The Fearless Eye Exhibition Essay

It was great getting a chance to show my work at ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse NY this fall as part of The Other New York (TONY) Everson Museum 2012 Biennial. ArtRage is a long running community gallery space that emphasizes work that deals with social issues. I was very happy to have my work in a gallery that has dedicated itself to exhibiting art that has a social impact. I really enjoyed working with the director, Rose Viviano, who runs the show with professionalism and flair, and the other three artists in the exhibition, Ben Altman, Paul Pierce, and Bob Gates. But maybe the best outcome of the whole experience was the essay that Cazenovia College art professor Anita Welych wrote for the exhibition catalog. The part about my work is at the end:

Bob Gates

On a downtown Syracuse corner, bus patrons gather, then disperse to the corners of the city and beyond. The temporary inhabitants of this liminal space, a threshold space that is neither work nor home, are encountered out of their element. They exist in a limbo in which they are, for a brief time, caught off guard. Their quotidian identities are momentarily lifted and they are a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable. For photographer Bob Gates, this is a crucial moment to approach each and document their transitory presence.

Lawyers, drug dealers, secretaries, laborers and the homeless all congregate in this public space, which Gates calls ”one of the most diverse places” he has ever experienced.

Recognizing that the completion of the new bus transfer station may irrevocably change the egalitarian character of this gathering place, Gates has documented the richness of this casual and transient population of citizens in a series of sensitive portraits; this suite represents but a small cross-section of the approximately 1900 subjects photographed in a two-year span of time.

The decontextualization of this “in between” space perhaps results in greater openness to Gates’ requests for a portrait. For him, these portraits represent a collaborative venture in which the subject decided if and how he/she wished to be portrayed. This emphasis on the dignity of the subject allows Gates (and therefore the viewer as the stand-in for the photographer’s eye) to experience an intimacy that may otherwise prove inaccessible.

The pervasive message of this project is a clear and powerful recognition of our common humanity, an uplifting message in times of division and even despair.

Ben Altman

“The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
George Orwell, 1984

After listening in disbelief as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended waterboarding, photographer Ben Altman decided to “torture” himself in his basement studio, creating scenes in elegant detail to stand in for the horrors that have been largely hidden from view, whose whispers may nonetheless insinuate themselves in our zeitgeist.

Attraction and repulsion often accompany each other. As viewers, we are torn between our appreciation for the craftsmanship and beauty of the Guantánamo Basement installations and our rejection of the atrocities depicted. Gazing upon these stylized images of torture, we find ourselves complicit in the acts presented. Are we the torturers? Are we bystanders? Are we the next victims? Or, perhaps, are we asked to bear witness to that which has not been made visible to us?

Altman intentionally inserts the viewer physically in the work through interactive elements or by forcing us to view the work in specific ways. Mirrors, for example, function as multi-layered devices. They reflect the viewer, who becomes part of the work: an implicit victim, voyeur, witness, participant; they often reveal the presence of the camera and the artifice of the work. Viewer interaction results in a series of complex, visceral responses. By documenting himself in these poses, photographer Ben Altman performs all three roles: the torturer, the tortured and the witness. Using himself as subject avoids an exploitative use of such sensitive subject matter.

By creating a visual representation for that which is rendered invisible, Altman not only references specific atrocities (Abu Ghraib, Abner Louima), but also discusses broader concepts of strength vs. vulnerability, control vs. loss of control, power vs. lack of power.

Neil Chowdhury

For how many centuries have Western artists, including photographers, descended upon non-Western peoples to create art from the travails of downtrodden or culturally distinct individuals? Preconceived notions are layered so thickly over the subjects’ own sense of identity that the work becomes more a portrait of the creator – and the viewer – in a fetishization of the exotic “Other”. It seems, at times, impossible for artists and photographers to relinquish the control their position of power provides.

Photographer Neil Chowdhury is in the unique position of being Indian, British and American. Perhaps truly belonging nowhere, his very hybridity allows him to bridge cultural differences, documenting his subjects while leveling the power structure. Shooting largely at the request of the people he encountered on the street, Chowdhury lugged his heavy 4×5 camera through the crowded streets of Mumbai for a six-week period in 2008. This authenticity of connection allowed Chowdhury a sort of partnership with street vendors, laborers, the homeless, and holy men. His immersion into their world as an itinerant photographer kept intact their sense of self while allowing him unique access to people generally overlooked even by their fellow citizens.

Only recently reunited with his negatives, Chowdhury worked on an appropriate presentation for the images. The earthy, hand-worked processes of cyanotype and van dyke brown, printed on roughly textured watercolor paper, reference the humble trades documented in the nearly 300 large-format images. Moreover, the two processes are mutually destructive; according to Chowdhury, they “eat each other”. While this provides a wonderfully rich look, their corrosive quality serves as an apt metaphor for aspects of contemporary Indian life: traditional lifestyles vs. conspicuous consumption; East vs. West; paternalistic society vs. modern greed. The overwhelming profusion of imagery and textures reflect some of the hectic sensory overload that is modern urban India.

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1 comment

veste north face

being anywhere near an exploding artillary, bomb, rocket, missile is mind numbing like you cannot believe. i’ll never forget the figure of that Viet

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