Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Racist Art

Craig Norton is white. That's the answer to the million dollar question.

Whether they ask or not, I would guess that most people who visit the
White Flag Projects gallery (flag color here unrelated to Craig and his show) are urgently compelled to identify the artist.
Craig would prefer to live in a society where people no longer require this answer or pose slightly more probing questions like, Is he Jewish? and Is he gay?

Craig mentioned attending a church, so I don’t think he’s Jewish and I did meet his wife and their baby. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that information, but my experience of One Hundred Twenty Seven Racists Drawings would be stifled without the knowledge that the artist is white.

To the left of the entrance, three members of the Ku Klux Klan stand over a tormented black family as a house and two crosses burn in the background.

On the east wall, a black man is being sold at auction, a white girl appears to glare at a stunned black face and a black child hides behind his father.

Ahead, in the largest gathering, figures desegregate a school, threaten children with placards and clubs, restrain police dogs and scream out of madness.

All of these images seem merciful in contrast with the west wall’s presentation. Here are the images of lynching.

The festivity and approval of the mob denies the humanity of newly dead faces, but the deeper horror is in the text. Narratives penciled directly on the wall, outlined in speech bubbles detail methods of murder that stick to the psyche longer than a bloated face and a broken neck.

Craig inserted the first person into each of the texts and attached them to his figures, but cites books such as Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America as their source.

Maybe my need to know that Craig is white signifies a dysfunction in my analytical abilities. Once this basic information is revealed, the door opens for conclusions that arrive intact.

For instance—Craig seeks to reconcile his white male guilt as he feels complicit in these acts; Craig is capable of addressing overt racial violence, but shies from racism in its systemic form, for which he is culpable; Craig wants me, a white man, to acknowledge my shame.

So, what if I couldn’t know that Craig is white?

The craft is remarkable. Each photo-like face was rendered with a Bic pen. The bodies were collaged from wallpaper samples. The texts reflect documented narratives. The characters and their expressions were inspired by photographs that are, in some cases, less than fifty years old, and recent headlines deny that these histories have been resolved.

Before he developed this exhibition, Craig had created work addressing genocide in ten distinct historical contexts. He had made oil paintings depicting a St. Louis community in its struggle to cope with seven murders in one summer on Etzel Avenue. Also, no quantitative figures related to the number of black people killed in the American South over the last two centuries appear in the current show because Craig won’t allow statistical comparisons between one human tragedy and another.

“This awful history that has happened to another human being has happened,” Craig said during his artist’s talk yesterday evening. “I would hope that as a human being, I would step up and say, ‘This is happening and this is an injustice.’”

When Craig is confronted with the varied responses that his work inspires, he is inclined to share a personal story, rather than reach for abstraction. He told the small audience that had gathered for his lecture (three out of about twenty being African-American) an anecdote about overcoming his own ignorance.

One time Craig was riding the subway in New York City and noticed a man of Middle Eastern descent dressed in a long robe and a turban. A few minutes later, the man removed his turban, which Craig found surprising.

“I didn’t know you guys could do that,” Craig said.

The man laughed and they continued talking until they parted ways at a street-level intersection. Craig seemed to be saying that sincere inquiry could strike down prejudice at its foundation.

Generosity and open-heartedness are the other weapons in Craig’s arsenal. He talked about presenting a cake to a young man in his neighborhood who was celebrating his nineteenth birthday, bringing the teenager to tears. Craig also said that young people have knocked on his front door, asking for a place to stay and though Craig didn’t feel he could invite these individuals into his family’s home, he let them sleep in his car.

I asked Craig why he labeled his drawings racist in the title of his show. Craig said he wanted the question, Is he racist? to draw people to the work.

“People didn’t know,” he said, “but I was hoping that when they would come, they would look at it and realize that this is about history, hopefully forming a dialogue about things that people didn’t know about.”

An element of the work that no viewer knew about, until an informed audience member mentioned it, is what Craig has started writing on the back of each figure.

“After I complete the figure, I have a little process,” Craig said. “I don’t know if it’s an [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] process, but it’s a process. What I do is, first of all, thank God for the opportunity and the talent to do the work. Then I sign my name. I do a signature and then a print. I sign the time that it’s finished, but then what I’ll do is write down what I did that day. I write about what my daughter and I did or my wife and I. I don’t really know why I started doing that.”

As difficult as Craig’s work is to look at and as complicated as a reading of these images becomes with the knowledge that Craig is white, I appreciate his willingness to address these issues and histories directly, even though he doesn’t seem fully reconciled with the implications.

By the end of his talk, Craig hadn’t resolved all of my doubts about his role as the transmitter of these narratives, but he had presented an incredibly powerful body of work and stood in front of a microphone stand for an hour, enabling a dialogue.

I still need to know that Craig is white because, without that information, I wouldn't have a clear view of his vulnerability or his courage.

One Hundred Twenty Seven Racist Drawings will be on display at White Flag Projects until November 10th.


katie brad said...

Wow, what powerful artwork. It is difficult to digest but reveals the importance of addressing our histories as a way to move forward. On an aesthetic level, I find the mixed media aspect to be very engaging. I like how the work has a direct relationship with the space, having figures cut out, writing on the wall...

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