Project Series 30: Ken Gonzales-Day: Hang Trees
“Ken Gonzales-Day Hang Trees” includes new photographs from three related bodies of work, all connected through his investigations into the representation of, and, more significantly, the absence of representations of Latinos in the documented history of the American West. For the past five years, Gonzales-Day has explored, with a variety of strategies, the history of lynching in California.
This project began as a photographic study of Latino portraits from 1850 to 1900 in California. During his research, he discovered that the earliest photographs of Latinos he found were of criminals condemned to die, and later photographs were of lynching images—the latter images widely disseminated on postcards that documented the executions. Thus began the artistic process and the scholarly research that culminated in both the works on view in this exhibition, and in a book published this fall from Duke University Press: Lynching in the West: 1850-1935.
“Ken Gonzales-Day Hang Trees” brings together images from three series: digitally altered historical postcards of lynchings in which the victim has been erased; photographs of lynching trees presented in the classic tradition of landscape photography—the “Hang Trees;” and the newest work, photographic portraits of Latino men that evocatively resist the erasure of the Latino subject. As an artist, photographer, and scholar, Gonzales-Day traveled to and photographed as many sites of lynchings as he could. He describes his work in the introduction to Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, “I retraced the steps of the lynch mob and vigilance committee and these photographs have become an irrefutable record of my journey. Standing at these sites, even the most beautiful landscape is un-done…the photographs have come to symbolize points of resistance in a vast landscape…I have documented the empty space that lies between the historically unseen body of the lynch victim and my own unseen body.”
Gonzales-Day confronts the viewer by placing them, as Juli Carson describes: “squarely in the position of erasure—there is no body for us to see and control with our gaze—we are at once phenomenologically put into the place of the subject of the work, both as the lynched (it could be me up on that empty tree) and the lyncher (it could be me in that lynch crowd).” And now, with Gonzales-Day’s extension of this project through portraiture, he brings the project, and us, full circle, to make fully visible those who have been invisible. Gonzales-Day’s complex project corrects the historical record, reveals this tragic history to the public, and acknowledges and memorializes the victims by addressing the legacy of violence and terror experienced by racial communities in the American West.
Ken Gonzales-Day’s exhibition is the thirtieth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. The Project Series is supported in part by the Pasadena Art Alliance and Pomona College Museum of Art Advisory Committee member Sarah Miller Meigs.
“With none but the omnipresent stars to witness”: Ken Gonzales-Day’s Hang Trees
By Rita Gonzales
In 1908 the United States Postal Service banned the mailing of lynching images. Photographs of lynchings taken with a cutthroat entrepreneurial savvy by professionals and amateurs had grown rapidly in popularity and circulated broadly alongside souvenir postcard images of world expositions, buildings, and peaceful promenades. But the early use of these cards to circulate the documentation of such heinous and violent acts is startling when one considers that the format for the postcard (frontal imagery and a divided back for text) had been endorsed by the postal service only two years prior. Almost one hundred years later, the artist and writer Ken Gonzales-Day is re-circulating these cards, but in his series of Erased Lynchings, it is that which is excised and re-circulated that haunts and challenges the contemporary viewer.
Gonzales-Day has consistently been concerned with the relocation of history into the present. His pursuit of historical materials is steeped in the conscientious considerations of historiography but shaped by the associative and eclectic forms of contemporary art. Not merely an exercise in revisionist history, Gonzales-Day’s work has been sustained by an open-ended and phenomenological yearning, not for any one historical truth but for a layered and even poetic understanding of the past—the past as absence and as presence. For the Pomona College Museum of Art Project Series 30, Ken Gonzales-Day: Hang Trees, the artist is exhibiting photographs that engage in a dialogue with the well-trafficked traditions of landscape and auteur images of the West, as well as the vast trove of vernacular images that document ann acknowledged facet of American history.
