Whiteness: A Wayward Construction
Whiteness, A Wayward Construction is a group exhibition of contemporary artists who explore the identity politics and cultural study of whiteness in the United States, the first exhibition of its kind in an American museum. The exhibition includes seventy-eight works of paintings, drawings, photography, and installations by twenty-eight artists.
The exhibition is more about the image of whiteness in the public imagination and in contemporary art, and less an analysis of particular historical developments. It approaches whiteness as being about an ideology of power. The term wayward in the exhibition title is meant to suggest a double-meaning: the wayward, or capricious, power that whiteness confers and also the actual ungovernableness and unpredictability that will deter any real attempt to pin a singular, overarching identity on an individual. The ultimate goal of this cultural study and of this exhibition is to simply recognize the United States as a multicultural nation, where whites, as cultural theorist Lucy Lippard writes, "will be encouraged to see themselves as simply another "Other."
Almost all of the artworks selected for the exhibition were created between 1990 and the present. This period coincides with a particular development in the contemporary art world as artists and critics responded to the emergence of intellectual movements such as poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and multiculturalism, from which the cultural study of whiteness arose in the 1990s. Most fittingly, the majority of the artists in the exhibition are based in California, a state poised to cross the threshold into being a white-minority society.
The exhibition is subdivided into three overlapping categories that move from the general to the specific and are meant to suggest a movement from unawareness, to reflection, to problematizing the white person as a racial subject.
The first section, "White Out," looks at some of the broader issues that underlie the representation of whiteness, particularly the idea of white people not seeing themselves as having a racial identity. Artworks in this section explore how whiteness develops into a seemingly unacknowledged yet overarching and dominant value system. This is exemplified by the association of the color white with purity, Manifest Destiny as justification for geographical expansion, and present-day consumerism as a continuation of this "destiny."
In this section, many artists find that their cure for racism is to review and revise history by taking into account significant events or details that were marginalized earlier. In State Birds of the Slave States (After J. J. Audubon) (2001), Peter Edlund mimics nineteenth-century painting techniques to point out the inherent contradictions of American Romantic paintings such as the works of the Hudson River School when viewed in the context of the political realities of the time. There is an additional irony to Edlund's display of state birds, since Audubon was of mixed race, passing as white during the time of slavery.
The second section-"Mirror, Mirror . . ."-explores the qualities of an outward appearance that identifies one as white and thus confers privileges. When the U.S. gave whiteness an actual legal status, determining whether one was a slave or free, "whiteness" became more a property value than a privileged identity. The artists represented in this section consider whiteness when deployed as a tangled relationship between identity, status, and property such as the white-collar work environment, hierarchies within the art world, the Ku Klux Klan, Christianity, the concept of "white trash," and historical associations of racism with the American South
In this section, working with the usually innocuous museum admission tags, Daniel Joseph Martinez created a special set for the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which were distributed at random to museum visitors. Each tag contains one or two words that together form the sentence "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." For visitors moving around the museum, not only was there the potential for unsettling juxtapositions (a white person wearing a tag reading "white" standing next to a nonwhite person wearing the same tag), but also for careful observation and a certain amount of thought that required the visitor to reconstruct the statement.
GRAYING OF WHITENESS
The third, "Graying of Whiteness," delves into the complex relationship between private and public personas, such as the complicated issues that arise when discussing race relations in relationship to gender--white women and black women--and sexuality--lesbian versus being heterosexual. Other artists explore being designated as white, though they view themselves differently, and the subsequent realization that they have the choice to pass for white or for black, knowing that certain disadvantages and privileges will be dispensed once their decision is announced. Further, this circumstance then reveals implicitly this nation's record of mixed ancestry, which then complicates and requires a redefinition of whiteness that may be attached to skin color.
Artists in this last section mischievously suggest the possibility of a complicit alliance between victim and victimizer as a way to shed light on a romanticization of protest. Several explore the fluctuating definition of white skin and its accompanying attributes, such as blue eyes, suggesting that once our identity is redefined one must reconsider what it means to be white. Lezley Saar's installation Mulatto Nation (2003) is a gift shop that sells souvenirs to tourists visiting this fictional nation. Shoppers can purchase bumper stickers; flags; mugs; and porcelain plates with portraits of contemporary mulattos such as Mariah Cary, Sinbad, Colin Powell, the Rock, and others. If you were of mixed race, with a skin the color that allowed you to identity as either black or white, which would you choose?
ARTISTS IN THE EXHIBITION
Los Anthropolocos/Richard A. Lou and Robert J. Sanchez, Kavin Buck, James Casebere, Emilio Cueto, Kim Dingle, Peter Edlund, John Feodorov, Kelsey Fernkopf, Mark Steven Greenfield, Joseph Havel, Mike Kelley, Byron Kim, Clifford Lecuyer, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Myrella Moses and Eric Mondriaan, Tim Oberst, Adrian Piper, Ernesto Pujol, Erika Rothenberg, Kammy Roulner, Lezley Saar, Andres Serrano, Richard Shelton, Kyungmi Shin, Gary Simmons, Travis Somerville, Kara Walker, and Millie Wilson.
A cloth-bound catalogue with 156 pages, 58 illustrations, and four essays accompanies the exhibition. The "White Out" section is introduced by David R. Roediger is Babcock Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (2002), among others. The "Mirror, Mirror…" section is introduced by Amelia Jones, Professor of Art History at University of California, Riverside. She has written numerous articles in anthologies and journals and has organized exhibitions, including Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Art Museum (1996), for which she also edited and contributed to a catalogue by the same title. The "Graying of Whiteness" section is introduced by Ken Gonzales-Day, associate professor of art at Scripps College, Claremont, California. Recent articles and reviews have appeared in Art Issues; Art Journal; Art Papers; ARTpress; and Art & Text. He is currently working on a book on the history of lynching in California.
Tyler Stallings, the exhibition curator, also organized Cyborg Manifesto, or the Joy of Artifice (2001); Sandow Birk's "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of California" (2000) for Laguna Art Museum. He has also organized Rubén Ortiz Torres: Desmothernismo (1998, traveled); and Kara Walker: African't (1997); among others. He is also the co-editor of the anthology, Uncontrollable Bodies: Testimonies of Identity and Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994). SOURCE