Throughout America's racially fraught history, images of stereotypes have been so seared into our collective minds that one picture can paint a thousand insidious, durable words.
It takes some mighty powerful pictures to forever wrench the existing ones from our visual memory. As daunting as that may seem, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art has found just the two artists for the job.
On view concurrently, two exhibitions both take on the topic to bracing effect. And they manage to do so in strikingly divergent approaches, which both stand apart and come together to demonstrate just how much there is debunk about the pervasive assumptions still writ large in contemporary American culture.
Katrina Andry's "Over There and Here is Me and Me" takes up the northern gallery space, and Colin Quashie's "Linked" sets up in the southern room. The shows both run through Dec. 7.
A wall between the two exhibitions mounts a work by each artist, providing a sign post directing patrons to the two shows. I first veered left to Andry's exhibition, which is comprised of previous and new works, as well as an installation created explicitly for this show.
The New Orleans artist's work, which is created mainly from color-reduction wood cuts on archival digital prints, draws you in with a colorful, folk-infused charge that is often framed by quilt-like patches of leopard, West African patterns and other pleasing decorative elements.
That's where she gets you. Once engaged in the curious swirl of color and caricature, you face down the ugly truth at play in each scene.
Take, for instance, "Mammy Complex: Unfit Mommies Make for Fit Nannies, 2011." In it, a white woman holding a briefcase kisses a baby in the arms of a nanny, who is also represented in Caucasian tones, but for a brown face staring blankly our way.
The thrust is the dichotomy of the ongoing characterization of black women as poor mothers, which runs counter to the predominance of their employment as nannies for white families.
In Andry's new "Sirens of Decay" series, which was created for the exhibition, she employs similar techniques to feature a succession of black women as ancient temptresses luring men astray. For example, "Fabricated Satyr's Distracted Desires, 2019" portrays a dark-skinned mother, torso looming from a nest and face sporting an unsettling smile with a forked tongue, all while she nurses a satyr baby.
For the exhibition, Andry also created an installation of a large-scale panorama of Charleston's East Side, which allows patrons a chance to wander a street where derelict buildings abut grand homes, where African American historical markers punctuate a gentrifying background. Throughout, mirrored profiles offer passersby a chance to view themselves in the setting — a pointed proposition in the face of the neighborhood's escalating tensions.
In the adjoining room, Colin Quashie's "Linked" Series is no less arresting, though the Charleston-based artist's means of radically recasting racist tropes deploys marked aesthetic restraint and brilliantly whittled, razor-sharp wit.
As clean and spare as an iPhone ad, the show metes out ghosted black-and-white photographs perfectly aligned on white walls. Like boxed-in apparitions, some placidly capture bygone scenes — jazz greats, celebrated athletes, old-timey military portraits — while others share the likes of George Washington and religious imagery.
Then, that's where this artist gets you. In each, he then digitally manipulates that photograph, ingeniously overlays another far-from-tidy image, and one deftly-placed object utterly recasts the image in startling fashion, adding a wordplay to the work's name to bring it home.
In "Gabriel," Louis Armstrong's beloved trumpet is overlaid with slave shackles. "Smile" shows an iconic shot of George Washington, with his smile doctored by a set of false teeth representing those he once wore, which were made in part from the teeth of slaves.
One after another reveals the racially tainted nature of just about every icon in our country — Jackie Robinson, sliding home, ankle encumbered with ball and chain in "Steal Away Home," Martin Luther King Jr., lapel affixed with a regulatory brass slave tag that was worn by Charleston slaves.
I will never unsee the works of both artists. They represent remarkable, important re-appropriations of visual and social perceptions that demand redress in our national psyche. You would do well to not unsee them, too.