JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2016. Each print is sized 27×40 and available in an edition of 5. (Installation shots below. Two images were not included at the request of the gallery.)
Comments/Context: Nona Faustine is a young African-American photographer with some authentic artistic momentum. She has arrived at a moment when unvarnished truth telling is particularly in need, and her unflinching vision of her personal relationship to historical sites of black injustice right here in New York city is all the more startling for its searing examination of topics long forgotten but remarkably contemporary in their echoes and influences. Building on the success of her show at Smack Mellon last year (reviewed here), Faustine has extended the aesthetic ideas she was exploring in her White Shoes series, following one path a few steps further and simultaneously branching off to another adjacent set of related concerns.
In several of the works on view, Faustine continues the compositional pattern of making nude or semi-nude self portraits at outdoor locations around the city that resonate with dark historical echoes. At Federal Hall on Wall Street, she stands bare chested looking up at a statue of George Washington (a former slave owner) that graces the formidable entry stairs of America’s first capitol. At Borough Hall in Brooklyn, she wears only a wispy black veil and her signature white shoes, the imposing columns built atop the land once the home of the Lenape Indians. And at the MTA Bus Depot in Harlem, she confronts a series of parking stalls that cover a negro burial ground. In all of these images, she stands as both witness and prosecutor, a black female exposing her powerful vulnerability as a kind of challenge, forcing us to engage with ghosts that have been smoothly paved over with concrete and polished marble.
Even more boldly personal are two other new images from the series. In one, Faustine lies fully nude (like a corpse) on a flag-draped platform in a darkened apartment, its title, Say Her Name, scolding us for not treating such overlooked victims with more respect. And in another, she stands topless outside the former home of Sojouner Truth on Canal Street, holding the provocative sign Ar’n’t I A Woman. It’s a brashly poignant and memorable picture, directly tearing at stereotypes of gender, race, and body image with the quiet ferocity of a street fight.
Faustine’s images of various national monuments replicate this mood of silent outrage, but do so without introducing her own body. Instead, her tourist snapshots of the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial are all obstructed, the famous sites seen from afar, blocked from clear view by the black bars of windows, fences, and security gates. While the gesture is aesthetically similar to Ai Weiwei’s images of landmarks adorned by his rebellious outstretched hand with extended middle finger, the effect is different – Faustine is documenting a pervasive sense of America where the rights and freedoms thought to be enjoyed by all are instead rudely and decisively interrupted. Fogged, blurred, in shadow, or simply placed too far away to be easily engaged (particularly the Capitol Building which is closed off by multiple layers of obstacles), they are instead landmarks to separation, division, and inequality. The most eerie of these works is Faustne’s image of the usually elegant Jefferson Memorial, its shining white rotunda now seemingly haunted by an ominous dark silhouette in the center (the statue of Jefferson), the Legacy of Lies in its title bringing us back to the former president’s persistent ownership of slaves.
While scenes like these could feel mannered or overly conceptual in the hands of a different artist, Faustine invest them with vibrant immediacy, the kind that feels real, and true, and smash-you-in-the-face shocking. These photographs are consistently successful at making the viewer see the world through the artist’s own eyes, and sadly, Faustine’s America is place where she is largely on the outside looking in. Here she is, trying to assert her own humanity in a world full monuments that turn her away and landmarks that silently remind her of the brutality inflicted on others before her. And yet, her persistence in the face of consistent rebuke and her dogged commitment to continuing to search for her own truths, these are thrillingly universal American impulses, which makes these pictures surprisingly (and almost ironically) patriotic. This nuanced and often conflicting mix of frustration and hope is what gives the works their lasting and incisive intensity.
Collector’s POV: The prints in the show are priced at either $2700 or $3000. Faustine’s work has no secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.