By Sherry C.M. Lindquist
This exhibition at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM) takes its title from Monster Marks, by Memphis artist Greely Myatt (cat. #), in which the word "monster" floats over the word "marks" spelled out in ABC blocks. "Monster" is made up of multiple versions each letter in different sizes, shapes, colors, and materials. The "O" lights up and becomes the base of a giant wooden exclamation point; its neon glow creates atmospheric shadows behind the other letters and the shelf containing the blocks. The title, Monster Marks, is in dialog with Making Marks, an exhibition of Myatt's work held at the David Lusk Gallery, Memphis, in September of 2017. This show featured a deceptively simple work consisting of only the word "marks" spelled out in wooden ABC blocks arranged in a row on a shelf; it slyly calls into question the ability of both words and material things to communicate. Implicit in the piece is a reminder of how easy it would be to make one word morph into another by moving the colored blocks. On the other hand, the possibilities are limited by the random letters on the other sides of the cubes. Making Marks, also featured a two-story exclamation point extending above the roof of the gallery, which must—emphatically!—express something of import, but what? It is an arbitrary sign, both mute and rich with latent meanings. Myatt's soundings at the edges of what can be known and communicated operate in a way that overlaps with what monsters do in human cultures. We make monsters to stand for or substitute for things we can't quite categorize, which we find too elusive or disturbing to confront in a more direct way. Their ontological ambiguity gives the monsters we imagine a kind of life of their own.
Some of the works in Monster Marks are easy to recognize as monsters, such as a blue man-eating, bird-headed demon (cat. # ) or the familiar snake-headed Medusa originating in Classical antiquity (cats. # & #). Most are not as clear-cut. It is fitting that the title of the exhibit features "monster" as an adjective, and not a noun, since the exhibit does not mean to present a menagerie of monsters that can be named and put in alphabetical order. Rather, it is a meditation on the theme of the monstrous, and related themes of horror and the uncanny, in art from different times and places—art "marked" by the visual vocabulary of monstrosity in one way or another. These works do not look like one another. They are of diverse media, and they range from antiquity to contemporary art, from South America to Japan. Some things—maps, armor, political cartoons—bring up questions about the line between "Art" (with a capital "A") and visual culture. Such an eclectic selection demands an explanation.
Monster Marks is influenced by the work of artist Fred Wilson, who created an exhibit
called Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. He rearranged
diverse objects in a single museum collection to create startling and disturbing juxtapositions:
an ornate silver service with slave manacles, a baby carriage with a Klan robe. He
used the curator's tools of labels, lighting, and other didactic strategies to make
clear that the traditional installations of objects in our museums are not neutral,
self-evident retellings of history or the history of art. Such narratives privilege
some and exclude others. Wilson's intervention continues to challenge curators to
think creatively about the relationship of the collections in their care to broader
issues of diversity and justice. Many museums have since invited artists to re-view
their collections, and curators are increasingly addressing controversies, inviting
community participation, and challenging viewers by combining objects and themes in
One way to take a cue from Mining the Museum is to view local collections through a thematic lens with the goal of teasing out new meanings from historical works while engaging contemporary concerns. The theme of monsters and the monstrous brings a new perspective to relevant works of art in light of the expanded concept of monsters and the cultural work they do, which is emerging from the growing field of Monster Studies. In order to identify likely works of art for Monster Marks in Memphis collections, it was necessary to describe this expanded concept to interested curators, gallerists, collectors, and artists. This resulted in a series of productive discussions leading to a (very) succinct distillation of scholarly work on monster theory for the text panel that introduces the exhibit (Cf. Cohen 1996; Mittman 2012; Miéville 2012):
"What are Monsters"
Monsters are difficult to define. As the novelist China Miéville wrote in his "Theses on Monsters," "Any bugbear that can be completely parsed was never a monster, but some rubber-mask-wearing Scooby-Doo villain."
Monsters provoke emotional reactions. We know something is a monster because it makes us feel fear, hatred, awe. When we perceive ourselves safe from their threat, we might also feel wonder, or even delight.
