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“The Charnel House,” Pablo Picasso, 1944-1945

The Charnel House is a 1945 painting by Pablo Picasso.  The work, which is unfinished, is rendered using a black and white palette and serves as Picasso’s response to the atrocities of WWII.  The work is compositionally similar to Guernica and features similarly grim subject matter depicting a family that has been murdered.  Their contorted bodies are piled beneath a dining table.  The father lies at the bottom of the pile.  His face is abstracted and fractured although one eye appears to stare out at the viewer.  His hands, which are bound jut up towards the center of the work.  On top and to the left of this figure lies the mother.  Her sexuality is emphasized, even in death, as her breasts, rendered in a figure eight-like manner, are central to the work.  Her head tilts back and the expression on her face is suggestive of a grotesque ecstasy.  Beneath the mother, to the left of her bosom her infant child is visible.  The child’s eyes are also closed and his cupped hands appear to be blocking something, perhaps the blood that flows from his mother.  The banal depiction of the set table in the upper left hand reinforces the ways in which the war had infiltrated all aspects of life including the homes of innocent civilians.

Picasso painted the work just as reports and images of the Holocaust were circulating in newspapers and film reels.  In turn, the grisaille palette of the work as well as the subject matter are evocative of the images Picasso was seeing at the time.  In addition The Charnel House was painted just one year after Picasso joined the French Communist party and the overtly political nature of the work is reminiscent of Guernica.  However, although The Charnel House bears much in common with Guernica, its unsettled and almost ambiguous nature distinguishes it from the latter.  Although he worked on The Charnel House for over six months, the work remains unfinished.  This is due in part to the horrific subject matter depicted which seemingly defies pictorial and artistic interpretation.  This notion is reinforced by the use of a black-and-white palette, which, as the current Guggenheim exhibit “Picasso in Black and White” illustrates, was a means by which Picasso dealt with particularly complex or difficult subject matter.  In the context of this course, this image is indicative of the ways in which artist struggle to depict immense atrocities that simply cannot be rendered in a work of art.



Image Post #2

Montoya, Delilah. La Guadalupana. 1998. Installation.

Delilah Montoya’s (b. 1955) La Guadalupana, is a 15-foot photo-mural and installation, whose photograph is made up of large square tiles that cover the gallery wall. At the centerpiece of the installation is a photograph of a handcuffed man with his back to the viewer as he faces a web of metal bars. He stands shirtless before the viewer as he exposes a large tattoo of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, a religious and iconic Catholic figure. The photograph is in black and white, with the exception of the brightly colored tattoo of the Virgin. Around the large image are smaller color photographs of different mens’ arms and backs that represent the same subject of the Virgin in a variety of poses and styles with red roses surrounding the frame. At the base of the photo-mural, Montoya has assembled a Mexican-American ofrenda  (alter), which includes a hand-woven blanket, rosaries, votive candles, and red roses. Small statues with the image of the Virgin are made out of nopal (cactus).  At the corners of the altar are small flags that represent the countries of the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Cuba. The New Mexico state flag is also present.

Through this installation, Montoya is showcasing the different means and mediums in which the religious icon of the Virgin of Guadeloupe is represented in Mexican-American culture. Montoya evokes the mediums of photography and installation to document the tradition of devotional practices, through symbols and home altars. In Women Boxers: The New Warriors, Ondine Chavoya writes of La Guadalupana: “the image effectively channels the sacred and the profane and transforms the physical space of a prison cell into a sacred space and the body of the inmate into an ofrenda or altar.” In this way, the body acts as a temple (or alter) in which to worship this religious figure through the tattoo art practice.

The photomontage is a reference to the traditional depiction of the Virgin, in which she stands on a crest moon dressed in a green robe of stars, surrounded by rays of heavenly light. At her feet is a young angel carrying the train of her dress. In Montoya’s interpretation, the central focus is the Virgin tattooed on the back of the inmate surrounded by graphic metal bars. He is framed by images of red roses. Roses are symbols directly connected to the Virgin, for the miracle that she is attributed to is the rose covered cloak that revealed her now iconic image.

The cultural iconographic significance of the Lady of Guadalupe in Mexican culture is also embedded in independence movements in the country’s history. During the Mexican War of Independence (1810) and the Mexican Revolution (1910), revolutionary leaders led their armies with flags emblazoned with images of the Virgin. In 1914, Emiliano Zapata led his army into Mexico City with Guadalupan banners to aid in their fight for land reform. Nobel Prize winning Mexican author Octavio Paz wrote, “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery” [1].

