"Woman With Dignity: Rich's Department Store, Atlanta, GA" - 2008 Oil on canvas and toner on silk, 49"x37.5"
The artists' work deals with racial tensions both from an in depth historical understanding and also drawing from their own personal experiences and diverse perspectives as a biracial couple.
"Grapes of Wrath Country, Visalia, California, May 3, 1940" -2007 24"x20"
What I find fascinating about McCallum and Tarry, aside from their ability to balance a beautiful aesthetic with conceptually heavy subject matter (or as McCallum puts it, they use "beauty and seduction to bring people into controversial subject matter") is the difficult balance they are able to maintain in their relationship to be capable of working together to produce such powerful, cohesive, and focused art.
It is a scenario that would be impossible for most artists, myself included, for the simple fact that art making is most easily done in solitude and compromising in artistic endeavors can be stifling to the art making process and the artist's own motivation. But more than this is the ability of McCallum and Tarry to work together discussing and dealing with such a polarizing issue as race that more often than not would divide a white man and black women. Because of this, they are able to offer a rare, and more layered perspective to a history we are all familiar with, at least superficially.
Jacqueline Tarry and Bradley McCallum. They spent most of the talk trying to talk over one another and jokingly said that is how they usually work together, arguing over everything from process to concepts, with many a plate sacrificed to the kitchen floor by the end of it.
One of their ongoing projects is the completion of 104 portraits of all those arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. McCallum likened them to "stately portraits" or "daguerreotypes" deriving from mug shots. The magnitude of the portraits was best felt viewing the them in a large grouping, which offered a sort of poetic tribute.
While it may appear that I have managed to take every picture out of focus and with shaky hands, the works are actually oil paintings on canvas with digital prints on transparent silk floating over top.
The result gives a dimensionality to the image that changes in depth and focus depending on the angle at which it is viewed. While all of the images in the show are taken directly from historical photographs of the Civil Rights Movement (and many from the Atlanta History Center archives) the oil painting is more stylized, with certain elements removed, while the toner print on silk is of the actual photograph, adding back ghostly details removed.
"Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968" - 2008 45"x72"
The painting 'Strike" deserves a room unto itself. It seemed to vibrate with an intensity, the shouts were almost audible, that quieted every other painting around it.
The pairing of the painting and fabric activates the image, giving it a sense of movement, a blurry elusive quality that forces the viewer to concentrate on translating what they perceive. McCallum referred to this as "an engaged sense of viewing" which "happens unconsciously."
This combination makes a logical choice of media for the artists as McCallum, a sculptor, was becoming increasingly interested in using traditional oil painting methods while Tarry was "uncomfortable with painting", preferring the cinematographic and also interested in branching out into silkscreens. What the artists did agree on was the desire to create art which would straddle the line between memory and history. The artists were interested in using historically charged images from mass media to show that, as Tarry put it, "we are all familiar with them but we all have different relationships with them."
This also gets at another point which was questioned during the talk. Even though these images are historical documents there is no included text, other than the title, explaining the images. This relates back to the artists' purpose, which is not to create a museum-style educational display but instead to target one's personal response. Tarry said that viewing the work is like "a reconciliation" of memories "one is trying to remember." And McCallum added that the works are a "dialogue between layers" with the focus placed on the "disjunctive space" in between.
These works are more successful at illustrating that slippery transience of memories than most cheesy movie fades, camera blurs, and multiple exposure tricks. The oil painting, which is hand painted and therefore an altered interpretation of fact, serves as the more solid, grounded image while the actual document, the truth, is simply a thin veil of fabric. In memories, it is not fact that most clearly is remembered, but instead our own interpretation.
As I walked through the space I found myself repeatedly evaluating the compositions, only to remind myself that McCallum and Tarry did not take these photographs or dictate the compositions. While I am not sure, I would wager the guess that no cropping was done, as these are meant to uphold a certain level documentary authenticity. But this raises questions about McCallum and Tarry's relationship with photography and to these images in particular.
It could be argued that the actual art lies in the layering of these appropriated images, that these works are about memory vs. history and not really about the particular events they reference. After all, the artists are not being influenced by particular images in the way they uniformally handle the images, instead they are manipulating the notion of the document, itself. Granted, these documents are socially charged, and represent events experienced by many people, but McCallum and Tarry did not witness these events personally, these artists are not dealing with their own first hand memories, they are instead doing searches on websites and in archives to gather and edit a body of images they feel appropriate, and necessary to put forth. This isn't to say the artists do not have strong emotional and personal connections with the images, because they do, and this is what informs the works and piques their interest in creating them, but they treat all of these images as a group, seemingly perplexed or fascinated by the idea of history and their relationship to it.
This opinion was brought on by what I felt was an over abundance of images in the show. While each work is incredibly strong and deserving of contemplation, the gallery walls became a barrage of images the further I moved through the space, making it difficult to focus or feel the impact of any particular piece. With so many images fighting for space I couldn't help but think that even history books don't try to cram this many images on to one page.
The decision to include so many works leads me to think that the artists' intention was not to lament over one moment or another in the Civil Rights Movement but instead to give the viewer an overall impression of time, of past struggles and social turmoil (in a vague sense), reminding the viewer of their place in the present and the very direct relationship they hold to the past.
The wallpaper in the backroom of the gallery (which made the space feel even more crowded) was what the artists considered the "most autobiographical piece in the show." The pattern derives from microscopic scans of both artists' red blood cells, and other personal icons such as family crests. McCallum said the piece "bookends the experience for the viewer" but for me the wallpaper ties back in the artist's personal stake in this work that could otherwise have gone unseen.
As an interesting side note, and it expounds more on the intimacy the artists' have with the work, is that these works were created in China. In an era of global markets and cheap 3rd world labor, McCallum and Tarry have a studio in China and paid a crew of studio assistants to paint all of the oil paintings and used Chinese printers to create the silk transfers. While it's normal for artists of this magnitude to hire assistants for much of the manual labor (there is never enough time after all), I find it fascinating that work dealing with civil rights issues of this country were actually made in a foreign country. McCallum commented that he was shocked by how knowledgeable the Asian studio assistants were in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, joking that they seemed to be more educated on the history than many Americans. I imagine this is probably true.
Also interesting was the decision to use silk as the material of choice, a fabric so laden with Chinese history. It adds another dimension to the works, no pun intended, insinuating perhaps the perspective of foreign countries. I'll admit I am probably taking it further now than the artists intended, but it's surprising that the materials of these works are so Asian influenced.