Labels Anxiety's Edge

Jose Bedia (Cuban, born 1959)

El Senor de la Noche, 1992

acrylic on canvas

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011 and gift of Cade and Waileia Roster, 2005 (2005.10.1)


Miami-based Jose Bedia’s art is influenced by African, Afro-Cuban and Native American religious/spiritual beliefs and practices, alternate cosmologies, and world-views experienced through his travels to live among indigenous peoples in such places as Northern Mexico, the United States, Brazil, Central Africa, and the Caribbean islands. "I see myself as a kind of anthropologist. I do field work, I collect things and take notes—and then the ideas start to come out. This kind of thing is more important than the idea of an artist sitting inside his studio," Bedia says.  The artist’s distinctive figural style is often centered on an image of an outsized, powerful male—massive upper torso and arms, broad shoulders with a proportionately smaller head, a kind of iconic Everyman, as seen in this work.  The painting’s title is inscribed in elegant script at the right: Senor de la Noche (Lord of the Night). The massive figure of the man is depicted in black silhouette, while the night sky is rendered schematically in white crisscross symbols arrayed over the body, an image that could be interpreted as auspicious or ominous. The idea of Senor de la Noche has figured in popular film and songs alluding to concepts of Santeria, the syncretic West African/Caribbean/Christian religion established in Cuba and other Caribbean islands by slaves in the colonial period.  On the left in the painting are the words mpangui bunanfuka (brother night) in the Kikongo language of East Central Africa which was also introduced at this time. While Bedia’s art references religion, it is not specifically religious art but rather based on an exploration of diverse spiritual worlds.



Elizabeth Berdann (American, born 1956)

Plague, 1994

oil on copper, found metal objects

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1997 (1997.56)


New York artist Elizabeth Berdann often uses found frame-like elements as the starting point for her highly-finished paintings. Essentially a miniaturist

(the painting in this work is unusually large for her), she prefers small, intimate formats such as those suggested by locket and brooch framing

elements. In Plague Berdann uses a found cast and patinated circular

metal frame to house her painting of a woman who recoils in horror or

terror. The fact that she appears to be bald-headed suggests she may be a prisoner or suffering an illness, adding to the sense of anxiety projected by her pose. Around this image Berdann has placed a “cloud” of insects and reptiles (found pressed metal decorations and costume jewelry) which are the apparent source/cause of the woman’s torment and misery.



Douglas Bourgeois (American, born 1951)

Two Poets on an Island, 1991

oil on wood panel

Gift of the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011 and gift of Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith, 2009 (2009.23.25)



Two figures find themselves marooned on a tiny island in the midst of water that appears to be in flames.  The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is seated, her pose, dress and the still life element of the book appropriated from the only known photograph of her. The man is Rakim Allah (pronounced Rah-KIM, born William Michael Griffin, Jr. in 1968) an American rapper generally considered to be one of the most influential and innovative groups in hip hop during the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

Louisiana artist Douglas Bourgeois drew upon these two influences in his life for his subject. He studied Dickinson's poetry in the 1970s as a former English major, and he was later a fan of Rakim, whose songs using internal rhyming and metaphors with multiple meanings were the first to really impart hip hop music lyrics with a serious poetic sensibility. Dickinson is seated next to a table with a book, an open bottle of ink and a pen, referring to her method of expression. There is a microphone hanging from the barren tree and speakers on tiny islets in the background, referring to Rakim's medium. Bourgeois states, "I paired them together because of their individual voices as poets. Their oppositeness--being from different centuries, different sexes, different races, with different styles of expression--is eased by their both being true to the rhythm of verse."



Geoffrey Chadsey (American, born 1967)

Snoop, 2005

watercolor pencil on Mylar

Collection of Vi Loo


New York artist Geoffrey Chadsey appropriates his imagery from art history, pop/alternative magazines, the Internet, and snapshots of family and friends, seamlessly melding or “mashing up” his disparate source material to create disconcerting and humorous subjects and scenes characterized by an off-putting sense of the familiar, yet which circumvent an identifiable personal narrative. To randomly accessed images, Chadsey mixes in the facial features of historical and contemporary public figures.  Challenging our facility to read the signs of masculinity, femininity, race, attitude, and expression, Chadsey’s images spin a complex web of emotions, as in this drawing combining a face portrait of the hip hop artist Snoop Dogg with the exaggerated pose and hairstyle from an image of a high-fashion model.  The result is cartoonish, a parody of the macho swagger of the rapper musician as androgynous fop (note the clown-like makeup around the mouth).  Chadsey, as a gay man, is also making a comment on the culture of the hip hop music scene, with its stridently anti-gay rhetoric and patriarchal attitude.


