Rico Gatson – 2005
OLSON GALLERY | Bethel University
RICO GATSON | Meditations on Race and Religion
January 20 – March 25, 2005
iteration: n. 1. The act of iterating; repetition.
2. Math. A computational procedure in which the desired result is approached through repeated cycles of successively better approximation. 3. Comp. Sci. The process of repeating a set of instructions until a specific result is achieved.
The title of Rico Gatson’s exhibition, Meditations on Race and Religion, sets up certain expectations in the viewer’s mind. Those expectations will vary considerably depending on the viewer. But regardless of what one anticipates, it may be that all viewers are surprised upon entering the gallery to see what initially feels like a very low-key set of images. What greets the eye is a series of works that are subtle, mostly white in color and cool in temperature. The exceptions are the three works that strike hot tones in the midst of the dominant hue of white. And perhaps, before the viewer even examines the specific imagery, this embedding of a few hot notes within an orchestration of overall whiteness is the first clue to the nature of Gatson’s statement. Part of what this exhibition is about is not just the overt (and expected) content/subject matter of race and religion, but the more embedded, structural ways in which these forces are present in the culture.
Each object in the gallery can be contemplated by itself. But it is also important to think about all the works together, because the installation as a whole constitutes a work, or statement, that is larger than any single piece alone. There is an unfolding of meanings or realizations in this installation that only dawns on us as we move through the works, letting what is learned in some pieces flow back into pieces already looked at. Pieces viewed later interpret (or reinterpret) the pieces viewed first. Or better, pieces viewed later reveal what was veiled in the first works. At least that is my experience in moving through Gatson’s exhibition.
For example, if one enters the gallery and begins with the pure and elegant Iterations of the Cross, fifteen of which line the long wall like a theme and variation of minimal designs based on the cross form, one may feel a pleasant satisfaction in their crisp sense of design. But one might also wonder what they mean, beyond the formal precision of improvisations on a motif. As the viewer moves from one to the other, the notion arises that these can be read as a progression. And the word “iteration” in the title encourages such a reading. “Iteration” is the act of repetition. But not merely a static repetition without purpose. It is a repetition of something through a set of cycles, through a computational procedure in order to get a desired result. The aim, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is to achieve a “better approximation” or a “specific result.”
A “better approximation” of what? A better approximation of what the cross means? Or at least of what some people want it to mean? Anyone familiar with this kind of imagery will see here a kind of design evolution from logo to symbol to emblem and finally to insignia. An insignia is a badge of membership, and these iterations of the cross all smell like the insignias of clubs, lodges, and secret societies that are, themselves, social iterations of fundamentalist Christian religion infused with hate and racism. One feels this by the fifteenth iteration, just in time to arrive at the first work that bears an explosive note of hot color, titled Double Crossed. This digital C-print bursts into hot color as the cross forms burst into raging flames reminiscent of cross burnings in the dark. The title Double Crossed now points backwards, interpreting those fifteen apparently benign Iterations of the Cross already viewed. To be double-crossed is the worst betrayal because the evil comes cloaked in the name of something trustworthy. The ancient metaphor of “whiteness” as something good and pure is twisted into a mask veiling evil and violence.
Any group of people can repeat the cross until its meanings are iterated from grace and freedom into ideology and control. By a series of subtle shifts and variations it comes to mean what they want it to mean. And so it is with the Ku Klux Klan and White Christian Supremacists. The danger, of course, is that every group from small independent churches to entire nations iterates what they believe the cross to mean, repeating it over and over until its “correct truth” seems so obvious that it is taken as natural. The healthy correctives of doubt and self-criticism are viewed as weakness or unfaithfulness until the group becomes so invested in its own interpretation that it can no longer see—or tolerate—the “other.” Thus blinded to self-critical thinking, the “other” must become the scapegoat blamed for any problems inside the group.
It is this twisting of logic that uses good for self-serving evil that Gatson explores in History Lessons, the video piece on the next wall. This video piece itself is divided into three parts, suggesting the religious triptych format of the traditional altarpiece. In the first two parts, Gatson uses a ground of shifting shapes that are constructed out of cross forms that expand and implode like a kaleidoscope. Within these, old-time appearing silent film clips portray military colonialism, KKK parades, racially stereotyped African-Americans, the old banal imagery of white men protecting their white women from the black man, racial violence, and lynchings. The sound track shifts from African drumming and rhythms to the sound of crackling flames.
In the third section, Gatson uses Bob Dylan’s song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” to accompany a set of images appropriated from journalism to illustrate the iterations of logic underlying much American racism. As Dylan’s lyrics spell it out, Gatson’s imagery makes visible the twisted logic of the double cross that lead to the racially motivated murder of civil rights worker, Medgar Evers in 1963. In this section of Gatson’s video, we see the connections between how those in power (Governor Wallace, sheriffs, the wealthy) play upon the frustration of poor whites who are disenfranchised and feel impotent. Trading upon racial identity, powerful whites convince poor whites to scapegoat blacks. This is an ancient and modern strategy of people in power. By distracting the poor through the devices of education, religion, and resentment, the wealthy and powerful convince the poor that their plight is not related to the social structures controlled by the powerful. Rather, it is the fault of the “other” in their midst. This was the strategy of Hitler who blamed the Jews for the plight of Germany’s poverty after World War I. Thomas Friedman argues that this is the strategy in the Middle East, where wealthy royal families keep the oil money, impoverish their own citizens, and encourage fundamentalist clerics to whip up the anger of the poor against the infidel instead of their own leaders.
What is so unsettling, and so prophetically profound, is Gatson’s understated revelation that the same dynamics we loathe elsewhere also exist in ourselves, but in less overt forms. Hence the disturbing white paintings on the last wall of the exhibition. Especially haunting, in my view, is the inverted American flag that is drained of all color and is visible only by way of raised white dots. Like a strange form of Braille, this painting warns against trusting in an identity built upon unself-critical and deeply internalized blindness.
Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.
Art Historian, Bethel University