This piece also acts as an institutional critique of the prison and the incarceration of Latinos. The photographic subject’s stance facing the metal bars with his hands handcuffed behind him, all of which are symbols of incarceration and submissiveness by force. The man, whose photograph is the centerpiece of this installation, was Felix Martínez, an inmate at Albuquerque’s South Valley being held under arrest for a drive-by shooting. A year after this photo was taken, Martinez was found dead in his prison cell.  In 1999 the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico purchased La Guadalupana. It was at this exhibition site where the piece turned into an altar for the memory of the deceased inmate when his relatives frequented the museum to leave offerings at the foot of the installation [2].

What is most striking about this piece is that there are no overt racial signifiers present to make out the race of the subjects. The black and white photographs obliterate the ability to make out skin color, which is how race is usually presumed, and all facial features are turned away from us. Instead, it is through cultural and religious symbols that we deduce his nationality, as the Virgin of Guadeloupe has been identified as the symbol of Catholic Mexicans. This work brings up the issue of race and religion and how religious symbols act as cultural signifiers to identify with a certain nationality or group.



2. Kuusinen, Asta.  SHOOTING FROM THE WILD ZONE: A Study of the Chicana Art Photographers Laura Aguilar, Celia Álvarez Muñoz, Delilah Montoya, and Kathy Vargas. Helsinki University Press. Doctoral dissertation.  2006

Pinboard Entry #4

Kienholz, Edward. Five Car Stud. 1969-1972. Installation. Source: Artstor

Walking into Edward Kienholz’s installation, Five Car Stud, the pristine tile floors of the gallery have been replaced with sand. It is dark all around as four cars and a truck encircle and shine their headlights onto the scene of a violent, racially motivated attack. Life-size grotesque figures of white men, wearing masks to disguise their faces, are pinning a black man to the ground as they hold his legs and arms and begin to castrate him. The victim’s torso is made of a rectangular pool of water, which holds a floating alphabet whose words spell out “Nigger.”  In the pick-up truck, a white woman (perhaps the victim’s girlfriend) weeps as a masked man stands by the car door observing the scene with a grin on his face.

Through the interactive nature of this tableau installation, viewers are allowed to immerse themselves in this discomforting scene. The experience is further heightened by the dirt floor, which helps create a different environment in the gallery and adds to the realism of the piece. The scene depicts one moment in this attack as the movements of the cast are frozen in time. The mid-century cars act as markers dating the piece to a period in recent American history. Five Car Stud is a social commentary on the history of violence acted upon African-Americans and race relations in the South during the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). The presence of a young boy looking from inside one of the cars, echoes the mechanism of instilling racist values onto future generations.

Edward Kienholz (1927-1994) is an American installation artist and sculptor. Five Car Stud was first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1971 to mixed reviews. The following year the piece traveled to Kassel, Germany to be a part of Documenta 5. For 40 years, it has been in a private collection in Japan only to be recently exhibited in 2011 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Pinboard Entry #3

Gonzales-Day, Ken. Erased Lynching (1935). 2005. Chromogenic print. Source:

A pitch-black sky reveals a crowded night scene, where men and women have gathered for what seems to be a community organized function. The men and women at the foreground of the photograph are bleached-out by the flash of the camera, which emphasizes their white skin. The fashion dates the photograph to the 1930s as men are dressed in suits and wear fedoras and women wear furs. Children gather amongst the crowd. The focal point of the photograph is a bare and naked tree, whose significance in the image appears arbitrary. The crowd’s attention is scattered, some viewers gaze up at the tree while others socialize among their groups. One man looks directly at the camera while smoking a cigarette.

This image is part of Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series (2002-2011), which seeks to expose the history of lynching in the American West through appropriated historical photographs and archival materials from 1850 to 1935. In these images, the lynched body is obliterated from the scene and the viewer is forced to focus on the spectators present at the gathering, predominantly White American men and women. This omission raises the issue of the lynching event as spectacle, by revealing the similarities to a performance and entertainment event: the crowd, the cameraman, and the main attraction. Gonzales-Day creates a powerful commentary on the erased and forgotten history of the practice of lynching Latinos, Native-Americans, and Asian-Americans in the American West. In Gonzales-Day’s book, Lynching in the West 1850-1935, he argues that during this period in California, Latinos were lynched more than persons of any other race or ethnicity [1].