Robert Colescott (American, 1925-2009)

Shirley Temple Black (Aloha Shirley), 1980

acrylic on canvas

Collection of Dawn and Duncan MacNaughton


African-American artist Robert Colescott chose to deal with prejudice head-on in his work rather than sidestep difficult topics. Yet he did so with satirical subjects that expose and explode racial stereotypes with transgressive humor.  In this painting, Colescott is making a play on words, for the Hollywood actress’ name in private life became Shirley Temple Black when she married Charles Black, a young executive working for a pineapple company whom she met on a visit to Honolulu in 1950.  However, Colescott goes beyond the superficial humor to probe deeper issues.  Shirley Temple first visited Hawai’i in 1935, the year in which she appeared in the first of several films with the African-American dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who is shown in the sky in this work wearing his usual butler’s tuxedo and flashing his trademark exuberant smile.  Their appearance together in The Little Colonel was a groundbreaking event racially, for Robinson was the first black male to appear on film dancing with a white girl.  Colescott imagines Shirley Temple performing a hula on a Hawaiian beach, smiling while she thinks of her congenial acting and dancing partner (Robinson and Temple made several more films together).  However, Colescott summons irony by also posing hard questions:  would Shirley Temple have been as popular and had as successful a career, been called “America’s Sweetheart” or “America’s Princess” if she had been literally black, African-American?



John Coplans (British, 1920-2003)

Self-Portrait (Clenched Fist, Dark), 1988

gelatin silver print

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011 and gift of Carol Ross, 1993(1993.3.3)


After a distinguished career as a curator and writer on contemporary art, in the 1980s British-born New York artist John Coplans began taking photographs using his own body as exclusive subject matter. Working in series, Coplans explored the details and nuances of his naked body, creating an extended form of self-portraiture that is remarkably expressive and powerful without revealing his facial features. Self-Portrait (Clenched Fist, Dark) is from a series showing his hands in various poses.   This is one of the most powerful images in the series, imbued with a feeling of frustration, anger, power, either threatening or affirming depending on how the viewer interprets the gesture.  



Gregory Crewdson (American, born 1963)

Untitled, 1994

chromogenic print

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of The Honolulu Advertiser at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1996 (1996.4)



Gregory Crewdson is one of many artists working today who use the medium of photography to question viewers’ perception and understanding of images. For a long time the traditional view of photography was that it provided an objective capturing of reality.  Crewdson seeks to undercut this notion by photographing subjects which are staged or fabricated in such a way that at first glance the viewer assumes his images are depictions of reality. In a way they are, for what we see in them did exist, but they do not represent what we initially think they do.  They are essentially a fake “reality.”


For the series to which this work belongs, Crewdson constructed and then photographed in his studio elaborate sculptural vignettes composed of natural materials, taxidermied animals, and imitation foliage and fruit against a background slide projection. Crewdson is also playing with the notion of suburbia as well-kept, idyllic settings by showing us the darker side literally beneath or behind the surface of the façade.


While this image may disturb because even though what’s gong on in it is false, the photography medium makes it seem real, at least in our minds.  However, if this were a 17th-century Dutch still life painting, the dead fox and the rotting fruit would likely not repel even if installed in a dining room. In this case, the medium does make a difference because of our conditioned response to photography versus painting.



