Ken Gonzales-Day, a visual artist with a master's degree in art history, loves to research. For his latest project, "Profiled," begun while an artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute in 2008, he was interested in the origin of the modern concept of race and immersed himself in the Enlightenment. He looked to philosophers and writers, to pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy and mesmerism, to ethnological representations and methods of artistic instruction as well as to the history of sculptural portraiture. Using PowerPoint as a digital sketchbook, he assembled long documents as he went along, filled with quotations, diagrams, notes and images from a variety of sources. When he speaks of what he uncovered along the way, it is with the zeal of an enthusiastic professor, which he is, in fact — at Scripps College.
"There were all these crazy systems," he says, "ranging from [Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar] Lavater and [Franz Anton] Mesmer to Descartes and the idea of the body as machine, notions of the eye as a machine, and all these ideas about the body and difference. Voltaire writing 'Candide,' using racial others to sort of caricaturize contemporary issues of his day. All of those issues were interesting to me. And within that, I was also looking at the formation of whiteness, because when they begin to construct the colonial other they're also constructing the white center."
He photographed portrait busts and other figurative sculptures in the collections of museums around the world — first the Getty, then the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, several museums in Germany, and the San Diego Museum of Man. Some of the sculptures he photographed in isolation, floating against a solid background. Others he depicted on display in museum galleries. Others he found in storage, lined up on shelves with tags or brusquely corralled into warehouse-like rooms. Some — perhaps the most poignant images — were mere fragments: a pile of disembodied arms, for instance, or a crumbling leg, bound up in wood and foam.
"My hope," he says of the project, which will be shown for the first time in its entirety at La Cienega Projects in March, "is that it would open up the possibility of thinking about what signifies race, what signifies difference, what signifies whiteness. In many of these sculptures we presume that they have a race, right? When they're just marble or terracotta or clay. The relationship between resemblance and reality can be deceptive."
Born in Santa Clara, Calif., to parents of mixed ethnicity — his mother is white, his father of Mexican descent, from a New Mexico family that dates back well before statehood — Gonzales-Day, 46, lived in Northern California and Idaho as a child and New York in early adulthood (attending Pratt Institute and Hunter College) before coming to UC Irvine for his MFA in the mid-'80s.
"I've tried to make work that responds to the Mexican American experience in this country on some level," he says. "That could be an aesthetic experience. It could be about pleasure and about playfulness and all kinds of things. I don't mean to suggest that it's bound specifically to the civil rights movement. But there is a relationship between my experiences in the world and my search for aesthetic pleasure. Those nuanced sensitivities are the things that interest me, and if I can interest other people in some of those then I think that that's a good thing."
Before "Profiled," Gonzales-Day spent years immersed in a far more gruesome history, scouring archival records and documents to produce what remains his best-known body of work, a multifaceted exploration of lynching across the West.
"The lynching project started with the idea of looking at Latino portraiture," he says. "I spent a lot of time going from archive to archive, looking at images, and ultimately uncovered this other history, which became the subject of the project. The Getty started the same way: looking at the collection, looking at materials. Obviously it was a lot less emotional in the sense that there is really very little to do with the Mexican American experience in the Getty collection per se. You have a number of amazing early colonial maps and texts, but it's not the same emotional trauma of looking at the lynching history."
Several works from the series are set out in a small viewing room adjacent to Gonzales-Day's studio, on the lower floor of the hilltop Silver Lake home he shares with his partner, Gary Wolf: reproductions of vintage lynching photographs from which he's digitally removed the hanging bodies, leaving only the gallows and a leering crowd. It is a sign of the images' effect that, having seen them installed in 2008, in LACMA's "Phantom Sightings," I recalled them being much bigger — poster- or even wall-sized. In fact, they are the size of postcards.
In addition to these images and a series of large, deceptively pastoral photographs of actual lynching trees across California, Gonzales-Day published "Lynching in the West 1850-1935." Peppered with his photographs but scholarly in tone, the book assembles the most complete list of documented lynchings (352 from statehood through the last recorded, in 1935) and argues for a more racially nuanced interpretation of the history of vigilante justice in the West. While only a small number of California lynchings involved African Americans, a significant majority of the victims were still nonwhite: namely Latino, Native American and Chinese.
The rigor of Gonzales-Day's historical research lends the work inevitably an academic intonation. What's more striking, however, about both "Profiled" and the lynching project is a palpable quality of tenderness. In both, he practices a delicate form of visual ethics, finding ways of exploring race as a concept — our tendencies and perceptions, expectations and presumptions — without pinning the dialogue to actual individuals. He erased the lynching victims, for instance, to avoid "revictimizing" those bodies. The result is a recalibration of the power of the image, shifting attention from the spectacle of the death to the relish of the perpetrators.
"Representing difference in photography can be challenging because of all of the debates around objectification," he says. "So using the sculptures [in 'Profiled'] was a way of trying to talk about the body without having to use real bodies so much. They become stand-ins for the larger idea of what a portrait is."
He comes to his subjects with a deeply empathic visual sense, alert to the subtle dichotomies of presence and invisibility, of what has been made historical and what has been forgotten. Indeed, he was drawn to busts, he says, out of sympathy for their present irrelevance. Once a definitive indicator of social rank and cultural importance, they serve now, to all but a few art historians, primarily as filler for museum galleries.
"Part of it," he says, "is I feel bad for them — they're all left alone there. Nobody talks to them! Nobody looks at them!" He laughs. "So to create a context in which to imagine that something that is no longer valued has value — that's something I find interesting."