“To title a piece ‘Black Face’ is going to raise some hairs on the backs of some peoples’ necks [who] find that that’s a derogatory phrase,” acknowledged Ellen Hackl Fagan. Her Bushwick-based gallery, Odetta, is opening the exhibition Heliotrope tonight, showcasing the work of four mid-career artists. German-born photographer Eva Mueller, a New York City-dweller since 1989, has contributed a series of portraits depicting different people coated in dark, midnight-black paint.
“What she’s really aiming for is to show the similarity among us all, if we are all the same color, and explore: What does that mean now?” Fagan explained.
I met Mueller at the one-year-old gallery on a busy industrial block, steps away from Roberta’s, to learn more out about the artist who dared use blackface, a starkly offensive image, in her work. Given the awful connotations usually associated with a longtime American tradition and homegrown form of (incredibly racist) entertainment, the minstrel show, it’s safe to assume many artists would tread lightly, if they chose to trespass at all.
The sprightly photographer, steeped in the ’90s and schooled in the Club Kid days of New York City, arrived dressed in all black, save for a crest of white-blond hair. Perhaps she was not the most likely person to tangle with this topic, but then, as an outsider who grew up in what she called “monochromatic” Germany, maybe Mueller has a more fluid way of approaching her adopted country’s legacy of racism.
In her conception, “Black Face” is a controversial name for a very simple experiment, one that asks how society can move past entrenched racism and achieve equality. Mueller was living in Harlem when the thought first came to her. “People get judged by their skin color so I figured, if everybody would be Black, then we could not judge them and we would be all equal,” she said.
She realized it was a simplistic idea, but the implications intrigued her. She started painting friends and fellow artists pitch black, rimming the dense makeup around their eyes and photographing them super close-up to eliminate any other details that might hint at her subjects’ ethnicity.
At first, the direction of the project wasn’t quite a conscious choice, Mueller explained. It was more of an aesthetic curiosity. The main reason she chose to paint her subjects in black is simply because other colors don’t look as smooth on camera, not because she was drawn to the history of blackface. “I just called it ‘the Black Face project’ because I’m very straightforward with naming my projects and I’m very, like, direct,” explained Mueller. When her friends brought up the moral and political connotations she decided it was an even more apt name.
“I thought, wait a minute– now I’ll call it ‘Black Face’ just because it is a black face,” she said. “I want to spark a dialogue.”
Mueller’s project seems to have stemmed from a thought process that is less a solid position than genuine curiosity. “For me, it’s close to home,” she said, gesturing to the portraits. “I know who they are, I know their gender, what they look like when they are not painted, so I am very curious to know what people will ask.”
She continued: “The incentive is to just take that moment and be like, well, it doesn’t matter what race a person is and what gender a person is–it’s a person, it’s a human being. Let’s stop categorizing people.”
There is something jarring about the portraits when encountering them for the first time. For many people, they will instantly link to the cartoonish masks of mockery once used, all too recently, on a regular basis in American popular culture– the high contrast of pitch black with the white eyes, the rounded moon face. (And occasionally, this same image still rears its ugly head in pop culture, though in more subtle ways.)
But taken on their own, the photographs are also deeply absorbing, sucking in all light and transforming a human face into something like a lunar landscape. The subjects– white, Asian, Black and Middle-Eastern, are reduced to the uncompromising planes of their face: the curve of their lips; the lines on their forehead; the expression in the pools of their eyes. They stare out from the walls, challenging perceptions and labels, while at the same time recalling a long history of racism.
Much of Mueller’s previous work deals with gender fluidity and androgyny, like her recent series Genderfuck (which depicts a clash of gender traits– drag queens with beards, androgynous subjects covering body parts that might give them away) and you can see that influence in her tendency to blur the signposts we’re taught to look for in an attempt to classify people. “Gender takes a backseat to the whole thing,” she said of the hard-to-identify portraits. “You see the face itself is not that different between men and women, in many cases.”
One image stands out from the others in the back of the gallery, marked by a black steel frame. It would be easy to pass by, but if you take the time to really look, you’ll notice that it’s actually a video in which dozens of faces slowly, almost imperceptibly, morph from one into another. With help from incredibly smooth high-quality video, the transitions are almost seamless enough to convince you that you’re looking at one photograph transforming in front of your eyes. The effect is uncanny and mesmerizing.
While the idea of boiling humanity down to one color holds a certain seductive promise, there is also an element of flattening in both the photos and the concept. The people in the portraits, suspended in their androgynous singularity, seem almost like aliens, not humans. In fact, Mueller said one of her subjects wasn’t recognized by many friends who had known her for years. This line of thought could also be registered as simple colorblind naïveté. Is “blackwashing” our identities just another form of “whitewashing,” or disassociating from our distinct attributes and our history, as problematic as it is?
Mueller said she hoped the portraits would be just one element of a larger discussion. “That is a whole pandora’s box, the slavery issue,” she said. “I think in this country, it’s really not that much talked about. I think there is still a lot of digesting to do, and hopefully this will also be a part of that discussion because the racism in this country stems from that history.”
Eventually, she hopes to crowd fund a larger iteration of the project where she would paint and photograph people in the real time, asking them to reflect on their experience for a mini-documentary.
I asked Mueller if she was prepared for the controversy her images might incite, particularly in light of the recent outrage directed at Bushwick’s gentrifying artist community. After all, it was just last week when we watched a heated debate erupt about gentrification and Western privilege after an artist made a vague plan to compile a list of “the Bushwick 200,” or the neighborhood’s most influential people, according to him.
Mueller thought for a second. She said she hadn’t intended to be aggressively provocative with her idea, and was not trying to stir up negative reactions. But much of her work deals with ambiguities and the space between humans of different backgrounds and identifications. “I’m ready for dialogue– the more controversy, the better because it really makes people think and you can talk about it and discuss things,” she said. “Always what it come down to, when I create something, is: I want people to stop in their tracks for a moment and have a look and think, and maybe reconsider, what their labeling and categorization is about.”
Odetta Gallery is located at 229 Cook Street in Bushwick. Opening party for Heliotropes is Friday January 15, 6 pm to 8 pm. Exhibition runs from January 15 through March 6.