Ken Gonzales-Day: Shadowlands

Review by Mara Duvra

Minnesota Museum of American Art
Jan 19–Apr 16, 2017

“Cognition in the room felt like sensuous human activity real sensuous activity as such…

…tied to fear’s superb circumstance…” 1

Standing in this moment, a blooming consciousness, of questioning and searching.

recursive and unfolding.

Ken Gonzales-Day’s survey exhibition Shadowlands is a vital arrangement of the intersections of past and present. GonzalesDay’s work is at once cinematic and photojournalistic, relying on a series of didactics that give each piece context. This oscillation between looking and reading engages the viewer in multiple forms of attention. This work is not a quick read, rather it compels the viewer’s attention and gives back a rich history. Acting as an archive of erasure this show feels elegiac and sonorous. One of the first things I asked myself while walking around this space is who is this show for? Gonzales-Day’s work is about history uncovered

/ history laid bare.

Shadowlands highlights the struggle to remember the past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. Leading me to wonder, how do you feel? I mean this literally and figuratively. When presented with these images there are several reactions possible. Walking through the gallery I found myself increasingly curious about the other viewers, wondering what was held in by their silence and brief (almost accidental) moments of eye contact.

I mean to overlook — / the sense of seeing into / I mean to overlook/ the sense of not seeing at all 2

One body of work in the collection is Erased Lynchings, a hauntingly surreal photo series of lynchings primarily in the West that appear as social gatherings surrounding an absent victim. Gonzales-Day’s act of removing the lynched bodies from the portraits we are used to being shocked by offers a new reading of what is unfolding before us. When looking at each image you can’t help but peer into the faces of the crowd turned towards you while reading the body language of those facing away. Trying to understand each person’s role in this context of collective gathering/collective justice while trying to understand the scene. It is hard to feel entirely disentangled from these crowds waiting to witness the plunder. While the mode has changed, are we so far removed from this collective witnessing of trauma, remaining inert at the spectacle?

“so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience” 3

In Erased Lynchings the negative space becomes a focal point/ this refusal to display the spectacle in its brutal entirety manages to get beyond brief encounters with sympathy / this negative space is filled with what is known and unsettling. To regard this work is to grapple with the implications of looking. The most visceral act present is looking; this work displaces expectations and calls for another level of interaction: to reorient our bodies, peering into the small glass frames for more, extending the encounter.

reflecting and refracting a truth

What Gonzales-Day manages to do in a show about a violent past is refrain from relying on the indignation and shock of painful images, setting aside sympathy as a feeling of relief. Instead he continues to lead the viewer into a deeper interaction, going beyond an initial jolt.

“And it’s so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.” 4

This exhibit calls for a lingering attention, a driven curiosity. The initial encounter of the images in Searching For California’s Hang Trees reads as ghostly trees standing alone in picturesque and luminous vast planes. Gonzales-Day describes how “standing at these sites, even the most beautiful landscape is undone.”

Witnessing immaterial tissues … which is also a kind of speech 5

Erasure is threaded through each of these bodies of work. Searching for California’s Hang Trees is Gonzales-Day’s effort to assemble a more accurate record of lynching in California, while highlighting the erasure of Latino, Chinese, and Native American populations as victims of lynchings in the American West. The numbers for these instances were difficult to trace, according to Gonzales-Day, due to the practice of recording these communities as Caucasian/white. Gonzales-Day’s book Lynching in the West documents the romanticized notions of justice and order that are often attached to punishment in the American West, otherwise known as “frontier justice.” What Gonzales-Day uncovers is the disproportionate number of lynchings of people of color in comparison to the documented executions of white people. This history predates the prolific amount lynchings in the American South, a practice that has since become eponymous as the public and private collective acts of violent vigilantes and extrajudicial justice carried out at the expense of African Americans.

Yes, and the body has memory 6

Shadowlands leads me to believe that a part of the work is to bear witness. To show up physically in the space, mentally with the researched efforts, and emotionally attend to the implications erasure has on communities of color and to our collective consciousness.

My final encounter in the space was with the Memento Mori portraits, created in context with the Searching for California Hang Trees series. While creating portraits of young Latino men Gonzales-Day shared information about the history of Lynching in the West and the absence of Latinos in this history. This piece visually captures their response to their uncovered history. For the viewer this palimpsest reading of the undocumented lynchings now layered with contemporary portraits of young Latino men brings the faraway nearby. This feels like an intimate encounter, it is the only time when we are faced with the direct gaze of precarious mortality.

Locating your body along this timeline, within this heirloom, and inherited past, these portraits open up something else in the show, they individuate and give visage to the blur of lived human experience and victims of this violent past. Historical dialogue can compress tragedy into large masses of casualties so that interiority is flattened. Gonzales-Day’s Memento Mori embodies this history, unfolding bridges past and present and disorienting our internal landscape of knowing and remembering.

Who is this for? These bodies of work display a collective inheritance, an American legacy. The collective consciousness surrounding this work should have implications on our understanding of our present and our future.

Shadowlands is an expansive work that masterfully calls attention to the implications of collective acts of justice, racially motivated violence, erasure, and historical inheritance. Juxtaposing images of past and present, lynch mobs and riot police, hang trees and sidewalk memorials, this work is neither conclusive nor finite. It echoes and spreads through the consciousness of each viewer that walks within the space and reorients our perception.

I should say more precise it is as if [this] history dilates the body 7

Resonant and profound.

Robertson, Lisa. Magenta Soul Whip, Toronto: Coach House, 2011.
2 Colby, Kate. I Mean. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Press, 2015.
3,4 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
5 Robertson, Lisa. Magena Soul Whip, Toronto: Coach House, 2011.
6 Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. UK: Penguin, 2015.
7 Robertson, Lisa. Cinema of the Present. Toronto: Coach House, 2014.