Monsters defy categories. If we don't have a word for it, a fearsome thing might be a monster. Monsters are often hybrid in nature. They can be disturbing combinations of human and animal, animal and god, human and god. Or all three.
Monsters are culturally specific. Our monsters are not the same as your monsters or their monsters. Monsters are powerful cultural expressions that can be misused. Humans often use the vocabulary of the monstrous to stereotype and demonize enemies, foreigners, and disenfranchised populations.
Monsters can make us think. We conjure them at the borders of the familiar. By contemplating these products of the human imagination, we can learn to face our fears, and find inspiration in what we don't yet know.
Of these bulleted characteristics of monsters, the most difficult to contend with is the fourth one, which deals with how other peoples have been figured as monstrous and/or subhuman. One way that Monster Marks addresses this issue is to point to tensions suggested by objects from and about Africa in Memphis collections. The University of Memphis is home to an interdisciplinary Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology and a permanent gallery of impressive ancient Egyptian objects that are the subject of continuing study by faculty, students, and visiting scholars. A less regarded object in AMUM's collection is a movie poster from the 1950s horror movie, The Pharaoh's Curse (cat. #). The poster illustrates how art objects from one culture can be appropriated by other cultures in ways that exoticize and mischaracterize. The Hollywood invention of a mummy coming to life embodies troubling and contradictory twentieth-century American attitudes toward the Middle East, perceived as a land of romance and treasure, but also of danger and mystifying cultural difference. The Pharaoh's Curse conflates ancient Egypt with the majority Muslim Egypt contemporary with the movie; it does not at all attempt to contend with either culture on its own terms. As discussed in the catalogue entry below, this seems a deliberate misapprehension that served to rationalize the invasion of Egypt by American allies over the control of the lucrative Suez Canal, which figures prominently on the map that opens the movie.
A sixteenth-century map of Africa in the collection of Rhodes College highlights a similar disconnect between what Europeans looked to find in Africa, and the African cultures they encountered—cultures that produced objects such as are displayed in AMUM's permanent gallery dedicated to African art (cat #). This map by Abraham Ortelius claims to chart the way to the legendary kingdom of Prester John. Prester John was thought to be descended from the magi: a powerful Christian king commanding vast resources who would ally with European monarchs against Muslims rivals. Prester John was thought to rule over the "monstrous peoples" described in ancient sources, such as dog-headed men, horned men, giants, and wildmen.
Not only movie posters and maps, but also art and the history of art are implicated
in making the other seem monstrous, as addressed by a gallery in Monster Marks dedicated
to "Monsters in Art History." For instance, art historians sometimes unintentionally
continue to employ categories that carry forward the biases of the Europeans who founded
art history as an academic discipline. Supernatural beings like angels and Greek gods
may share characteristics with monsters—superhuman form, the ability to change form,
the incorporation of wings or other animal parts—but they are rarely labeled monsters
or understood as monstrous. In contrast, for example, art historians named the Mayan
earth god a "cauac monster" (after a glyph on the Mayan calendar) (cat. #). The cultural
bias is clear when art history books teach that Mayans venerate "monsters" and Christians
venerate "angels." The subsection in Monster Marks on supernatural beings considers
the conceptual overlaps between gods and monsters by bringing together objects representing
angels, demons, and gods from medieval Christian, ancient Greek, and Precolumbian
A second subsection in "Monsters in Art History" addresses how cultures commonly employ the elements of monstrosity in works that make a ruler seem more fierce and powerful—even to close the distance between rulers and deities. For example, the textile worn by a Chimu king covered with representations of a powerful jaguar deity conveys his claim that he merges with this deity, and is deputized to wield its supernatural powers (cat. #). A Japanese emperor commands Samurai soldiers whose armor incorporates references to fierce beasts and demons (cat. #). Monsters are marshalled not only in the service of individual rulers but also ruling religious and political institutions. Otherworldly guardian lions in palaces and temples link imperial and religious powers in Ming China by evoking the majesty of Buddha and the bodhisattvas, both associated with lions in some contexts (cat. #). A medieval Book of Hours illustrates the power of the priest in saving individual souls from the monsters of hell (cat. #). Historically, monsters in art (mostly) function to enhance the power of the powerful, since it is they who are in a position to afford the luxury objects and trappings of rule on which monsters often appear.
