Having seen two exhibitions of James Allen's collected photographs of lynchings — both of them in New York, in 2000 — I braced myself for "The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America," at Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. The horrific images I saw 18 years ago are permanently seared into my mind.
I was curious how this new exhibition of works by prominent contemporary artists would treat such an appallingly inhumane period in American history and its reverberations today.
The first thing to know is that "The Legacy of Lynching," which originated at the Brooklyn Museum and which was coordinated in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative and supported by Google, contains no photographs of lynchings. It's disturbing in a more nuanced way.
Video interviews with the descendants of those who were lynched expose the terror passed down over generations in black American families. The subjects describe the terrible details of their ancestors' murders as if they happened yesterday.
The past is brought to life as well, in written materials dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among them newspaper accounts of lynchings and letters and pamphlets protesting them. We're reminded that the "Great Migration" was as much a flight from lynch mobs and other open hostility as it was about economic opportunity.
The contemporary artworks — by Josh Begley, Alexandra Bell, Sonya Clark, Ken Gonzales-Day, Ayana V. Jackson, Titus Kaphar, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and Hank Willis Thomas — are haunting, too, though more oblique. Police brutality and the news media are front and center.
Alexandra Bell takes the news media to task in her poster-scale photocopies of a New York Times article about the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager killed by a police officer. Bell changed the headline from "A Teenager Who Was Grappling With Problems and Promise" to "A Teenager With Promise," and made redactions to the article's text to call out racial bias.
Hank Willis Thomas' quilt Bars, presented on stretchers like a painting, is fashioned from decommissioned prison uniforms.
The terror of the past is unexpectedly evoked by Ayana V. Jackson's staged photographs of herself, a black woman, in a tight-bodiced Victorian dress, blindfolded and striking theatrical poses of shock and alarm as though performing the commands of a 19th-century photographer.
Through Dec. 16 at Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Haverford College, 370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (Wednesdays to 8 p.m.), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 610-896-1287 or haverford.edu/exhibits.
Harrison Doyle is an artist and writer, and when he pairs his images with his words, the effect is sincere and endearing.
Doyle's first one-person exhibition, at Works on Paper, showcases his paintings of disquieting Philadelphia scenes, rendered on found metal signs and covered with a sheet of inked and etched glass. His printed lithograph musings are mounted next to the works.
In Photographs and Memories, a young man edges his way alongside a building at night like a cat burglar, perilously high up, judging from the street below him, which looks to me like Sansom or Juniper. Its accompanying words: "I'm sorry."
My favorite, Nianque, also a nocturnal scene, shows a red fox seated on a stone wall. Behind it is a view of the Schuylkill, illuminated by street lights. Doyle writes: "We were blinded. We grappled our way up mountains and stumbled through valleys. Our eyes began to adjust. Sweet little heartbreaker, you were patiently waiting for us; encouraging us to continue forward."
Through Nov. 15 at Works on Paper, 1611 Walnut St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-988-9999 or worksonpaper.biz.
Tiger Strikes Asteroid's "Geometry" group show brings together works by Nancy Baker, Julia Bland, Lindsey Landfried, Kayla Mattes, Alex Paik, and Caroline Santa, all of whom follow their own personal, idiosyncratic paths to a geometric destination.
The standouts here: Mattes' handwoven Fieldwork and Blender, Santa's gouache paintings, and Paik's delicate, sprawling cut-paper construction Partial Equilateral Triangle (Diamond).