The historical framing of lynching has created a polarized racial narrative for the most part along a black/white binary. The challenge of undertaking a book and photographic series to address the multiple narratives left out of this construction through an examination of the history of lynching in California certainly runs many risks, especially in this moment of racial, cultural, and class discord. Certainly, Gonzales-Day runs the risk of downplaying the horrors of white on black violence and diminishing the aftereffects of lynching in the South, However, his is a multi-faceted approach to history in that he is attempting to clarify the historical record and to amplify the ways in which we approach and engage historical narratives.
The images of lynching that once circulated legally—and then through a widespread underground network—came back into popular consciousness most recently with the 2000 publication and subsequent exhibition of images from the private collection of antiquarian James Allen. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America featured mass-reproduced postcards and personal snapshots collected by Allen. The accumulation of these atrocious cultural artifacts and their contextualization was the subject of intense critical debate. Criticism was leveled on a number of counts: the images had been dangerously circulated in a highly seductive format (in both deluxe edition photography book and dramatically designed exhibition); the photographs had been decontextualized (especially when encountered on a coffee table); and the images had been commercialized. It was around this moment of intensified debate about the legacy of racialized violence that Gonzales-Day began his research into the extralegal practice of lynching in California.
Gonzales-Day’s exhibition for Pomona College Museum of Art features three strands that emanate from his scholarly research: the documentation of “hang trees” which he began in 2002; the “erased lynching” postcards which are digitally manipulated and printed to mimic their original format; and a new series of portraits that is loosely and evocatively related to the themes of embodiment and disembodiment in photography.
The “hang tree” series involved the performance of the photographic encounter within the landscape. Gonzales-Day’s images are above all about the trajectory of the image—and in this case, the trajectory of the photographer with large-format Deardorff camera is part and parcel of the traffic of the image. How did this (type of) image come to be placed before us? Rather than a spectatorial encounter drowning in affect that renders one speechless (“without sanctuary”), we are left in a space that opens up a dialogue with the visual and textual forms of historical address.
In looking at images of frontier masculinity in the West, the photographic typologies of mastery, dominance, and submission are clear. Whether these images occur in the classic western or in images of vigilantism, the facts of racialized violence are portrayed in strikingly similar—and enduring ways. After dealing with the legacy of violence in California through erasure and palpable absence, Gonzales-Day is returning to re-embodying the figure. The artist began to experiment with images that pushed the associations between lynching and torture imagery with images of sexuality and power. As Susan Sontag once noted, “All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” In looking for a way to deal with gender and sexuality in the spectatorship of brown bodies, Gonzales-Day is interested in reinserting (and reasserting) the body in photography of Latino masculinity in the American west.
Gonzales-Day’s image, “Anthony” (2006) performs a complex dialogue with the images of brown and black masculinity in the West—and not just the images of its victimization. The portrait calls to mind In the American West, a photographic journey undertaken by Richard Avedon with his own Deardorff from 1979-1984. Going through those images of ranch hands, drifters, members of the Loretta Lynn fan club, oilfield workers, mental patients, and migrant workers, one is struck by Avedon’s selection of subjects and his own desire to depict the westerner as outsider. Perhaps one of the most sexualized of his photographic subjects is Juan Patricio Lobato, Carney. Lobato is pictured in a tight-fitting black t-shirt worn with the front pulled behind his neck to expose his jutting torso where packs of cigarettes (Lucky Strikes?) have been tucked into his black jeans.
Feminist and queer portraiture set out to explode the radioactive history of inventorying/quantifying long associated with scientific collection and conscription, as well as modernism’s distanced lust for the other. Just as Gonzales-Day activates the latent dissonance of the bucolic landscape in his portraits of hang trees, so too does he mobilize or queer the portraiture of brown masculinity in the West. Thus, a project that began with elucidating regional historical inaccuracies has evolved in unexpected ways—through the choreography of erasure (in the Hang Trees and Erased Lynchings) to the making visible of the authorial conceits so critical to the fabrication of the American West.