SPEAKING IN TONGUES:
Addressing Questions of Identity in the University Art Collections
by Susan Hoffa
Step into the trappings of another’s identity and you may reveal a great deal about yourself. One way to challenge the concept of identity and preconceived cultural construct is to speak with the visual vocabulary of another. This kind of crossover gesture, spoken in the vernacular of inclusion and exclusion, is particularly well-represented in the University’s art collections. Works by Kara Walker, Gayle Johnson, and Yasumasa Morimura illustrate the value of taking on roles. Through seemingly familiar images these artists are able to explore the stereotypes, issues, and emotions which define us as a whole in society. And like the popular children’s game, they ask you to discover “what’s wrong with this picture.”
Kara Walker has said that to be rendered black is to become half-invisible. Within her work silhouetted figures have the freedom to assume an alternate identity, an anonymity which enables them to play out powerful roles. Drawing from both slave narratives and kitschy romance novels, Walker sets the stage for a psychodrama in the exquisitely genteel language of plantation parlor games.
Silhouette, a traditional folk art, reached the height of its popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A pleasant diversion for ladies sequestered in their sitting rooms, silhouette has traditionally been considered a craft. In Freedom: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, Walker has revived a marginalized art to reveal the surreptitious history of race in America.
Freedom is the story of an emancipated slave named N_. Following the dispersal of her master’s property she sets sail for Liberia, a land which is described as sounding “remotely like a disease or a bit of genitalia.” Packed into the cargo hold, N_ muses about a land where her brown skin means nothing, dreams of making love to her former master, and formulates a plan for racial harmony.
N_ preaches to her shipmates that this emancipation is a chance to be reborn as a society. Walker illustrates the soliloquy with a silhouette of N_, pipe in mouth, giving birth under a tree to a line of children whose exaggerated racial characteristics match her own. The reader is invited to pull a tab which moves the children in and out of her womb. This parade marches onto the final page of the tale, where N_’s weary traveling companions ignore the sermon and contemplate eating her.
The simplicity of form serves to highlight the reductive effect of the antebellum stereotypes embodied by Walker’s silhouettes. Each character is reduced to an outline, clear-cut and empty. Ironically, these sharply delineated figures set in motion a tale with ambiguous protagonists. There are no sides, good or evil, no explicit condemnation: this is every stereotype for itself.
The figures themselves are charming, seemingly whimsical players in an all-American morality play. There is an elegance to the stark black-and-white silhouettes, yet the paper cutouts are deceptive in their beauty: the accessibility of the format allows Walker to address serio-comic undercurrents of American history to the fullest extent. Viewers are charmed just long enough to have the rug pulled out from under them in the most shocking way. This brutal bait-and-switch is at the core of Walker’s mission to address the unspoken and empower the forgotten.
Walker’s black-and-white tableaux are bold and startling in their examination of race relations in America. Other artists have taken a more subtle approach to this kind of social scrutiny, allowing the viewer to gain the impression of something more humble or familiar. Gayle Johnson’s Facts and Fictions Series utilizes the visual vernacular of “pulp fiction”-style paperback novel covers. Her reassessment of this seemingly superficial art form highlights the powerful stereotypes and emotions inherent in their kitschy titles and overwrought cover art.
It is evident from the carefully delineated trompe l’oeil creases and dog-eared corners that these images are meant to appear frequently handled and thoughtfully rendered. Seemingly no detail has been spared, down to the prices and the shop-worn edges. Every brushstroke betrays the consideration given to their creation. These deceptively faithful re-creations portray nameless women defined by the titles over their heads. The sad stare of the ingenue and the knowing glance of the woman who’s “been around” are framed and priced accordingly. The evocative titles, The Lonely Women and These Items of Desire, produce a multitude of questions and associations. Are these the “bad girls” we were warned about?