Vincent Desiderio (American, born 1955)  

Study for ‘Painting without Words,’ 1991

charcoal and pastel on paper

Collection of Dawn and Duncan MacNaughton


New York artist Vincent Desiderio, well-versed in art history and rigorously-trained, is often referred to as a realist or postmodern “history” painter.  His canvases and drawings offer enigmatic narratives drawn from his personal family history, our times, and the history of Western art.  Desiderio’s work, with its ambiguous yet raw emotion, challenges the eye and the intellect.  In The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century, Donald Kuspit’s volume of critical profiles of artists, titled “Vincent Desiderio: Postmodern Visionary Painting,” the author writes “Desiderio is not just a painter but a poet-painter—a painter who is able to condense into a single hallucinatory work a contradictory variety of emotions and ideas, in a way that makes it clear that painting has a unique power of subliminal, imaginative communication…The paintings are narratives, sometimes allegorical, sometimes intriguing and engaging as if they were ripped from the page of a pictorial novel…Virtually every one of his paintings shows, somewhere in it—somewhere quite centrally—an uneasy truce or standoff between the experience of art and the experience of life.”



Lesley Dill (American, born 1950)

Voices in My Head, 1997

charcoal and thread on gelatin silver print

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of Donald Angus, Helen Eskridge Rodman, Kenneth Kingrey, and the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1997



New York artist Lesley Dill has been deeply influenced by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and incorporates Dickinson’s poetry as well as the words of other writers such as Franz Kafka and Rainer Rilke in her works. She often uses words by layering them so that their meaning is impossible to discern. Dill has said “I try to intermingle the image and the language so that the experience and the explanation are at the same time wedded and contrary.”   In this work Dill uses the Dickinson poem numbered 937 both painted on the model’s face and embroidered into the print over his torso:


I felt a cleaving in my Mind—

As if my Brain had split—

I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—

But could not make them fit.


The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before—

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound

Like balls—upon a Floor.


Dill printed the image on a synthetic material and then vigorously worked on it by hand with charcoal so that much of the print is actually obscured by drawing and scraping, sometimes to the point of abrading or tearing the support.



Luis Jimenez (American, 1940-2006)

Snake, 1979

molded polychromed fiberglass

Lent anonymously


After World War II, glass fiber-reinforced plastic (fiberglass), which had been developed in the late1930s, became a material used in making mass-produced goods. Because it had considerable tensile strength but was not completely rigid, fiberglass lent itself well to processes that involved shaping and molding.  It also became popular with custom-car enthusiasts and surfboard makers, who incorporated pigments and lacquers and used commercial airbrushing techniques to create vibrant forms.  These qualities attracted the artist Luis Jimenez, who felt the material suited his flashy, unconventional sculptural subjects better than bronze, steel, or marble.  Jimenez, born in Texas of Mexican descent, was known for his bright, colorful, sleek sculptures usually of Southwestern and Hispanic themes.


Snake was conceived as part of a larger sculptural group titled Progress II, one of Jimenez’s first monumental works. In Progress II (Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento), a cowboy, horse, and longhorn steer soar in a cantilevered composition.  A rattlesnake lies coiled below them.  Jimenez sometimes cast such smaller elements as separate works.  



Duane Michals (American, born 1932)

Black is Ugly, 1974

gelatin silver print and ink

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds given in memory of Galen C. K. Leong, 2010 (2010.1.2)


Duane Michals was one of the first artists involved in photography to forgo making pictures of things in favor of making his ideas into pictures.  He has said "When you look at my photographs you are looking into my mind."  Staging events for the camera, working in picture sequences to tell a story, and painting and writing on his photographs are among the innovations for which he is given credit. Black is Ugly is one of a series of staged portraits Michals made in the mid 1970s in which he handwrote texts he composed near the image, thereby giving information that the image itself could not convey.


Michal’s has said Black is Ugly is not just about prejudice.  It also describes, he says, “a symbiotic relationship of hate…the person who is the object of the hate, when he believes that he is less than…that he is unnatural, then he is totally victimized.  The victim has to recognize the injustice and be angry about it.  And if the victim doesn’t do it, it just doesn’t get done.”


The hand-written text on the photograph reads:


“All his life he believed the lies white men had told him. He believed that black was ugly and a punishment from God, although he could not guess what his sin must have been. So he spent his entire life being cold when white men were warm, and being hungry when white men were fed. It seemed to him to be the natural order of things, although he could not guess why he should be punished. And when I told him it was not true, he would not believe me. It was too late.”



