LaToya Ruby Frazier @Gladstone

JTF (just the facts): A single installation, made in 2021-2022, consisting of 18 stainless steel IV poles and 66 archival inkjet prints, presented in a large single room gallery space. In an edition of 2+1AP. The work was commissioned by the Carnegie Museum of Art for for the 58th Carnegie International (here). (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past several years, we’ve collectively gone through an active period of re-evaluating many of the monuments that have been erected in our cities and towns. In looking critically at these statues, memorials, tombs, and other symbols, we have been forced to reckon with layers of complex and nuanced questions concerning who is (and isn’t) depicted, how (and where) they are celebrated, and what these monuments represent to all of the different people who see and live with them on a daily basis. In many cases, we have decided that those who were previously selected for honor no longer represent who we are or aspire to be, leading to yet more questions of how to thoughtfully remove (and dispose of) monuments that are deemed outdated or offensive.

On the heels of the pandemic, we have a new crop of heroes we now want to honor, including vaccine scientists, doctors, nurses, and health care staff, front line workers, governmental leaders around the world, and others who helped us to live through those traumatic years. Some of the statues and plaques that will eventually be put up will likely memorialize the many who were lost, but others might celebrate the efforts of specific individuals or honor groups of people more broadly. And as our recent societal reassessment of monuments has taught us, the choices we make of who and how to pay tribute do actually matter.

This gallery show re-installs a pandemic monument LaToya Ruby Frazier originally created in 2021-2022 for the 58th Carnegie International. In a large open space, Frazier has placed a set of 18 stainless steel IV poles (the ones with rollers on the bottom and two hooks for IV bags on top), each mounted with a two-sided panel of photographs and text; the poles have been arranged in a spacious grid, replicating the six feet apart of pandemic-era social distancing. On each pole, the front side features a Frazier portrait of one of the community healthcare workers (CHWs) from the Baltimore area, while the back hosts two uncredited photographs made by these workers, with supporting captions that provide some context.

As many of us have experienced at one time or another, the American healthcare system is something akin to a complex maze, with layers of doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and countless others all tangled into a dizzying mess that can often feel overwhelming, especially when you yourself are sick (and less able to handle such administrative processes and headaches), or when trying to help someone other than yourself navigate its many pitfalls. The pandemic put intense pressure on nearly every element of this system, stretching resources beyond their breaking points and leading to stories of both heroism and tragedy.

When conceiving her photographic monument, Frazier decided to center her attention on a largely invisible link in this healthcare chain, the community healthcare workers (CHWs). CHWs are essentially local connectors and information providers, who help those that have been left out, marginalized, or otherwise blocked from successfully accessing the healthcare system and receiving adequate medical care. In the Baltimore area, there are many underserved communities that were overlooked during the pandemic, and the CHWs worked tirelessly to bridge that access gap. Frazier herself experienced some of the frustrations that many patients feel when she was denied access to a COVID-19 vaccine (in Chicago, in March of 2021), leading her to consider more carefully who advocates for (and educates) patients in these situations. CHWs are one answer, providing important liaison services between residents and both public and private health systems.

Frazier’s artwork is a “worker’s monument” in the best sense of that phrase, celebrating the underappreciated contributions of the Baltimore-area CHWs by providing them a platform for telling their own stories. This attentive approach neatly matches the broader arc of Frazier’s photographic career, going all the way back to her first family-centric project (The Notion of Family, from 2000-2014), which chronicled the lives of three generations of women in Frazier’s family, and touched on, among other topics, how injustice in the health care system and the closure of their community hospital had affected their lives. Frazier’s more recent projects have once again put workers at the forefront, including The Last Cruze (reviewed here) which documented the closure of a General Motors auto plant in Ohio, followed by Flint is Family which investigated the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and its effects on residents there. This sophisticated mixing of documentary photography and activism has been a consistent foundation for Frazier’s work, with each project deliberately constructed to offer rich opportunities for listening to unheard voices, in the forms of intimate photographic portraiture and personal storytelling.

Frazier’s pandemic monument has a loose fluidity, with plenty of socially distanced space within the grid of IV poles to allow visitors to flow both in front of and behind them. The “front” side of each pole hosts a color portrait of a local CHW (taken in a location of significance to the subject) and a longer first-person narrative text introducing their background. The portraits are unassumingly straightforward and compassionately perceptive, a “hall of fame” of sorts, with each person exuding a strong sense of supportive humanity. The texts have a different kind of richness – they are too long to absorb in a quick fly by, and so transform a passing viewer into an engaged reader, with personal histories, job descriptions, key issues, and small anecdotes rounding out a portrait of the person and his or her individual approach to connecting with, and advocating for, the community.

Part of Frazier’s engagement with the CHWs was to host workshops where she taught them how to make their own photographs, adding a “photovoice” component to the project. These images and snapshots, found on the back sides of the IV poles, are in many ways more compelling than Frazier’s serenely celebratory portraits, in that they quickly pinpoint areas of dissonance in the community, and help to further explain and expand the connective role of CHWs. “Health care” is of course directly considered in the engagement with health systems, but as seen in these pictures, it also includes the community consequences of too many boarded up and condemned buildings, the food challenges of empty grocery store shelves and convenience stores that pass for markets, the realities of overgrown playgrounds and how this leads back to child care issues, the many faces of drug use and addiction and their ripple effects through neighborhoods, and even how police activity intersects with health. In the eyes of the CHWs, all of these details are interrelated, often manifesting themselves in the end result of poor health care outcomes; in this way, being left behind takes many forms and has many reasons, and to get to the bottom of the health care crisis (as exacerbated by the pandemic), we need to consider how all of these adjacent and related issues intersect and contribute to the problem.

In this way, Frazier’s monument isn’t just a dull hagiographic tribute, but a more realistic and solution-oriented back-and-forth that leaves the visitor both more appreciative of the contributions of overlooked CHWs but also more aware of the everyday struggles and complexities they face in doing their jobs. To my eye, it finds a workable balance between anguish and triumph, memorializing a period of collective tragedy as a complicated set of entrenched circumstances (and possible solutions) rather than as an oversimplified evening news sound bite. If a monument like Frazier’s is meant to both help us remember and to teach us lessons we can apply to our lives going forward, hers movingly succeeds on both fronts. The pandemic was ruthlessly indifferent to its victims, but people like these unsung Baltimore CHWs fought hard to help the most neglected and vulnerable among us to get the care they needed. Frazier’s monument smartly reformulates the recipe of a 21st century photographic memorial, adding in a layer of activism and personal engagement to a more standard parade of faces to be honored and remembered.

Collector’s POV: Given the monumental nature of this work/installation, the work will undoubtedly fit best in an institutional setting, and so we didn’t inquire further about its potential pricing. More broadly, Frazier’s work has little consistent secondary market presence; in the past few years, prices have ranged between roughly $3000 and $28000, but the number of lots available has been relatively small.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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