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Ken Gonzales-Day Re-Examines Violence, Race, and Identity

Artist Ken Gonzales-Day was researching early photographic images of Latinos in California when he came across a portrait that propelled his work in a whole new direction. "I turned it over, and on the back somebody had written, 'Last man hanged in California,'" he recalled, "And at that point I realized I didn't know what that meant. Did that mean legally executed? Did that mean vigilante committee? Did that mean lynch mob?"

There were no books on the subject, so Gonzales-Day began combing through archives throughout the state. He found over 350 documented cases of lynchings in California. But unlike their Southern, African American counterparts, the victims of this violence were largely Latino. What's more, California lynchings had been consistently neglected by historians and scholars.

Gonzales-Day ended up writing his own book, Lynching in the West, and developed three intertwined photographic series. In "Erased Lynchings," he digitally removed the victims' bodies from period photographs of lynchings to turn the viewer's attention to the perpetrators and spectators gathered below. In the series, "Hang Trees," seemingly pastoral landscapes conceal a darker history: they are the present-day sites where the hangings took place. In the current exhibition at Luis De Jesus Gallery, Gonzales-Day pairs this series with portraits he took of young Latino men. Each man is the same age as one of the victims.

"He was gravitating towards how to represent an absented history," says Rita Gonzalez, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who included Gonzales-Day's work in the landmark show, "Phantom Sightings, "How do you represent something that has not to this point been represented, or has been erased or somehow made invisible?"

For Gonzales-Day, the answer is often a kind of visual silence. His hang tree images are peaceful, elegant pictures of spreading old trees, mostly oaks (used for lynchings, he says, "because they have low branches"). But their quietude reverberates with what they don't show. Gonzales-Day located the sites through a complex triangulation of primary research, period maps, and, in many cases, guess work. But accuracy was less important than the effort itself. "The research had an emotional component in the sense that it's so much violence and so unacknowledged," he says, "Even as I spoke to historians and scholars, people were resisting the history at every step."

The photographs are not portraits of places so much as evidence of an artistic quest. "I made this pilgrimage to find this history, to actually visit the sites and to try to imagine the context," he says, "If there's any record that it created, it's the record that this person, me, had gone on this journey and tried to raise awareness of this issue."

Similarly, his portraits of young Latino men--most lynching victims were between the ages of 16 and 22--are resolutely of this moment; the men sport contemporary hairstyles, clothing and tattoos. Isolated against dark backgrounds, they gaze serenely or defiantly back at the viewer. Just as Gonzales-Day wanted to experience the lynching sites, he wondered what the victims might have looked like. He found the men through a modeling web site and told them about his project before taking their pictures. "I was also interested in sharing this history with young Latino men," he says, "telling them about it, seeing what their responses were."

In this way, Gonzales-Day, a professor of art at Scripps College, attempts to bring forgotten histories to life in the present day. Another project that grew out of his lynching research, "Profiled," is also on view at Luis De Jesus. It proposes to do the same thing for art history and its troubled relationship to the representation of race.

Begun during a residency at the Getty, these striking images are portraits of sculptural figures and busts dating from antiquity to the mid-20th century. Some of the sculptures are recognized as "art," while others were created as anthropological displays associated with the now discredited science of racial categorization. In addition to the works at the Getty, Gonzales-Day photographed selections from the Malvina Hoffman collection at the Field Museum in Chicago. Hoffman was a sculptor who created figures representing 104 racial "types." Gonzales-Day presents sculptures from the various collections separately and in provocative pairings and groupings that raise questions about the line between portraiture and caricature.

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Gordon, 2005-12, LightJet print on aluminum, 40 x 30 in, ed. 5 | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
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Gordon, 2005-12, LightJet print on aluminum, 40 x 30 in, ed. 5 | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

"Often the Romans would take an old portrait and modify it slightly for one emperor to create the next," says Gonzales-Day, "They weren't meant to be what we would call scientific depictions, of course. They were meant to represent their authority and to represent their glory." This kind of abstraction is similar to that in racial caricatures, in which the portrait is not necessarily a likeness, but a collection of stereotypical qualities or characteristics. In sculpting her figures, Hoffman often worked from photographs, indiscriminately combining features or parts of one person with those of another. In this sense, neither the racial types nor the regal portrait busts are "pure" representations of people.

Highlighting the physical evidence of this process is something Gonzales-Day feels is his contribution as an artist and a photographer. The series, he says, is "not simply a collection of objects. It's a collection of objects with physical presence. And the only way that you could find out what that is, is by looking at it physically." In this sense, his photographs are different from standard museum documentation, which attempts to be as neutral as possible. He often lights the works to emphasize particular qualities, such as wrinkles or jowls. "There is still authorship somewhere," he says, "How to let other voices come out, how to let other narratives be visible, that's something I think as an artist I can do; that I can do differently than a curator or differently than even an historian."

This emphasis on unearthing or constructing alternate stories extends to the way in which he works with the various institutions that have allowed him to photograph their collections. The anthropological sculptures in particular are often an embarrassing part of an institution's history. "I often try to tell the curators or museum employees, it's not your fault, but these objects need to be seen," he says, "I'm trying to breathe some life back into them."

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Untitled (Malvina Hoffman, Barefoot Man [337236], The Field Museum, Chicago and Jean-Jacques-Francois Saly, Faun Holding Goat, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), 2009-12, LightJet print on dibond, 45.5 x 73.5 in, ed. 5 | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

One of these alternate stories is the ways in which art education has contributed to reductive or stereotypical images. "Take the basic concept of how to draw a head," says Gonzales-Day, "It's usually an egg with lines in the middle. So these are schematics that are taught as sort of shorthand initially for art students to create a rendering of a person." It sounds simple enough, but such conventions form the basis for whole systems of representation that become ingrained. In his on-going research, Gonzales-Day has looked at art education in Japan, in which plaster models are sent from Europe for Japanese students to copy. "These aesthetics--really whiteness--become commodified and internalized and then neutralized because it's fine art," he says, "You might say it's a kind of bias, an invisible bias that's built into the field itself."

Such ideas may seem a far cry from his research on lynching, but he sees "Profiled" as a kind of "prequel" to the other projects. If nothing else, it provides the underpinnings for the stereotypes that may have contributed to the killing of so many Latino men in such a gruesome and public fashion. Gonzales-Day began the lynching projects with a basic, perhaps even naïve question, "Why did they hate Mexicans so much in 1850? What happened? They didn't even know who they were or what they were." Perhaps they thought they knew them only too well.

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