Frank Moore (American, 1953-2002)

Study for “Oz”, 1999

gouache, watercolor and graphite on paper

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, REC Fund—Roberta Ching and Persis Corporation funds, 2002 (2002.46)


In this work, which is a study for the artist’s monumental painting (6 x 10 feet) titled Oz, Frank Moore depicts a landscape, barren except for pointed mounds that extend into the far distance.  The mounds or hills are not natural, however, but man-made, comprising individual hoards of people’s possessions, apparently assembled following some catastrophic disaster which has seemingly destroyed everything except some people and myriad consumer goods.  We see people collecting things, fighting over things, guarding their piles of things with guns.  Moore’s subject has many layers of interpretation but over all it is a cautionary statement about humans’ relationships with objects.  Despite what appears to be the bleakest of circumstances, the people depicted, in a misguided attempt to bring order to chaos, cannot let go of their possessions and in fact draw them closer, hoard them, even though they can’t use them.  It is as if their lives equal the things they have; their identities are tied to tangible objects, even to the point of isolating themselves from each other, competing with and fighting each other.  Moore chose the title Oz for its deliberate irony with what is depicted here.  Oz, through the popular 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and even more so from the 1939 American musical film The Wizard of Oz, has come to symbolize in the collective cultural mind a place of fantasy and pleasantry, as well as a symbol of hope for fulfilling one’s dreams and wishes.  Moore’s study and painting are caricatures of this idea, as he seems to indicate that at the apocalypse, man’s baser nature will prevail and it will literally be “every man for himself.”



Nic Nicosia (American, born 1951)

Real Pictures #11, 1988-2001

gelatin silver print

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011 and gift of Cade Roster, 2002 (2002.1.3)


Nic Nicosia’s Real Pictures (1979-1999) explores his fascination with the gap between illusion and reality in photography.  Like all of his images, the works in Real Pictures are staged for the camera, but unlike many of his studio shots, the Real Pictures images, which were shot in black and white outside or looking outside, look less obviously staged, giving them a seamless, even cinematic quality in the eye and mind of the viewer. Nicosia uses mundane backgrounds and situations, often treating his subjects with affectionate humor and avoiding passing judgment, but he also reveals a darker side of American society and culture that lies beneath the surface.


Nicosia made #11 shortly after he had moved into a new suburban neighborhood in Dallas and cast the 3 children—whom he did not know beforehand but lived on his street—a day before taking the picture. Nicosia says that the idea was simply about kids and playing with fire, something to which perhaps many viewers can relate from their own childhoods. In fact, Nicosia says that the most effective work for him is when he presents an image and the audience completes it through their own experiences.



Dennis Oppenheim (American, 1938-2011)

Murder in Hawaiian Shirts, 1989

celastic, silkscreened fabric, painted plastic found objects

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011and gift of the artist and partial purchase, funds from gifts of the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1996 (1996.57.2)


Dennis Oppenheim was a pioneer of Conceptual Art, never concentrating on one primary medium.  His significant, diverse body of work spanned a multitude of artistic practices, including body, earth, performance and kinetic art, sculpture, photography, drawing, printmaking, and large-scale, public commissioned works. 


Oppenheim is known for his sense of humor (sometimes a bit macabre, as in this work), love for unconventional scale, and use of unusual materials.  Here two enormous headless, armless human torso forms attired in oversized lime-green “aloha” shirts with printed images of fish and other sea creatures “face off” towards each other.  As if in a nightmare, the images on the shirts turn into blood-red three-dimensional objects that cascade down the shirts and onto the floor.  In Oppenheim’s interpretation the stereotypical image of pleasant paradise suddenly becomes a symbol of conflict and violence.







Nam June Paik (American, born Korea, 1932-2006)

Warez Academy, 1994

televisions, wood framework, bell, book covers, wood school desk, DVDs and players

Gift of Barney Ebsworth in honor of Sam and Mary Cooke, 1997 (8763.1)


Nam June Paik was a pioneer of video and new-media art, appropriating video from commercial television for his work as an artist and musician. Paik’s manner of incorporating multiple, often stacked together, television sets evolved from his early performances as a member of Fluxus, a Neo-Dada movement that grew out of the counter-culture and anti-war movements in the 1950s and 1960s. 


Warez Academy takes the form of the iconic American one-room schoolhouse.  Through images of George H. W. Bush, the acronym AIDS, and other scenes related to conflict, nuclear biology, history, and genetics that flash rapidly across television screens, Paik comments on media saturation in contemporary culture obsessed with television, the moving image, and bright shiny things.


“Warez” refers primarily to copyrighted works distributed without fees or royalties in general violation of copyright law. This term was initially coined by members of the various computer underground circles, but has since become commonplace among Internet users and the mass media.



Franco Salmoiraghi (American, born 1942)

Tattoo, Bombs, Camouflage--Kaho’olawe, Hawai’i, 1994/1997

toned gelatin silver print with charcoal, graphite, conte, pastel and earth on distressed aluminum

Courtesy of the artist


Hawai’i artist Franco Salmoiraghi’s first visit to the island of Kaho’olawe was in 1976, accompanying the first legal landing of Hawaiians on the island since it had been closed in 1941 and used as a bombing target by the U.S. Navy for over three decades.  He returned to the island many times and in 1993-94 was involved in an intense period of shooting there during which he had greater access and the freedom to photograph whatever he chose.  He took over 3,000 images documenting the landscape, the remnants of military occupation, the exploration of cultural sites, and the re-establishment of traditional Hawaiian cultural and religious practices.


Salmoiraghi realized that by juxtaposing some of the images, interesting relationships emerged, conveying contrasting elements of the island: the waning presence of the military and the nascent presence of the Hawaiian people reclaiming part of their heritage.  In a series of diptychs Salmoiraghi explored the expressive potential of the photographs further, working over the prints with charcoal and graphite, rubbing Hawaiian red earth into the surfaces.  The imposition of his hand became a kind of analog for the impact of man on Kaho’olawe itself.  In the work exhibited here the legs of a uniformed soldier on the right stand on spent shells, while on the left the leg of a Hawaiian man, tattooed with traditional Hawaiian designs, stands barefooted on the soil.




Lucas Samaras (American, born Greece 1936)

Phototransformations, 1973

SX-70 Polaroid photographs

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of Charles Judd, Tom Phillips, the Cades Foundation and the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1997 (1997.11.1- 1997.11.2)


In the early 1970s New York artist Lucas Samaras was one of the first to recognize and experiment with the expressive potential of the new Polaroid SX 70 camera, and over a period of several years he produced many images using himself as his model. Samaras’ “Phototransformations” (1973-76), as these works are called, demonstrate the artist’s fascination with role playing and physical metamorphosis. Using pressure and heat, Samaras manipulated the Polaroids’ photographic dyes while they were still developing to create strange, monstrous distortions of his own image.


Although these works are literally self-portraits, art writer Ken Johnson posits that “Samaras’s art is fascination not with the contents of his own psyche but with possibilities of metamorphosis. For all the apparent self-exposure, Samaras himself remains a curiously opaque presence; the images don’t tell you who he is, what he desires, fears or dreams. He treats his body, like the photograph, as an object to be manipulated but hides his soul behind a dazzling display of wit, ingenuity and industry.”



Peter Saul (American, born 1934)

Del Monte, 1962

oil pastel on paper

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from a gift of Frumkin/Adams Gallery, by exchange, 2011 (2011.4)


Peter Saul is often mentioned as a peer of the Pop artists, but despite his use of familiar popular culture icons and products, as well as topical subjects pulled from the news, he has skirted the art-historical margins of that movement and maintained a position as a maverick in contemporary art.  Stylistically Saul’s work has more in common with street graffiti and artists like Jean Dubuffet and Philip Guston (whose works are also included in this installation) than the commercially-inspired works of Pop artists like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein.  Saul’s emphasis on the touch of the hand in creating his early works, such as this 1962 drawing, contrasts with the cool demeanor of Andy Warhol's electric chairs, which first emerged in 1963 (several of Warhol’s Electric Chair silkscreen prints are shown nearby in this installation).  Saul subverts commercial advertising with his use of cartoon-like exaggeration, scale distortion, and appropriation of brand names and emblems.  However, Saul never directly copies a source image but recasts it through his own ribald and at times, seemingly perverse sensibility, creating a collage of fragments of images that are ambiguous in their combination, significance and “meaning.”  Occasionally, Saul inserts a speech balloon with a non-sequitur word or phrase that further clouds interpretation (in this work the name Del Monte has a resonance to Hawai’i history, since Del Monte had operations here for 90 years, from 1917 to 2007).  Saul leaves the viewer to use his visual clues to put together a narrative reflecting their own experiences.