1. Gonzales-Day, Ken. Lynching in the West. Duke University Press 2006

Pinboard Entry #3: In the Flesh

In his 1995 painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud (1922-2011) captures “Big Sue Tilley” in voluptuous repose on a couch in his studio. Light and shadow play on her ample mounds of white flesh, creating a liquid pool of pink, white and orange tones that flow across her body. Her eyes are closed as she cups her breast with her right hand and clutches the couch’s back with her left arm. Freud painted Tilley from a perspective that puts the viewer slightly above her, so that we are peering down onto Tilley while she is napping, unawares.

Lucian Freud
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (Big Sue Tilley)

“Big Sue Tilley,” an employee of England’s Department for Work and Pensions who met Freud through a mutual friend, recalls that she often dozed off while posing during the nine months that she modeled for the artist in the mid-1990s. Freud, an artist who is associated with a postwar group of British painters that also included Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, often called the School of London, found inspiration for his psychological, hyper-detailed portraiture in earlier 20th-century movements like the New Objectivity. In addition to contemporary influences, the 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres fascinated Freud, who often described his painting and their fleshy exuberance “Ingresesque.” This painting sold for $33.6 million in May 2008, establishing a world record for the highest price paid for a work by a living artist.

Freud took realism to the nth degree, focusing on every wrinkle, follicle and roll of fat that his sitters brought into his studio. He once said, “I want my painting to be as flesh. For me, the painting is the person and I want its effect on me to be the same as the effect of flesh.” The pictorial effect of Freud’s eagle eye, painterly realism is that everything becomes sensuous, from Big Sue’s girth to the fine wood grain of the floor to what is left on the disused upholstery on his studio couch. Freud’s sitter (sleeper) and her inanimate surroundings become a harmonious aggregate of surface and implied texture: a visual cornucopia of skins.

Images for Willis, “Exposure”

Charles Moore. Martin Luther King, Jr Arrested on a Loitering Charge. 1958

Danny Lyon. Albany, Georgia, Segregated water fountain. 1962.

ASCO Images

“Spray Paint LACMA”, Asco, 1972








“Instant Mural”, Asco, 1974








“Chicano Cinema”, Asco, 1976


Images for “Skin Head Sex Thing”

Kobena Mercer’s “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary”

Kobena Mercer’s “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imagination” has had at least two metamorphoses since originally being published in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video (1989).  The first transmutation (in recombination with another Mercer essay, “Imaging the Black Man’s Sex) was published in Emily Apter and William Pietz’s Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (1993).  Several years later, this latter version was republished in Mercer’s collected essays, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (1995).  The version of “Skin Head Sex Thing…” that appears in Fusco and Wallis’s Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (2003), while largely shaped by the 1995 version, is different, not only in terms of the images that Fusco and Wallis juxtaposed with the essay, but in textual and expositional ways as well.  I mention the developmental nature of this article because, in many respects, its evolving argumentation and critical points-of-view are fundamental to understanding Mercer’s fluid assessments about the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists.  Context is crucial, begins Mercer, not only vis-à-vis the images and artists under discussion, but in the ways that viewers and commentators have experienced these photographs.  Of major importance to Mercer is “the emergence of new aesthetic practices among black lesbian and gay artists in Britain and the United States.”  These image-makers and their fellow practitioners with vested interests in a fuller, more complex representation of LGBT women and men of color, Mercer argues, irrevocably alter how one sees and understands Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of black men.

For example, Renée Cox’s David = The African Origin of Civilization (1994) – which depicts a young, naked black man holding a dog-eared copy of Cheikh Anta Diop’s 1974 tome, African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality – mischievously volleys between Mapplethorpe and Michelangelo, challenging both artists’ classicizing (or Euro-centric) homoeroticism, while also making fun of Afro-centric machismo and dandy-ism.  David = The African Origin of Civilization refuses to be encumbered by “the burden of representative”: a denunciation of racial and/or cultural expectations to social conformity that Mercer also sees in the works of many black gay and lesbian artists.  I would argue that Cox, although a heterosexual black woman, envelops herself in a perspective here that operates between various spheres of desire and, thus, speaks to Mercer’s notion of “foregrounding the intersections of difference where race and gender cut across the representation of sexuality.”

