Joining the Madison Avenue Art Walk this Saturday, October 23, with an art critic friend, Michèle Cone, I found that one of our destinations had to be Freedman Art, specifically for this exhibition. Kit White, a painter friend whose photo transfers and oil I have followed for a few years now, is joined by the photographer Nona Faustine in a juncture that seems relevant beyond words at the moment. It engages memories of the past and the Civil War with a feeling of the present, both unsettling and courageous. Metaphorical landscapes Kit White calls these works, and the adjective contested arises and won’t let go.
He will take such a place – such a place! – as Gettysburg, in an old photograph, transfer it in the computer, and give it a treatment that distances you and yet draws you in. Over the strange texturing with occasional accidents, a few holes in the gray through which a white shows, for example (these accidents always welcomed, as Duchamp welcomed the accidents to his glass sculpture), he will paint a few of his characteristic black lines. “ An airy and irregular mesh of black lines,” Carter Ratcliff calls them in his Kit White: Line into Form, (Foliart Publishers, 2015), as they loop and knot and curve or straighten, constructing both an obstacle and an interior frame through which to meditate the scene. These lines speak to his affection for the work’s materiality, his attraction to the “wet stroke” of the making, this acceptance of the self-consciousness of its ongoing. There might be a yellow streak or a red splotch, or other faint color traces, or not; what there is suffuses the panel or the canvas with a strange interior lighting, itself working as a recording of something gone by and yet remaining.
In an interview of 2011, the painter reflects on his landscapes and their context: “It is the thing itself” and his “attempt to reference the deep debt that American thought owes to the role of landscape in the development of our cultural and philosophical life. It has been our temple and crucible. Out of it came our own version of Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Pragmatism, and our deeply materialist bent. “
And how grand that, in the same space of this gallery into which we are invited, we have the vibrant experience of the juncture of two such differing artists in their own contestations of history and its unfolding before us and around us: the history of slavery, its buildings, and its inescapable interpenetration into our landscapes and interpretations of so much.
Nona Faustine’s remarkable pigment prints depict such monuments as the Thomas Jefferson Statue in Monticello, just on the present brink of destruction, with a central swath of red violently interrupting the view – the blood of history seeming to seep thickly through whatever we contemplate. That the origin of this bar was a ferry ride that she took, with that barrier across the view she was photographing, lends the works and their ideas all the more power. “In Praise of Famous Men No More” reads one of her pieces from last year, challenging our salutations of the past right now before us, and in still another, the Lincoln Memorial rises skywards but is blocked at its base by a thick black barrier, racism unforgotten. In this exhibition, the visitors on its steps are all looking elsewhere, none at each other or at us, the observers.
Where indeed to look now?
What reads as crucial in the present handling of these monuments and their memories, what is to be saluted and what contested, in what sense, and how this radical questioning is signaled in our art, requires an unceasing narrative that is essential to our own time and place right now and here.