The words we use to talk about race, like “tension,” and “bias,” often indicate a forceful pulling of thoughts and feelings, with the implication that the pulling draws away from the straight grain of a harmonious order. And to have tension, there must also be a resistance to the pull. In an extreme example, for every white-supremacy advocate there is a black-power separatist stretching the line of resistance. But we all have our beliefs, and since they are our own, we often take them as the norm, however badly torqued they may be from the true grain of high principle. Most of us do try to align ourselves with the principle of equality in our thinking–but what about in our sub-thought mental processes? “I’m not a racist,” we each say, but do our reactions and behaviors bear this out? Do we harbor unconscious racial bias within our own minds?
Juan Logan addresses this question, along with others concerning past and present patterns of relation between white and black people in this country. It is hardly surprising that work made in such a tortuous terrain should skewer accepted artistic norms. In his current exhibition at the NCSU Gallery of Art and Design, Unconscious Bias, Logan acknowledges the pull of racial bias and provides a conscious resistance, as he continues to prod his viewers to examine their own ideas about race, history, prejudice, freedom and equality.
His most forceful jab, if the least subtle, comes in the triptych, “To See Myself as You See Me,” from 1997. The leftmost of the three 60-by-48-inch panels is filled nearly to the edges with roughly painted black. The right panel is blank–nothing but empty white paper. In the middle, a big black dick stands straight up between a sizable pair of balls.
I’m sure there are still people who can look at a black man and see nothing but his color and a threatening sexuality. Any time I think those people are all dead, all I have to do is visit the well-to-do white folks I know in Spartanburg, S.C., and listen to the casually racist remarks that spring like living waters from the bedrock of their worldviews.
Nonetheless, it is very difficult not to feel offended by “To See Myself”–not by the images, but by the title. It is more than a little presumptuous, and highly insulting, to tell the viewer that you see the speaker in that way, as if every viewer–white or otherwise–would be incapable of apprehending another’s humanity. I think Logan is trying to show how things have been (and still are, to a degree I cannot calculate), but perhaps he is showing his own unconscious bias as well. Or maybe it is a conscious bias, or expectation, or maybe a turning of the tables: Maybe he simply wants people who have always tried to do right to really feel what it is to be so reduced and unrecognized.
Another work based on an iconic stereotype dominates the gallery. “Unconscious Bias” comprises four long rows of 44 cast wax faces, each about six inches tall, mounted on the wall. These stylized “black” faces range in color from the softest maple-sugar brown to deep ebony, and while they are all basically the same, each having an identical outline, there are many variations. Some grin; some don’t. Some are partially covered, so that the eyes or the mouth are masked. Some have an object in the mouth, held there with a binding. Some have a wishbone over the nose. In some, the features are rubbed out; in others, the features have been replaced by vagina lips running the length of the face. It’s fascinating to look at this piece, to find yourself drawn in to discovering the differences among the components that first glance said were all the same (as in life, so in art). These Aunt-Jemima faces signify the way black women have often been made invisible and silent by a one-size-fits-no-one stereotype, and these wax permutations demonstrate some of the ways the real women have been demeaned.
Both of these large works inspire a great deal of thought, but I found the smaller pieces more powerful, and more satisfying visually. In these intensely worked wall constructions, with their unexpected images and combinations of meaning-laden materials, Logan lets hot feeling flare behind his designerly cool. Even in his most layered paintings, Logan has always used very clean lines and sharp edges. While intellectually I could never doubt his strength of purpose, I couldn’t feel the passion of it–the way the work looked was too slick. These wall sculptures, however, are a different matter. Their ideas are more subtle, and while the shapes are still rigidly controlled and ordered, the relationships of the materials and the way they are physically put together gives these pieces a visceral impact that I had never previously felt from Logan’s work.
There are seven pieces here made in forms similar to reliquaries, and they bring to mind the differing meanings of the word “relic.” There’s the precious meaning, as in a saint’s or martyr’s relics. “Elk Creek,” with its heavy hook and massive hank of hemp rope preserves the memory of a lynched life; “Lessons,” with its Aunt-Jemima head and 15 pairs of breasts honors all the black women who had the vital force suckled out of them.
But “relic” also conveys the idea of something–not always valuable–leftover from the past, detritus that perhaps should be let go. In some of the other works, is there just a hint that maybe we all hold too tightly to those remnants of the past?
“Power” includes a heavy spring scale hanging like a phallus below a grid of little plaques, each a relief image of penis and testicles. This surely is not still the only way to measure power. And in “Some Get/Got Away,” where dark ovals float free below an imprisoned Jemima mask, is there a faint message of hope? Might one day we all get away from slavery and stereotype, if we resist the pull of unconscious bias?