When the current exhibit of the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s current artists-in-residence program, “Race, Love, and Labor,” first opened at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Fine Art in 2014, the nightly protest actions in Ferguson, Missouri were but a couple weeks old. Black Lives Matter was still primarily a hashtag, founded in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida a year earlier, and not quite a movement.
“It is impossible to separate the history of photography from the history of labor, love, and race in America. A reflective look at the collection shows that a critical function of photography, through a vast range of aesthetics, is the labor of becoming and the work it entails — on the land and within our inner worlds,” wrote exhibit curator Sarah Lewis in a statement for the show’s catalog. “They [these images] function, as Frederick Douglass once reminded us, as images that both record what is and conjure a sense of what could be. What does it mean to work in this lineage? These photographs, each the gift of a moment in time through a unique residency, show us where a future path may lead.”
The exhibition — which stays up at CPW through October 16 and then moves on to Stony Brook University this coming winter, was designed to acknowledge the power and creative rewards reaped by CPW’s Woodstock AIR Program since its founding in 1999, including the over 100 artists of color who have spent time here, progressing their photo work. The images, many by artists who have since gone on to great acclaim and honors, including major museum shows and grant awards, comes from the Center’s permanent collection, stored at SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum.
What’s on view has a subtle way of unsettling one, seeing bodies squeezed in under Byrdcliffe structures, hinting at what the Underground Railroad must have been like, of flight from any instance of slavery. There’s a wall covering Black Panther days in the early 1970s in Albany and Peekskill. Great portraiture that explores elements of patriotism and personal/familial identity; Deana Lawson’s striking takes on the nude, updated.
How have things shifted since the exhibit first saw the light of day?
For one, its curator, Lewis, has moved on from years as a curator at MOMA and the Tate Modern, and authorship of her well-respected book about the creative process, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, to become both Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and a noted essayist for New Yorker and other publications, including the recent guest editorship the “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture.
Then there are those career leaps…including Xaviera Simmons’ winning of a coveted Robert Rauschenberg Award for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s winning of a MacArthur Genius Award.
Most important, though, is the way Race, Love, and Labor resonates fresh in this summer of increasing racial divides, of Milwaukee and Baltimore, Dallas and Minneapolis; Obama’s final rising and Trump’s various whistlings.
“Published in the last year of the Obama presidency, this issue marks a time of unparalleled visibility for an African American family on the world stage. Yet this era must also be defined by the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the stagnated wages of working-class citizens, and growing impatience with mass incarceration,” Lewis writes in that Aperture intro from this summer, culling what’s shifted in two years. “We live in a polarized climate in the United States; sociologists tell us that people now congregate, live, worship, play, and learn with those like themselves more than ever before. Save for constructed societies, we come into close contact with those who do not share our political and religious views less and less. How we remain connected depends on the function of pictures — increasingly the way that we process worlds unlike our own. The tool we marshal to cross our gulf is irrevocably altered vision. The imagination inspired by aesthetic encounters can get us to the point of benevolent surrender, making way for a new version of our collective selves.”
Also vastly different is the physical context this new iteration of this exhibition is in, with current CPW artist-in-residence Jared Thorne’s installation “Clyde Ross” filling the adjacent Kodak Gallery enigmatically yet with great emotional effect.
“The work is really an extension of my longstanding work to explore black experiences in America with a specific focus on the nation’s cultural and structural responses to black bodies – blackness not as a construct or an idea but as a literal and physical presence upon the American landscape,” the actor/artist writes of his work, and its greater context. “For those who understand that the current cultural fascination with the interactions between police and black communities is reflective of a deeply historical rather than a strictly contemporary phenomenon, the next question is not ‘for how long has this been going on?’ but rather just ‘how? How is it that many of the same struggles described in Emancipation still echo so strongly across the centuries — to 2016 — in Ferguson, Cleveland, Sanford, Baton Rouge, Staten Island? As my art continues to evolve, I’m anxious to see how our government responds to the current state of unrest.”
Or as the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s executive director Hannah Frieser, who has come to her job long after this whole cycle was first initiated, has put it: “The topic is as relevant and timely as it could be due to current events in politics and daily life. Sarah Lewis did a splendid job in combining the work of a small group of artists into a dialogue that will still be important in ten years. The exhibition addresses issues of race in a social context, but does so with a multitude of voices in a way that encourages introspective thought rather than explosive reaction.”
Race, Love, and Labor will be on view through Sunday, October 16 at CPW galleries, 59 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Call 679-9957 or visit www.cpw.org for more info.