder Gaze at LACMA’s Phantom Sightings in 2008, Gonzales-Day positioned viewers in a mirrored room, surrounded by photographs of onlookers viewing a lynching. He digitally erased the actual lynching, so the crowd surrounds the viewer, looking to something we know is there, but is missing. Some have argued that by removing the images of the actual lynched subject, that Gonzales-Day is in a sense dumbing down the narrative, and covering up the history all over again by not showing the violence done to the lynched “criminals” or “victims” (depending how you see it). I would argue however, that in these places, you can’t write over the history or erase it, because even in the erasure of the lynching itself, you can sense and feel the history—it is in the dirt, the trunk of those hallowed trees, and the roots in the ground. And it is also in the blood on our hands.
At LACMA, viewers walking through the exhibit literally became part of the lynch mob. He shifted the subject of these original postcards and photos so that the spectacle in question moved from the person being lynched to the crowd watching the lynching. The viewer is then part of this spectacle, complicit in the killing, in the hate, and in the very act of watching. And as such, the viewer also dons an inferred mask of whiteness, viewing, justifying, and even celebrating these lynchings.
As in The Wonder Gaze and Hang Trees (as well as most of Gonzales-Day’s works), we are looking on actively and we are part of the history. His work imitates the forgetting or cultural amnesia that has occurred historically by showing and physically documenting that erasure itself. By placing us in the midst of these histories, we are forced to remember them and find our role in them, whether onlooker, lyncher, or lynchee.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Untitled (Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, Bust of Ann Buchan Robinson, Museum of City of New York; Joseph Nollekensm Venus, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Malvina Hoffman, Japanese Woman , The Field Museum, Chicago; Malvina Hoffman, Eskimo Woman ), The Field Museum, Chicago) 2009-2011. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In the other room, Gonzales-Day’s photographs from his Profiled series tell a different story, though they explore a similar underlying theme: whiteness and its construction. Photographs from large, established and iconic museums display busts, statues, and sculptures of human heads that feel and look real.
As the profiles of statues are paired together in different photographs, Gonzales-Day establishes certain juxtapositions to display racial constructions over time. Sculptures gaze at one another and interact with each other in critical and even confrontational ways.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Untitled (Malvina Hoffman Collection, [top:left to right] Mayan Man ; South African Bushwoman ; Asparoke Indian Man ; Ubangi Woman ; [bottom: left to right] Sudan Woman ; Padaung Woman ; Tibetan Merchant [336941A]; Zulu Woman ; Lapp Man , The Field Museum, Chicago, IL), 2009-2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
On another wall, photographs document museum sculptural archives and the very process of collecting. Knowing the history of Enlightenment pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy and craniology (used to produce empirical racial categorizations), one can see that these museum collections house more than just art and instead house physical remnants that weighed into both documenting and establishing the divide between whiteness and “other.” These sculptures were made by European and American artists to help scientists research different physical features of people of non-European decent. These studies were used to establish theories about how physical traits dictate other traits such as intelligence, capability, and social ranking. And they were also used to justify certain violent histories, both here in the U.S. and abroad–colonization at large, slavery, forced conversions and missionary endeavors, westward expansion and the Indian Removal Act, etc.
Early anthropological photography depicting measurement devices and graph backdrops used to measure and document human proportions.
In his photographs, these inanimate subjects wear museum tags around their necks. And the space Gonzales-Day creates in this room is completely eerie. The busts look so similar to the kinds of anthropological photographs used for the same means and ends that they literally look at once life-like and totally dehumanized, all at once. There is a meta-narrative that runs deeply through this back room, as these are photographs depicting sculptures, which were sculpted from photographs and sketchbooks, which were originally sketched from living, breathing people. There is a creepy feeling, knowing that the people inspiring these images were actually itemized, tagged, and categorized in the very same way as the art object itself. It is the definition of objectification, quite literally, and Gonzlaes-Day brings this history back to life in a compelling and haunting way.
Ken Gonzales-Day, Untitled (buste de Matua Tawai, natif de Cororareka, ile Ikanamawi, Nouvelle Zelande, MNHN-HA-886-1, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, 2010-2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In some ways, I see all three of his series as memorials. They are memorials so that we don’t forget—so that we don’t forget this history of racial classification and subjugation, and so that we don’t forget the legacy of whiteness which we have inherited and in which we all navigate by the day (whether knowingly or not). But they are also memorials to the people depicted (as in Profiled) and not depicted (as in Hang Trees).
Ken Gonzales-Day | Untitled (buste d’un Indien du Mexique, MNHN-HA-1970-50-100, National Museum of Natural History, Paris), 2011-2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s article “Check Your Baggage: Resisting Whiteness in Art History,” she says, “art history’s investment in the cultural production of national identity is a critical issue…To understand how whiteness functions in the history of museum display and in art-historical practice is key to shaping the way future generations will be taught and employed…We must expose the workings of racialized categories that determine who is excluded, underserved, and misrepresented.”
Ken Gonzales-Day | Untitled (Malvina Hoffman Collection, Kashmiri Man [Prakash Haksar], , The Field Museum, Chicago, IL, 2009-2012. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
Gonzales-Day’s work exposes these categories, tearing back multiple and complex layers. And he does so by both using and challenging the very museum itself (an institution with roots in the colonial endeavor). Yet he also does so in the contemporary space of the gallery, which while tied to the museum, is a distinct space outside its legacy.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Untitled (Malvina Hoffman, Barefoot Man , The Field Museum, Chicago and Jean-Jacques-Francois Saly, Faun Holding Goat, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), 2009-12. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
I teach a class called “History of African, Oceanic, and Native American Art” (a large byproduct of the 80’s call to be culturally sensitive in breaking up “non-Western” surveys, yet still grouping a large amount of unrelated regions, people, and art together), and during my students’ recent final, I asked them, “what does it look like to speak back to history?” Any one of Gonzales-Day’s many images answer this question with a quiet, but heavy force.
Ken Gonzales-Day | With none but the omni-present stars to witness, 2004-12 LightJet print on aluminum, 36 x 46 in. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
In all of his series, Gonzales-Day opens and complicates the avenues for remembering. What do we as individuals choose to remember or forget? And what do we as a state, nation, or culture choose to remember or forget? Certain histories, stories, and memories are privileged while others are not. In Maurice Berger’s recent review Lynchings in the West: Erased from History and Photos, Berger noted that his work, “makes us think where our ancestors — or our own bodies — might belong: as a victim dangling above or a perpetrator grinning below.” And these are the revelations that are hard to swallow—no matter where you stand—but they are important to process, to re-member, and to re-memorialize.
Ken Gonzales-Day | Nightfall I, 2007-12, LightJet print on aluminum, 36 x 46 in.Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
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- "Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham," Art Gallery, U of MD: Jan. 30 - Apr. 27, 2013
"Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art," Smithsonian Institution – AAM: Oct. 25, 2013
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.