But the powerful imagery of the monstrous can escape such boundaries and be used to
question those in power and even to threaten the status quo. This is demonstrated
in a small subsection devoted to satire & social criticism that examines the use of
monstrous imagery in early prints. Prints served as an especially effective vehicle
for satirical monsters: they were less expensive than other art forms, and could be
distributed in great numbers that had a better chance of reaching a broad public.
This section features prints by three masters of the genre—Francisco Goya, Honoré
Daumier, and Thomas Nast—who used monstrous imagery to critique those in power, and
whose works in some cases are even credited with effecting social changes (cat.#,
#, and #).
Contemporary artists, too, employ the language of monstrosity to create powerful images that call into question the current social order. As a way of honoring the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Monster Marks dedicates the largest gallery at AMUM to contemporary works that employ the visual vocabulary of the monstrous and the uncanny to address issues of race and racism. The striking sculptural work that shapes the space of the gallery, The Old Landmark, was made for this exhibit by Le Marquee La Flora, a recent graduate in art from the University of Memphis (cat. #). It consists of a series of upside down nooses flecked with gold leaf and including gold-colored nails. These haunting objects, which seem to be moving upward of their own volition, tap into the uncanny: described by Freud and others as the unease we feel when we suspect something that should be lifeless can come to life.
The title, The Old Landmark, makes us think about how we define "landmarks," in the midst of our national conversation about the opening of a memorial to lynching victims—The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama—and the removal in Memphis of a public statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan. A pastel by Larry Edwards, former chair of the Art Department at the University of Memphis, also questions our makes a related point by foregrounding a hulking monster in a rendering of the antebellum mansion of Longwood, a National Historic Landmark in Natchez, Mississippi, now a tourist destination that downplays the legacy of slavery on the site (cat. #).
The Old Landmark is in dialog with an earlier work by La Flora that also used inverted
noose imagery. The thick ropes used for Counting the Cost, made in the wake of the
2016, were dragged in the dirt and suspended in a gallery with a lower ceiling. "The
nooses are dirty," La Flora reflects, and when viewers bump against them, or get their
hair caught in them, "it's like they have a brush with death." In contrast, The Old
Landmark is named after a Gospel song, and is constructed from what he called more
"delicate" nooses, embellished with gold. The very act of looking up to see them changes
the viewer's relationship with them, and the golden nails and implied dialog with
the lyrics of the Gospel song suggest a redemptive, Christological narrative.
La Flora used lighting to project chilling shadows of nooses against the gallery wall featuring works by other white artists represented in the show, whose works wrestle with issues of guilt and complicity. Thus, La Flora calls attention to the way the exhibit brings together artists of diverse racial identities who explore difficult questions regarding race and racism from different perspectives.
La Flora's shadow nooses insert themselves into the Metamorphosis Series, a sequence of large format polaroid prints by William Christenberry, an acclaimed photographer and former faculty member of the University of Memphis (cat. #). In the Metamorphosis Series a homespun doll seems to be manipulated by an unseen and monstrous force that transforms it from emblem of innocence into a Klansman. Christenberry, known for his loving photographs of the South, also confronted the evils of racism in works created for his Klan Room, which included G.I. Joe dolls dressed as Klansmen arranged in disturbing tableaus. Some of the dolls in Christenberry's work were fabricated by long-time friend Rosa Eggleston, the wife of fellow photographer William Eggleston. A photograph of one of the G.I. Joes, included in Monster Marks, looks accusingly out of the picture, as if identifying the viewer a potential collaborator or victim (cat. #).
A subtheme in works about race in Monster Marks—as observed by Leslie Luebbers, director of AMUM—is the way that racism despoils childhood. This is the subject of a ceramic tableau by Nancy White, Shoot the Stars, in which Klansmen morph into monsters as they approach a carnival booth staffed by a young boy (cat. #). The resemblance to a Christian nativity scene cannot but comment on the hypocrisy of the KKK and their supporters who claim to be Christian—to espouse the Christian principle to love one's neighbor—while succumbing to hatred. White and Christenberry are white artists whose art considers how racist ideologies poison the minds of white children. The consequences are all too evident in the heartbreaking works in the exhibit that address the torture and murder of children of color.
Self-Portrait Till by Demetrius Oliver expresses in a visceral and personal way how
the murder of Emmet Till continues to traumatize (cat. #). By obliterating his features
with chocolate frosting, the artist merges his identity with the murdered boy. His
visual work echoes the influential essay by John Edgar Wideman, "The Killing of Black
Boys," who reports that he, too, identified with Emmett Till—that he even believed
the "monster" haunting his nightmares was the mutilated face of Till, whose open-coffin
funeral shocked the nation. The Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison), by Tim Rollins
& the K.O.S. Workshop, also commemorates the murder of children, including Christopher
Hernandez, one of the "K.O.S kids"—an acronym that stands for Kids of Survival (cat.
#). The "I" and "M" in the collage are made up of pages from Ralph Ellison's famous
novel about how we make specters of the "other." It is meant to evoke letters in the
newspaper headline reporting the murder of Hernandez, and also the famous "I am a
Man" placards used by sanitation workers striking in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther
King Junior was assassinated. Thus, the work by Rollins and the K.O.S. Workshop makes
a poignant statement about loss, while calling for social justice. An iconic photograph
of the Sanitation Workers' strike is featured alongside The Invisible Man (after Ralph
Ellison) to illustrate the connection; it was taken in 1968 by photojournalist Richard
Copley, who was a student at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) at the
time (cat. #).
This historic work of photojournalism forges another thought-provoking link to the faux photojournalism included in the exhibit: a part of the counterfactual visual narrative, Los Anthropolocos, created by Robert J. Sanchez & Richard Lou, (current chair of the Department of Art at the University of Memphis) (cat. #). Sanchez and Lou's social criticism is a parodic reversal: an alternate reality where Chicanos dominate. Chicano anthropologists investigate the remains of a civilization of "colorless people." They discover and capture living specimens, who are netted and displayed as trophies —a darkly sardonic commentary on the dehumanizing treatment by Europeans of natives in the "New World."
Other works in the show also create disturbing fantasies of racialized futures, participating
in the global cultural aesthetic of Afrofuturism that aims to shift racial relationships
in the present. Roger Cleaves, an alumnus of the University of Memphis art program,
imagines a meeting between a nameless human interlocutor and members of a race of
human-plant-animal hybrids who manage to survive, in spite of grievous treatment.
The painting featured in this exhibit shows one of these "Forget Me Nots" under water
and under siege, but who sends shoots up to the surface, and whose story is represented
by an "Afroglyphic" at its feet (cat. #).
The compromised bodies of Cleaves's Forget Me Nots are akin in some ways to the collages in works by Wengechi Mutu, assembled in part from images of black women cut from pornographic magazines (cat. #). In Mutu's work, hybrid female bodies situated in stark, alien environments critique the harmful objectification of female African bodies. Even though the beings in her works incorporate and reflect the abuse and exploitation they have been subjected to, they nevertheless exude a dignity and charisma that projects their triumph over mistreatment.
These imagined, hybrid, future and/or alien beings bring up the question of what it means to be human—whether we can transcend (or should transgress) current notions of humanity. Such issues are the domain of Posthumanism, whose concerns can overlap with Afrofuturism. Notions of monstrosity are inevitably implicated in how we define human, subhuman, nonhuman, and posthuman. Saya Woolfolk's video Chima TEK: Hybridization Machine introduces a race of empaths with the ability to alter their bodies through a combination of technology and ancient artifacts (cat. #). Woolfalk's imagined world is no utopia, however, as other works from this series explore the conflicts and contradictions involved in customizing gender, race, and species.
