Featured Artist: Stephanie Sparling Williams
Scholar | Artist | Lifestyle Blogger
This response was originally published as part of Imagining America’s 2014 PAGE Blog Salon. A few words have been edited or removed for clarity. To view this conversation in its original context, click the link HERE.
It is clear why I was assigned to respond to your post. We both ride a line between “maker” and “thinker.” We both read and produce through crises of ethnicity and race. We both want to, have to, situate this whole operation in contexts of higher education and insular art worlds. I know all too well the rewards and challenges you describe. One challenge I know deeply and was called to reconsider through your writing is the degree to which we rely on writing to complement our non-written work. It is a challenge to not let the complement become supplement. For me, it boils down to constantly reminding myself in the studio: “viewers cannot be expected to read (even brief wall text, much less a paper or dissertation) in order to sense a transformative impact in the work.” Any transformation must reside clearly, if also complexly, within the media on view.
As so much of what you write cuts close to home, I have stalled facing it directly through a public response. My apologies for the delay. To work through the initial stunned incapacitation, I decided to go to the heart of the matter (I think it is anyway) and look at your visual, mixed media work in order to formulate my words. I also took it to my wonderful students. This semester I am teaching “Episodes in Western Art,” Ithaca College’s version of Art History 101. To date, we have surveyed Ancient Greece and Rome. Organically, a theme of bodies has guided us: representing the body; formulating ideal bodies; gendering bodies; constructing civic bodies; body representations across mediums; and bodies architecturally situated. Because of these preceding conversations, and because I find pedagogical value in making connections between ancient and contemporary concerns (especially regarding constructions of “the West” over vast temporalities), I thought it appropriate to devote significant class time to reviewing your work, in which the body (your body) is central. We looked most closely at 100 White Dresses.
100 White Dresses left us largely unconvinced overall when considering the tasks laid out in the Artist Statement. We asked, “where is the transformation in regards to shifting discriminatory and/or invisiblizing mainstream attitudes toward Black/White mixed-race women in art?” We also looked for the signs of “introspective energies” being expressed. We considered two venues hearkened to by the visual vocabulary deployed: glossy wedding and lifestyle magazines targeting women and scrapbooks. Speaking to the former, we could see this project being quite readily co-opted as a visually striking, novel ad campaign that pictures a non-threatening multiculturalism, even when (perhaps especially when) the tall, blonde, white groom is included. Regarding the inevitable “scrappiness” of collage: the form hints at memory construction, but whose memories (if memories at all) is unclear. The lack of identifiable faces does not help. There is the particularly shaded and freckled skin, but the uninformed viewer likely reads this as an inherent aspect of watercolor, rather than a portrait-like representation of your own freckled, biracial flesh and all its social implications. Again, without the supporting texts and in this case, your photograph on the website as well, the work alone cannot do the task set out for it in those thoughtful writings.
However, interesting moments live quietly in the works, and could be fleshed out, so to speak, in order to more powerfully enact the transformative possibilities you seek. Hair is the site of one. Some students were taken with the differences in wedding hairstyles across the series. In distinction, the more “traditional” (read, white, middle class, heterosexual, North American) coiffures alongside the tense, splayed plaits of the “natural” Afro American do’s begin to inspire the reflective discomfort in viewers which at least open the door to a critical self-reflexivity. In the collage spirit already at work, I wonder what the incorporation of real hair of multiple racialized textures and colors would do?
And then there are the most fascinating aspects, what we deemed “mutation spots.” (The term is yours if you want it.) One example is in the piece containing the cutout words “Something New…” Where the painted right arm meets the collaged hand is an electric moment. It disturbs. Here, if anywhere, the spotting endemic to watercolor begins, on its own, to read as the freckles of a mixed-race woman’s skin. It reads so in contrast to the slender, fair hand posed at the hip. That line of their encounter reverberates between a meeting place and a harsh, harsh division. (A wound?) Here, the formal characteristics of paint and collage do the work of supporting the transformation of social codes around skin. These are thrilling (and threatening) moments in the work. They evoke the history of monstrosity as one trope through which dehumanization was and is worked onto us people of color historically. It gives monstrosity sneakily back to the “civilized” consumer of glossy wedding ads. It tricks them into reconsidering the history of their own whiteness. And here I get some insight into what you might mean by “introspective energies,” because here I can see most clearly you are dealing with your own whiteness, freckled as it is. This is in fact a scrapbooked memory, even if a memory of a future or a fantasy. This is all to say: More monsters please.
We also spent time with Dirt Prayers. One piece in particular compelled us to construct a fantastic reading of your situating yourself and your image-making practice within Euro-centric art history. But as this post already pushes the conventional length, I’ll say, let’s talk. Really, let’s, because to have one piece so cuttingly speak back to traditions of Western painting and representations of (black) women since the Renaissance through a smart and novel deployment of medium-specific means is certainly something to discuss.
On behalf of my students, thank you for your work and for making it available. (And thanks to them for an afternoon of informed, rewarding and brilliant conversations.) See you soon.
Josh T. Franco is an art historian who makes one non-written thing a year. He completed his dissertation “Marfa, Marfa: Minimalism, rasquachismo, and Questioning ‘Decolonial Aesthetics’ in Far West Texas” at Binghamton University in 2016. He currently serves as Latino Collections Specialist, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.