In this latest version of “Skin Head Sex Thing” Mercer signals a shift in his original thinking about Mapplethorpe’s objectification of the black male subject (and his fetishization of the black phallus), arguing that these affects of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and the “articulation of ambivalence” on the part of many spectators is attributable to “a subversive deconstruction of the hidden racial and gendered axioms of the nude in dominant traditions of representations.”  Mercer contends that Mapplethorpe’s own marginality as a gay artist and the extant voices of many of his former black models (who gave Mapplethorpe credit for seeing and portraying them as beautiful and attractive) contribute to transforming what one might initially perceive as objectifying and pornographic and, instead, into something conceptually subversive and ultimately transcendent.

One of the illustrations for the Fusco/Wallis publication of Mercer’s article (which doesn’t appear in the 1995 version) is F. Holland Day’s Ebony and Ivory (1897).  This platinum print of a shadow-enveloped, nude black man – seated, head averted, and holding a gleaming, ivory statuette of an exultant male nude – perfectly intersects with Mercer’s notion of the shocking juxtaposition (in most viewers’ minds) of idealized beauty and carnal physicality.  That such a work of art operates in service to the “deconstruction of whiteness” is another salient point Mercer makes, especially in relationship to Mapplethorpe’s perfectly calibrated, hieratic images of black male bodies.

One of the most important dimensions of “Skin Head Sex Thing” is Mercer’s brilliant discussion surrounding viewers’ ambivalence towards Mapplethorpe’s black male imagery: the love/hate relationship many people have towards these photographs, and the art works’ capacity to engender far-ranging, radically different interpretations from spectators, some celebratory of their beautiful portrayals, some disparaging of their objectification and fetishization of black men.  Two photographs that “converse” with Mapplethorpe’s thematic interests (and that bookend his ascendancy in the 1980s) – George Dureau’s Roosevelt Singleton (1980) and Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Bronze Head (1987) – offer audiences other black male images to consider within this murky territory of uncertainty and spectator’s self-doubt.  Fani-Kayode’s Bronze Head (which Mercer discusses in his essay) not only resonates with Mapplethorpe’s details of black physiognomy and body parts but, like Cox’s African Origin of Civilization, playfully provokes the more proprietary impulses and social mores of viewers, in a head-spinning, simultaneous meditation/musing on the profane, the beautiful, the scatological, the manufactured, etc.  And when (in his concluding remarks about the French novelist Jean Genet) Mercer suggests “the struggle for democratic agency and subjectivity always entails the negotiation of ambivalence,” one can look to George Dureau’s highly stylized portrait of Roosevelt Singleton, and ask how such images of non-idealized-yet-agency-filled black men, even more than Mapplethorpe’s classicizing models, spawn ambivalent feelings within viewers?  Dureau’s unabashed willingness to pair vulnerability with power, and raw physicality with homoeroticism may help explain his work’s ambiguous, yet oddly unalloyed allure.

Only Skin Deep Part 1: Language


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your fact is stranger than fiction), 1983 photograph and type on paper

The first sections of Only Skin Deep covered many topics but there were themes that held them together.  The theme I found most interesting, and seemed to spur the most discussion, was the idea of language.  When I think of language, I think of it in terms of writing/composing, reading, speaking, and understanding.   Photography, as discussed in the text, and displayed in the selected photographs, both challenges and expands our ability to do all of these things, especially when it comes to race in the United States.  Questions around language that the text interrogates as discussed in class include:

1. What does photography do or show about the language of race?
2. Is there such a thing as photographic language?
2.5. If yes, where does that language exist around the photo (inside or outside of the frame)?
3. How do we speak/understand what we see when we look at a photograph?

Another area of interest was the idea of staging “the Real”.  The book made it very clear that with how things were staged, composed, and/or edited in photography was done intentionally to create specific images.  Captions, clothing, and props were carefully selected to ensure that the photographs are read a certain way.   Photography, even when staged, is always not not real.  We know that photography shows an actual referent, however, the temporal slippage (we are always looking at the past when we see a photograph, but our temporal distances increases over time), allows us to see what we want.  To go back to language, eventually things get lost in translation, even in photographs.

This all made me think of the Flower Drum Song, a movie that plays with all these different ways we read and stage race/language/the visual: