STAMFORD, Connecticut — One of the most iconic erasures in art history — or at least one of the most celebrated — took place in 1953 in New York. A young Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by then relatively established Willem de Kooning and declared the palimpsest to be his own creative work. Two years later, Jasper Johns would title and frame it. Erasure had become a generative act, not to mention a collaborative one.
Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text at Franklin Street Works continues the line of aesthetic inquiry that characterized “Erased de Kooning Drawing” while taking more widespread cultural erasures into its scope: the erasure of people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ populations, communities that would vie for visibility on their own terms through identity politics in the decades to follow. In Otherwise Obscured, erasure is as an aesthetic and political act. Effacement, redaction, and illegibility are all shown as tactics that artists can employ to combat, highlight, or heal sociopolitical invisibility.
Here, the redaction and aestheticization of authoritarian language can have healing effects. Jesse Chun’s serene blue-tinted pigment prints of lines and boxes, “Blueprints” (2016), recall architectural plans by Minimalist artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell. However, Chun’s blueprints are derived from scanned immigration forms, purged of language so that only simple geometries remain. Her spare compositions, printed on translucent vellum, underscore the lack of transparency in the legal forms that are so often impenetrable to non-native English speakers. By transmuting immigration documents into art, Chun imagines a world where undocumented immigrants no longer need to be invisible.
While art institutions can make people’s stories visible, Jennif(f)er Tamayo’s work calls attention to their commensurate powers of erasure. By holding a Carl Andre retrospective in 2014, Dia:Beacon disregarded the widely held belief that Andre murdered his partner, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, a woman of color. Tamayo blacked out portions of the exhibition catalog text to compose “A▮ANA” (2014/2019), a concrete poem on oversized poly canvas. In effacing Andre’s story, Tamayo recreates — or exhumes — the form of a Silueta, the ephemeral silhouettes that Mendieta impressed upon the earth.
Alex Dolores Salerno’s “Pillow Fight” (2019) comments on visibility and equity in the healthcare system, considering which populations are deemed worthy of care and the implications of tying health care to employment, as it is in the US. In the work, four stained pillowcases hide medical paraphernalia belonging to the artist and their friends. The installation also confronts the assumptions that healthy bodies are the norm and that illness is an aberration to conceal.
The curatorial decision to tuck “Pillow Fight” into a corner by the base of the stairs augments its invisibility while encouraging viewers to take stock of their own sight lines. The installation is one of two to reference iconic works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres — “Untitled (Billboard for an empty bed)” and “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” (both 1991) — and his efforts to make AIDS visible. Throughout the exhibition, works by emerging and established artists reflect and respond to one another: Chun’s “Blueprints” are installed by Jenny Holzer’s minimalist painting of redacted government reports, while Tamayo’s “A▮ANA” is complemented by a Super-8mm film by Mendieta, “Silueta de Arena” (1978).
Otherwise Obscured considers erasure outside of the exhibition space as well. Its accessibility initiatives, including Verbal Description and Spanish Language tours, make room for audiences who are often implicitly excluded from contemporary art venues. It’s heartening to see a show, particularly at a small nonprofit space, making the effort to realize its curatorial politics.
Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text continues at Franklin Street Works (41 Franklin Street, Stamford, Connecticut) through January 26. The exhibition was curated by Danilo Machado