By JONATHAN GOODMAN January 10, 2023
“Inheritance, Remembrance, Resilience,” a show of three women artists investigating the contact between private and public memory, is a probing photographic show offering highly personal black-and-white and color images addressing the lives of regularly displaced and marginal people. Presented at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY Old Westbury, the show is deeply personal, not so much with the scars of contemporary life, but with the residue of historical events informing the lives of the artists and their friends. Photography is very good at this: its specificity aids historical record and presents a reality that travels from the past to the present. The three artists in this show come from different backgrounds, but their purpose is close to exactly similar: the emotional effects, the damage especially, of history, sometimes from long ago, on the way we think and act now.
Eileen Claveloux, now residing in Massachusetts after growing up in New Jersey, uses family portraits, often shadow figures who are descendants of the Armenian genocide survivors. Her methods are a way of re-presenting the aura of the terrible damage done–a truth still denied by the Turkish government. In the very strong, four-part, black-and-white portrait Titled Portrait No. 6: Yvette (2014), a woman in early middle age, with tousled dark hair and wearing a dark shirt, looks at her audience with a hint of a smile. But the smile, like her penetrating gaze, is not soft but hard. Is this a handover from the memory of mass murder occurring earlier? It’s hard to say, although the aura of her composure reflects more than personal discomfort.
Our second photographer, Sandra Matthews presents ten composite photos taken from the series “Present Moments.” In one (Amira and Nancy in 1989 / Amira and Samari in 2008), two women sit at a short distance from each other. The woman on the left is light-skinned, and the woman on the right is of a darker complexion. Both hold babies; the infant on the left is large, with a big head, while the child on the right is smaller, more suggestive of a recently born infant. The caption makes it clear that the baby on the left is now the young mother on the right (the photographs were taken 19 years apart). They pose before a backdrop made out of collaged newspaper, which documents the time when the two pictures were shot. The poignancy of the traditional image, women holding babies, along with the rather rough surroundings they are found in, result in a tableau that looks like a hard scrabble environment, but one softened by the mothers’ care. This portrait, representing family members, is a testament to the continuity and ongoing promise of being human. The nearly twenty-year gap between the two pictures, coupled with the similar poses of the mothers, portrays time’s passage, which of course brings change but also reiterates basic themes.
Delilah Montoya, who created the photo image, Casta #2 for Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra Calidad (2018), a color picture with a woman whose hair is long and brown, occupied with playing billiards. Behind her a younger boy, about ten, is staring from some distance at a television, in front of which there is a full set of blue drums. In the back on the right a young man stands behind a counter; behind him there is a large window. The back wall is a dark red. This work owes a lot to casta painting, a Spanish tradition evident in eighteenth-century paintings that expressed the colonial view favoring lighter-skinned people in a hierarchy of skin tones reflecting racial lineage.
This work owes a lot to the casta painting, a Spanish tradition, evident in 18th-century colonial painting, in which racial lineage and bloodlines favored lighter-skinned people. Montoya, who is Chicano, is updating the world of the casta, at this point an established historical genre of Spanish art. In a country as complex as America is along ethnic and racial lines, Montoya transforms a racially biased visual tradition into a new way of seeing, one that does justice to difference. Montoya has taken photos of families in Texas and New Mexico, whose ethno-racial ancestries are varied. The images were aligned with the portraits she asked them to make; given the need for a truthful genetic background, Montoya even asked her subjects to take a DNA test. The results of this test helped determine the background of the sitters–their often-intricate mix of ethnicities, even shedding light on their migration routes as they made their way (likely north). Thus, a photo of a Mexican family, seemingly mundane, actually serves as to introduce a very serious discussion of our tendency to evaluate someone according to the color of their skin.
In a show like this, you begin to understand just how complicated American culture has become. Each artist has her own memory, as well as the recall of her culture and its preceding years. Photography is a vehicle for the capture and transmission of memory, from which these artworks spring. It is a mistake to assume that fine art can redeem the time, present or past, but it can play a valuable role in determining the boundaries within which we draw insight and even hope.
The materialism in Montoya’s may be overdone, but indicates accurately American taste. And the women linked to Armenian survival in Claveloux’s art is a warning–from the past, into the future. Only in shows such as this do we see how the photo retrieves recall in the face of a constantly fading past, which takes place no matter how hard we work to keep it alive. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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