Consider the context: Laguna Beach, a charming, ocean side town in the lap of California’s Orange County sets the stage. All the characteristics of prestige, privilege and wealth can be found here, seemingly untouched by the harsher inequities of the world. Thus, we are provided a brilliant dichotomized backdrop for the group exhibition Whiteness, A Wayward Construction. Curator Tyler Stallings selected work from twenty-eight artists for this premiere visual arts exploration of the social, political, and economic constructs that comprise the white hegemony.
The seventy-eight paintings, drawings, photographs, and installations created dialogues that focused on “the image of whiteness in the public imagination and in contemporary art” rather than “an analysis of particular historical developments,” according to the exhibition text. These dialogues included John Feodovov’s installation Office Shaman, which contrasted the traditions of Native American heritage with modern day office kitsch of the Western tradition; and Tim Oberst’s series of steel and mirrors, which force the viewer to become aware of varying aspects of their physical reality from a de-centered perspective.
Mark Steven Greenfield contributed two exceptional photographs, Nightmare, and Uncle both “Sambo” interpretations of “Negroes.” Daniel Joseph Martinez’s contribution, I Can’t/Imagine/Ever Wanting/to Be/White, utilized the medium of museum admission tags, and became even more humorous upon understanding of the theatrical function performed by the wearers of the tags at the Whitney Biennial of 1993.
Joseph Havel’s installation, Spine, arguably depicts the backbone of white, corporate America through his use of starched white shirt collars. Suspended one atop the other, the visual impact of these stiff, white collar vertebrae provides a brilliant entry point to dialogue about capitalism, Western hegemony, and the invisible code system of whiteness, which privileges some and subjugates many.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if there were an easy solution to resolving the cultural inequities highlighted here, some sort of salve that could heal these wounds of the ages? Erika Rothenberg humorously explores this concept in her piece, You Can Cure Yourself of Racism! All one needs is access to “Be A Better Person Nasal Spray,” and even the staunchest ally of the most racist embodiment of whiteness can recognize the error of his ways.
Of course, this utopian view cannot win them all. Travis Somerville polarizes the issues of the “logic” of Southern racism in Flag Day. Depicting the head of a Klansman draped in the Dixie flag, “One Flag or No Flag” is the defiant cry. Indeed, Somerville consistently drives these issues home in his body of work that juxtaposes dual representations of whiteness, from the seemingly benign to harsher realities of subjugation, inequity, oppression and violence, to name but a few.
The dialogue facilitated by Laguna Art Museum is vital to continued reflection upon cultural relationships based upon power, and the need for more transformative processes that analyze the Western dominated social construct of “whiteness.” The ultimate goal of the dialogue is to lead us toward a more egalitarian, pluralistic approach to co-existing in this global society. In reflecting upon Whiteness, the exhibit, the disparity is clear: the Eurocentric hegemony has dictated the norm, from notions of taste and aesthetic, to notions of societal domination based upon constructs of so-called “race,” and beyond. This vantage point has maintained a seemingly untouchable stance for centuries.
To be Other in a Eurocentric environment is to constantly find oneself in a state of flux, seeking balance and acceptance in mainstream Western society, yet seemingly always relegated to the periphery, not quite understood, and conjuring up feelings of inherited guilt in those who continue to benefit from the “codes of whiteness.” To be of the dominant Western culture is to sift through and make sense of this inherited guilt, to Pretend Not To Know What You Know (Adrian Piper), to coat one’s existence in politically correct terminology, to seek a balance that can only be less than altruistic because unless you are Other, you can never know what it is to make amends with inherited domination. To quote Amelia Jones, “the stain of racism is there, whether we care to acknowledge it or not.”
Contemporary society is in dire need of continued astute, problematized visual re-interpretations of cultural “standards.” Tyler Stallings, Laguna Art Museum, and all those involved with developing this exhibit should be wholeheartedly commended for challenging the status quo, and providing an environment through which the viewer might acquire tools for questioning “the norm.”