Nine years ago I reviewed an exhibition at the Fralin Art Museum featuring the work of William Christenberry. Included in the show was his “Klan Room Tableau,” a peculiar installation of dolls dressed in KKK robes. According to Christenberry, the highly personal work was his means of exposing and exorcising the hatred and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, which he had experienced while photographing the South. A heavy velvet curtain concealed the piece from those who might be offended. How long ago that seems, when today, we have real Klansmen walking up Charlottesville’s Market Street in broad daylight spewing racist and anti-Semitic hate.
The time couldn’t be more right for a show by Lisa Beane.
Beane has always addressed challenging political and social issues, but with “Karma,” which centers on privileged racism, you sense the gloves have come off. Beane is fed up. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘Wow, you’re so angry,’ after seeing the [Robert E.] Lee painting,” she says. “I told him, ‘Really? No, I just hate the way racist, privileged people treat others and how long they have gotten away with it. Just because I stand up against them doesn’t make me angry, I just tell the truth.’”
Part of that truth telling involves holding a mirror up to society to reveal its very worst. In this case, it’s the more than 4,000 lynchings that happened in the United States between 1877 and 1950. These events frequently took on a carnival atmosphere with women and children in attendance. Crowds as big as 15,000 were reported at some. And these weren’t mere hangings. Victims would be tortured with brands, their limbs broken, and some were burned alive.
That despicable history is contained in vintage postcards that were part of a thriving souvenir industry that rose up around lynchings. The fact that there were lynchings is bad enough. To then realize that photos were taken and postcards made and sent, complete with glib messages, just makes it all so much more sickening.
Working from actual postcards, Beane extracts text and images to construct her paintings. Recurring imagery includes the lynching spectators and stamps in the upper right or left corners.
Lisa Beane ‘‘Karma’’
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
Through January 13
“There Once Was a Boy Hanging from a Tree” draws you in on account of its rather unusual composition. The left part of the work is taken up by a long passage of text, while the right is oddly empty. It’s the exact space where the boy of the title would be hanging, bordered in the lower front by the rabble rendered in dramatic silhouette and a frightened, sad Pooh and Tigger above. The dramatic and unexpected void attracts attention to what’s missing. The boy is separated out, within the stamp in the upper right and a shower of confetti-like dots surround him, referring to the stardust in all of us, no matter what race. Beane has beatified the martyred boy with a halo and the narrow rectangle he inhabits resembles a religious icon.
Bound in embellished leather, “The Book” is an extraordinarily dense assemblage of image, media and message inspired by the attack on an 8-year-old biracial boy in Claremont, New Hampshire, who was set upon lynching-style by a gang of teenagers in August. Its 18 double-sided pages are Beane’s powerful indictment of racial hatred. Each page is a heartbreaking tour de force of execution and expression that rails against a world where children like the New Hampshire boy or Emmett Till are attacked (and in the latter’s case, killed) because of the color of their skin.
Beane uses a combination of image and writing against animated passages of paint. She builds her surfaces up with slashing brushstrokes, swaths of color, drips, glazes, pointillist daubs. In some works, she adds pieces of wood. The effect is a frenetic urgency that matches the artist’s and reflects the roiling chaos of the current political climate.
Beane has a poet’s touch when it comes to language, using words and expressions like barbs that strike just the right emotional chord, and populates her work with a cast of characters drawn from fairy tales and cartoons that represent goodness and innocence—and as such function as a de facto moral compass.
“A big underlying point to this work is ‘Do unto others,’” says Beane. “The concept of karma—it all comes back to you, and at the end of the day we all have to answer for the good and the bad we have done to one another. All of these paintings show the need for accepting individual responsibility for society’s distorted view of privileged racism.”