Ken Gonzales-Day's stark portraits of lynching trees are quietly… (Luis de Jesus Gallery )
Ken Gonzales-Day uses photographs to picture sites of secrecy and hidden history. Light-jet prints mounted on aluminum panels yield a stately, almost ceremonial presence. In his Conceptually oriented pictures, prominent blank space often functions as a visual signal that something is missing -- something that the subtly exalted photograph may or may not be able to identify, but that looms large nonetheless.
At Luis de Jesus Gallery, 19 selections from three bracing bodies of work made during the past 10 years incorporate three standard categories of artistic tradition -- still life, landscape and portraiture. Provocatively, which is which isn't always crystal clear. A still life might be composed of sculpted portrait busts, or a landscape focused on a portrait of a tree.
Gorgeous live oaks, Ficus benjamina and other trees from the series "Searching for California Hang Trees" are juxtaposed in the front room with formal portraits of handsome Latino men. The singular trees exploit a conflicted subject that dates to the earliest photographic experiments in England and France 150 years ago, when nature collided headlong with the Industrial Age.
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Gonzales-Day's lush images sometimes include a surrounding landscape of grassy fields or suburban houses. Elsewhere they are set against a flat, black background -- a negative space whose grim connotation engulfs the scene. Perfectly ordinary landscapes that one encounters every day, they represent approximations of actual locales where lynch mobs in the 19th and early 20th century engaged in extrajudicial killings.
Elegant, muscular and mute, these trees are at once achingly beautiful and oddly ominous. Across the room, the subjects of the artist's Latino male portraits, bust-length and frontal, are similarly elegant, muscular and mute. Lynching is usually considered within the brutal history of white violence against African Americans, but Gonzales-Day's research discovered that Latinos were disproportionately targeted by California lynch mobs. The seductive beauty of his pictures suggests a fearful motive for the crime.
The rear gallery features examples from Gonzales-Day's well-known series "Profiled," published in a 2011 monograph. (Several have been shown in other exhibitions.) The artist rummaged through storerooms in art and natural history museums to photograph an inventory of Western European depictions of race from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. His camera frames them in a distinctly 21st century, post-Enlightenment way.
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The sculptures in the pictures show ethnographic studies of Asian, African and American "types," a gilded Orientalist imperial folly, re-considerations of classical Greco-Roman ideals and more. All are by anonymous or lesser-known artists, not unlike the subjects themselves. The pervasive namelessness starkly contradicts the goal of formal portraiture, which seeks to pinpoint and validate the sitter's uniqueness.
Instead, these pointed racial profiles become a portrait of power in society, which lies outside the frame. In some of the more potent pictures, Gonzales-Day juxtaposes sculptures to set them into silent conversation with each other -- an African man with a European, a Japanese woman with Venus, a Native American with a Neo-Classical faun -- all paired and separated with blank space in between. The blankness echoes with the force of a condemnation. Mythologies of identity yawn wide, swallowing up the present.
Luis de Jesus Gallery, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-6000, through Dec. 8. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.luisdejesus.com
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