The kind of vintage paperback novels that Johnson references had their heyday from the late 1930s through the early 1960s. They were commercial products churned out with an appropriate emphasis on packaging. The authors of these tales often were not responsible for their titles and certainly had no control over the cover art by which their books would be judged. These editorial decisions were made to appeal immediately to the reader’s first glance. In this sense they are an entity almost separate from the novel itself.
Marketed as cautionary tales and sociological studies, these serials were often little more than a salacious collective glare. In this capacity the human characters can be reduced to something as cheap and worn as the paperback covers. The images devised for these covers reflected the “types” that most interested literary voyeurs. In truth, these paperbacks provided an opportunity to capitalize on prevalent fears and attitudes toward sex and women. Scenes of violence with the appropriate female prey, ” girls, lonely types, rebels, and other deviants from society were often the most saleable subjects. It seems to be more than coincidental that women were being so prominently displayed as victims, ingenues, and captives just as they sought equality in the real world. In fact, these images were so interchangeable, their characters so predictable, that several books might be published with the same cover art. But on closer examination, These Items of Desire and The Lonely Women are different. Isolated from their original function, these tableaux are surprisingly more potent and poignant. In Gayle Johnson’s depiction, the “types” stare back.
Johnson manages to restore humanity to the commodified roles of pulp fiction heroines. This kind of faithful yet sensitive transformation only serves to reinforce the impact of the original. Other re-creations address the original by less-faithful means. Rather than revealing the nameless person behind the stereotype, Yasumasa Morimura offers himself up for the role.
Morimura is the primary actor, director, and producer of his pictures, but the scripts have already been written by us. Displaying a clear understanding of the power of recycled images, Morimura inserts himself into the roles of Western culture and stares out from them with Japanese sensibilities. In addition to race, Morimura also questions gender identity festooning himself in the literal and social trappings of Marilyn Monroe and other actresses.
Ambiguous Beauty, Morimura’s paper construction, is the kind of strange hybrid form characteristic of his work. The fan, a quintessentially Asian art form, has been married to a decidedly Western photograph. What at first appears to be a familiar portrait of Marilyn Monroe is in fact Morimura himself. A brassy blond wig and unmistakably fake breasts only highlight his Japanese facial features and his gender. His confident stare only intensifies the awkward nature of the scene. He is asking you to consider his interpretation, and he is daring you to object to it.
Marilyn Monroe is not the first cultural icon Morimura has inhabited. He has already addressed five hundred years of Western art and culture, playing roles from the Mona Lisa to Michael Jackson. He has dissected the concepts of beauty and glamour, artistic creation and originality, and blurred the distinctions between the visual arts and theater.
Every photograph that Morimura presents has been produced in the manner of a Hollywood blockbuster. Sets are built, makeup and costume personnel are consulted, camera angles are considered. The subjects he chooses—great paintings from coffee table tomes and women of the Silver Screen—are icons from the common culture that we all experience second-hand. In his Actress series, the artist has chosen to adopt the defining role of an actress’ career. Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch are all explored in a spirit of both parody and reverence. Each piece is a study in the difference between seeing and being seen. Morimura recreates this packaging, developed to make desirable objects veritable “eye candy” for the viewer, and then perceptively returns that gaze.
In Morimura’s work there is a constant tension between the impulses of assimilation and appropriation, submission and subversion. This disruption of the norm, the sheer absurdity of a middle-aged Japanese man in the pose and (un)dress of a twenty-year-old Hollywood sex goddess, is only the first level on which Morimura addresses us. These transformations are so involved that they border on self-obliteration, a way to comment from the inside. By applying an Eastern face to the Western goddess, Morimura is not only displaying his own submersion but the assimilation of the entire world by a Western, particularly American, culture machine.
A simple change of perspective reveals the unseen aspects of the familiar and the unspoken within the popular. Kara Walker, Gayle Johnson and Yasumasa Morimura explore the languages spoken by seemingly undistinguished cultural ephemera. The end product of all this role-playing is an insightful, disturbing, and ultimately cathartic art.