The idea of trying on identities gendered both male and female—of defying categories via metamorphosis—is a staple of Cindy Sherman's work, represented here by her Mrs. Santa Claus, in which she uses makeup and prosthetics to transform herself in way that is at once worrisome and humorous (cat. #). Sherman's influence is evident in other works featured in this gallery. Neil Winokur's Cindy Sherman: Totem calls attention to Sherman's metamorphoses by juxtaposing a frank portrait of the artist with a wig and frightening mask (cat. #). Following in Cindy Sherman's footsteps, Yasumasa Morimura projects himself into iconic male and female roles in pop culture and art history. In Criticism and the Lover A, he creates a droll posthuman hybrid of human artist and art historical fruit (cat. #).
Monstrosity can be gendered female in ways that imply that women are subhuman or monstrous. The monstrous feminine in art (also literary, religious and even scientific writing) reinforces cultures of sexism and misogyny. Medusa is a quintessential icon of the monstrous feminine. She was turned into snake-headed monster as punishment for transgressing sexual mores, and just a look from this sexually dangerous feminine monster would kill. Monster Marks features two images of the Medusa—both by male artists—who seem to want to subvert this traditional meaning. Vic Muniz makes a copy of the most famous Medusa image by the Baroque master Caravaggio out of spaghetti noodles on a dinner plate (cat. #). The comical high-carb apparition in a quotidian setting makes the threat of Medusa—so horrifyingly real in the Caravaggio—into a dinner-party witticism. Medusa appears again as gender-bending self-portraits by artist Larry Edwards, who pictures himself as multiple Gorgon heads rolling around on a dining table (cat. #).
These dinner-party Medusas make us confront the persistence of the ancient ideas they refer to, and the continuing dialog between past and present, art history and contemporary art. The works in Monster Marks demonstrate how faculty, alumni, collectors, art institutions and organizations in Memphis engage though art with a powerful and conflicted legacy in which monstrosity surfaces in unexpected ways. Given AMUM's mission to support student research, we wished to enable students to participate in the exhibit's conceptual design. Graduate student Samira Rhabe played a crucial role in identifying and researching objects. Assistant Director of AMUM, Warren Perry, suggested that we offer students the opportunity to wrestle with the themes of the exhibit by building their own monster. Eight undergraduate students from the Departments of Art and the Department of Mechanical Engineering worked together for more than a semester to create a work of art that embodies their ideas of a monster. Faculty in engineering (Ali Fatemi, John Hochstein, Tan Chai) and art (Richard Lou, Matt Greely) made this possible by integrating this project with the curriculum in an exciting and unusual collaboration that demonstrates the interdisciplinary potential of the STEAM model (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math).
The monster the students created incorporates notions of monstrosity at the heart of the exhibit (cat. #). Towering and ghostly, it is not identifiable as any recognizable thing. Motion sensitive, it startles, and makes noise, but does not speak. It is a cyborg with a black hole for a head, anthropomorphic in way that cannot be mistaken for human. Absurdly, it wears a bedraggled hoop skirt—though this still does not allow us to assign gender with any degree of certainty. The students say that the work is meant both to suggest and evade binaries such as male/female and industrial/natural.
Intense and thoughtful involvement by students brings them into the productive network of new meanings and connections generated by the show. Monster Marks contrasts with more traditional exhibits that aim to identify the best, the most important, the most representative works of an artist's career, and/or a revealing or defining art historical moment. Its broad, amorphous, overarching theme yields different kinds of insights. A different curator—even considering the same theme in the same city—would likely have selected different works, and interacted with different aspects of Memphis's rich artistic heritage and history. When Fred Wilson "mined" a regional museum in Maryland, he uncovered a wealth of meaning with a big impact on how we relate to the legacy of the things we preserve in such places. Like politics, maybe all art history is also local.
There is a radical potential in mining our museums, collections, art organizations, and the talents of art professionals in our local communities to create new, prismatic configurations of familiar objects to speak to current concerns and controversies. Monster Marks reflects efforts by faculty, staff, and students at the University of Memphis, as well as local artists, collectors, and other institutions in the city to identify and research thematically relevant works, and even to create them. Viewers also are invited to make comments and thumbnail sketches of monsters—their own "monster marks"—and to post them on the title wall in the exhibit. This gallery guide reproduces views of the galleries and the explanatory panels that introduce each section, as well as the individual objects and labels. Its goal is to extend and sustain the community created by the exhibit, and to encourage future collaborations.
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