Art

Two Artists Ask Why We Put White Men on Pedestals

“As the centuries pass, the exploitative white man doesn’t disappear or lose his power, he just takes on a new form”

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Since 1934, a bronze statue of J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of modern gynecology, has presided over a small stretch of Museum Mile in upper Manhattan. Rising more than thirteen feet in the air on East 103rd Street, across from the New York Academy of Medicine, the statuesque Sims looks poised but active, ready to pick up a surgical tool at a moment’s notice. He has an authoritative air that seems tempered by a unique kind of benevolence: that of the enterprising white man who claims to know what’s best for you.

Sims was a medical pioneer. Among other achievements, he invented a technique to repair vesicovaginal fistula, a condition in which an abnormal passage forms between a woman’s vagina and bladder that was widespread in the nineteenth-century United States. He was also a misogynistic white supremacist who made his discovery by experimenting on enslaved Black women between 1845 and 1849 in Montgomery, Alabama. Because they were enslaved, the women were not able to consent to the operations, and Sims did not give them anesthesia.

Cast in 1892, the Sims statue in Central Park has long been a subject of protest; it’s only now being considered for removal by a New York City mayoral commission, thanks to the national debate about Confederate monuments. Meanwhile, a different vision of the doctor currently stands in Red Hook, Brooklyn. This Sims has gained five feet and is constructed from foam and blood-tinted polyurethane, making him a bright, guilt-soaked shade of red. The pedestal on which he stands, rather than boasting his name and the letters denoting his medical degrees, contains scratched into it the word Poneros, a Biblical Greek term meaning “evil” or “wicked.”

Lionized in bronze and lauded for his accomplishments, without any acknowledgement of the brutal exploitation that made them possible, Sims is the quintessential white man on a pedestal. With her sculpture PONEROS (2017), artist Doreen Garner provides an essential corrective: This man doesn’t have blood just on his hands, but all over him.

That may sound heavy-handed, but it doesn’t feel that way in person. PONEROS is part of “White Man on a Pedestal,” a duo show featuring work by Garner and the artist Kenya (Robinson) at the arts nonprofit Pioneer Works. (Robinson), who’s forty and grew up in Gainesville, Florida, and Garner, a 31-year-old Philadelphia native, both live in New York City, where they’ve exhibited art together before — though never in such a potent combination. Garner takes a visceral approach: In Pioneer Works’ vast, industrial gallery, the disgust underpinning PONEROS is bolstered by the abstracted, evocative horror of the artist’s flesh-like creations. Black women’s body parts are cast in silicone, stapled together, and studded with steel pins; their blood, tissue, and muscle are represented by agglomerations of foam, fiberglass insulation, glass beads, and pearls. In the stunning Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting (2017), these bulges hang under fluorescent lights, like pieces of meat awaiting the viewer’s inspection. Garner has sharpened her style of grotesque beauty for several years, and the effect is deeply disquieting.

Offsetting this is (Robinson)’s sharp, deadpan humor. Her showstopper is a sculpture that rises even taller than the bloody Sims: a tower of 10,000 figurines of white men. The men are all the same: five inches high, wearing a suit, left hand on hip, right hand holding a briefcase, the word “SHARE” indented on their backs. They even share a generic white-guy name: Dave Fowler. (Robinson) calls these figures #WHITEMANINMYPOCKET, and indeed, she’s been carrying a Dave around in her pocket since 2013 — a way of shrinking and instrumentalizing the white, male, neoliberal patriarchy that oppresses her, a Black woman. In (Robinson)’s pocket, the stereotypical — but all too real — white man in a suit becomes a toy and possibly a potent talisman. In her massive installation Twelve Thousand Maniacs! (2017), he serves a more familiar purpose, as a cog in a march toward disaster. (Robinson)’s army of Daves start in orderly rows at the top of the tower, their presence imposing, but fall out of line and begin to crash near the bottom. They end up disposable, in a heaping pile at the viewer’s feet.

The exhibition constructs a lineage between Dave and Sims: The real nineteenth-century gynecological tools (borrowed from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum) that are laid out like instruments of torture anticipate the cocaine-, money-, and dildo-filled suitcases of (Robinson)’s Work Week (2017). As the centuries pass, the exploitative white man doesn’t disappear or lose his power, he just takes on a new form.

Which is why he must be beaten and buried. Garner did so by creating a silicone skin of the Sims statue and operating on it; in a cathartic performance on November 30, the artist and six other Black women carried out Sims’s technique for vesicovaginal fistula repair (still used today) on that skin. After an intense public procedure, the women picked up the cast of Sims, placed him in a wooden coffin, and wheeled him back into the gallery, where visitors could view him in his crumpled state.

For (Robinson), the process of interment is more multifaceted and complicated. Two of her works in the gallery allude to it: Alter (2017), an altar filled with hand-cast candles in the shape of the Daves, and If I Were King… (2017), an installation featuring a large, suspended, horizontal #WHITEMANINMYPOCKET made from artificial grass, with a disco ball below him and curtains of Daves flanking him. The semiotics of the latter work feel slightly jumbled, but the idea of a disco burial reflects the jazz funeral she’ll hold for #WHITEMANINMYPOCKET on the final day of the show, December 17. (She plans to bury the 10,000 Daves at an undisclosed site, too.) (Robinson) lays white male heteronormative supremacy to rest with fitting celebration, but also with calculated lightness. She knows that for all her efforts, oppression often finds a way of coming back.

‘Kenya (Robinson) and Doreen Garner: White Man on a Pedestal’
Pioneer Works
159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn
pioneerworks.org
Through December 17

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