Joseph Seigenthaler (American, born 1959)

Swimmer, 1996


Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of Helen Eskridge Rodman, the Cades Foundation and the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1996 (1996.42)


Chicago artist Joseph Seigenthaler began his art career building wax sculptures for the Country Music Wax Museum in Nashville. Since then he has won awards for creating an eccentric cast of characters in clay which can seem grotesque to some viewers, fascinating to others, yet Seigenthaler says his sculptures are inspired by observations of ordinary people he sees as he goes about his everyday life. Seigenthaler has stated: “The figures I create are anonymously someone and specifically no one. I am fascinated with the oddities of the human form. I work from nature. I allow my imagination to get involved through distortion and exaggeration. That is how I see humankind.”  Seigenthaler also acknowledges being influenced by northern European Renaissance painters, such as the members of the Brueghel family.  Seigenthaler has said, “My work relies heavily on paint. It's all painted after it's fired, so I see it as almost a three-dimensional painting."  Seigenthaler is well known for his intricately detailed, life-size, hand-built figures, but from 1985 to 2000 he created a group of heads and busts for the wall that he calls “Noggins”, of which this work is one.  Swimmer depicts a nearly hairless man with a bruise on his forehead and goofy grin who has seemingly just crawled out of some dark, murky slime, judging from the residue line that runs across his shoulders, neck and chin.  It’s hard to look at him and yet hard to look away at the same time.  As is Seigenthaler’s practice, there is a message etched into the irises of the eyes—the left eye has the phrase “Look Out” and the right one has “Look Away.”  Nevertheless, Swimmer, combining refined technical skill with a deep understanding of psychological and sociological realities, seems imbued with a frail humanity.



Kara Walker, American, born 1969

The Means to an End—A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, 1995

etching and aquatint, five panels

40 5/8 x 122 3/8 inches

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from gifts of the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange, 1993 (1993.50 a-e)


The art of Kara Walker taps into a legacy of American slavery and racism that many find hard to face.  As a young African-American woman living in Georgia, Walker found some of the historical archetypes of race relations in the South barely concealed beneath the surface of polite society, swept aside or simply avoided because of their intense volatility and provocation.  Walker confronts racial hatred head-on, using the language and heritage of slavery and miscegenation as a means to explode this highly taboo subject.


In much of her work, Walker employs artistic precedents that recall the era of slavery while at the same time creating an uncomfortable division between elegance and revulsion. Walker uses the model of cut-paper silhouettes, a 19th-century genre of amateur art reserved for drawing rooms and children’s pastimes. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information,” explains Walker, “…that’s also what the stereotype does. So I saw the silhouette and stereotype as linked.”


In A Means to an End…A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, the delicacy and refinement of Walker’s figures are juxtaposed against a brutal narrative that begins with a child suckling at a slave woman’s breast and ends with a white slave master choking a naked slave girl. The panorama format leads the viewer through a series of vignettes subtitled “the beginning,” “the hunt,” “the chase,” “the plunge,” and “the end.”  Walker has played with the concepts of illusion and substance, fantasy and historicity, even simply the dichotomies of black and white.  Her conceptual integrity and technical sophistication allow Walker’s images to emerge from the darkest recesses of racial hatred toward a new, more challenging and critical response to our American heritage.



Kelley Walker (American, born 1969)

Maui, 1988, 2001
digital print on PVC vinyl (exhibition copy)

Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York


New York artist Kelley Walker often appropriates images previously appropriated by others in different contexts, altering them with a flatbed scanner and computer to make his own commentaries.  In the work exhibited here Walker used an image from the 1988 Aloha Airlines disaster in which a plane lost part of its fuselage in flight. The retail clothing company United Colors of Benetton had included the image in a 1992 advertising campaigns that was highly controversial for its use of difficult imagery from news agency photographs of real situations: a man dying of AIDS, a soldier gripping a human thigh bone, a man assassinated by the Mafia, a car on fire, a ship being stormed by emigrants.  By layering the once-shocking with the mundane superimposition of brightly colored dots, Walker is making reference to the Benetton incident and questioning the company’s statement regarding its campaigns: “Actual consumption is repositioned within the overall context of life. By entering the universe of values, the brand frees the product from the world of merchandise and manufacturing and makes it a social being of its own. By addressing an individual rather than a customer, the brand can identify its target on the basis not of age or income, but of a shared vision of what is important, starting from a set of common values.”   More broadly Walker critiques the way in which the digitally-induced proliferation of images causes them to lose their historical content.  Walker’s approach is also an interesting development in digital printmaking or art in that there is no specific physical work created.  The work exists on a CD containing a hi-res file that can be printed in any dimensions and on any surface to suit different needs.



Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)

Electric Chairs, 1971

color screenprints

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011, purchase, funds from The Shidler Family Foundation, Peter and Amy Russell, Reginald and Annette Kwok, and The Friends of the Contemporary Museum, 1996 (1996.29)


Andy Warhol, who in the early 1960s became interested in appropriating images from media sources in his work, first used the image of the electric chair chamber in Sing Sing Penitentiary in 1963, the same year as the two final executions in New York State. Warhol liked to work with images in series and created a many Electric Chair paintings, executed in grainy black silkscreen printing over varying monochrome backgrounds as part of a larger body of works he called “Death in America.”  Warhol’s seemingly objective, deadpan presentation of the unoccupied chair and empty execution chamber, with it’s one word sign “Silence,” is nevertheless an image that becomes a disturbing metaphor for death, forcing the viewer to contemplate the nature of voyeurism and reactions to punishment and violence in contemporary society.


In the early 1970s Warhol began producing silkscreen print editions, and in 1973 he returned to the Electric Chair image for this portfolio of ten prints (only eight are on view here).  Perhaps thinking about the marketplace and making his works more appealing to a larger audience, Warhol made some changes at this time, focusing more tightly on the chair and cropping out the “Silence” sign. While he continued to use a single colors on monochrome backgrounds, for the prints he selected softer, often bright and pastel-like colors, setting up a contrast between the disquieting nature of the image and the more decorative treatment he gave it a decade after the haunting Electric Chair paintings.



H. C. Westermann, American (1922-1981)

They Couldn’t Put “Humpty Dumpty” Back Together Again, 1980

ebony, vermillion wood, walnut

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011 and gift of Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith in Honor of The Contemporary Museum’s 20th Anniversary, 2008 (2008.32.14)


Westermann suffered heart attacks in 1978 and 1979, and his diminished health must have affected his work, if the sentiments expressed in his last major works can be interpreted as reflections of his mental state.  This work, although showing a game of tic-tac-toe, is titled with the climactic line from what is probably the most despairing and hopeless of children’s nursery rhymes:  “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”


As Westermann here depicted the war between the X’s and O’s, the next move would be for the O’s.  However, no matter where the next O is placed, the X’s will win.  Nevertheless, the potential symbolism of the X could be seen as to be X-ed out or to be deleted or removed, indicating that Westermann may have had a sense of his imminent passing (he died the next year, 1981).  The playing out of this game to its futile conclusion can be interpreted as a powerful allegory of life itself, and all the more poignant as one of the final statements Westermann made as an artist.



H. C. Westermann (American, 1922-1981)

A Soldier’s Dream, 1955

maple, glass, brass, string

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, 2011 and gift of Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith in Honor of The Contemporary Museum’s 20th Anniversary, 2008 (2008.32.2)


H.C. Westermann served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, and his experience of seeing ships sunk and comrades die was a powerful element in his work as an artist. The title of this sculpture refers to a popular war song from the early 19th century and later variations. The common thematic strand in these songs is the dream of the soldier’s return to home and family. In a 1918 version of the song, the soldier “dreams of home and mother, he dreams of the days gone.” He also dreams of heaven: “heaven and peace is the door, but a soldier to get within must fight thru the fire of war.”  Westermann’s shrine-like sculpture is reminiscent of religious retablos depicting the Crucifixion.  The artist’s variation on traditional iconography reveals his own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness: a figure whose feet have been severed (one of them lies on the floor below him) hangs from two ropes.  Blood-red light, filtered through the colored glass walls of the box, bathes the figure and space.  Hanging within the bowels of the furnace of war, the soldier has no hope of reaching home, or of assuaging the agony of his torture, but the “dream of heaven” is attainable through his withstanding the “fire of war.”