HARRISONBURG — Artist Chris Cohen examines his identity as a white, Southern American male by confronting white supremacy in his master’s of fine arts thesis exhibition “White Noise” at James Madison University’s Duke Hall Gallery.
Cohen, 48, is graduating with his MFA in studio art from JMU this spring. He earned his bachelor’s degree in painting and printmaking from Yale University in 1993 and has taught art as an adjunct professor at Randolph College, Lynchburg College and Randolph-Macon Women’s College.
Duke Hall Gallery showcases MFA work each year, but Cohen was given the rare chance to show his work as a solo exhibition. The body of work includes paintings, ceramics, mixed media and photography.
“This is an opportunity for Chris to really shine and show a huge body of work,” said John Ros, Duke Hall Gallery director and chief curator. “I think it’s some of the strongest MFA work that we’ve shown in this gallery.”
“White Noise” opened at the gallery on Monday and will be on display until May 25.
Cohen’s MFA thesis “focuses on the mythology of white supremacy and entitlement, specifically the ways it has co-opted the making of history in Virginia and the U.S. in an attempt to dis-identify competing ethnic groups as un-American,” he wrote.
The “white noise” Cohen is referring to is “A distinct, loud minority of white supremacists in this nation [who] have hijacked the national conversation about who we are. Once again they have stoked the fears of racial and cultural difference in an attempt to write their names on America’s deed, and to close the gates on the huddled masses,” he stated.
His work explores expressions of white supremacy on family, community and national levels, according to his artist statement.
The center of the gallery is set up as a living room with furniture and framed portrait paintings covering the walls. This section of “White Noise” was exhibited at the Spring/Break Art Show in New York City last month.
The males in the portraits all have a white mask over their faces. The masks symbolize how ideas of white supremacy are passed down in families, Cohen said. All of the people in the portraits are Cohen’s own family members. He is even featured in multiple portraits.
“I’m talking about how these things pass down in a family, whether or not they’re inherited, whether or not whiteness is a racial thing or a construct, whether or not one can remove that or not, whether one can choose whether or not to pass that down, but it’s also talking about the simplified idea of whiteness as something that people hide behind,” Cohen said.
Cohen purposely left the portraits of his three children without white masks over their faces.
The aim of the living room installation is to create a space for constructive dialogue on racism in America.
“To look back at pretty innocuous family photos and realize this thing about family members, it’s a distressing thing and it’s meant to feel like that,” he said. “It’s also an admission on my part that this exists in my family and I’m complicit in a way and I’m ready to talk about that.”
Ros described Cohen’s work as subtly confrontational.
“It’s representing things that exist within our space, and I think we have to confront that as a citizenry,” he said. “I think we, as active participants within our community, have to talk about these things and address them. … We’re doomed to repeat our history if we don’t confront it.”
The most confrontational portion of the exhibit, Ros said, is the cyanotype portrait series called “Faces of White Supremacy,” which features the faces of David Duke, Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon and other prominent figures of the far-right.
Cyanotype is a photographic printing process in which a chemical is placed on a photo negative that turns it blue when developed.
“I’ve altered them all so that the faces of these particular individuals just sort of fade out to white, again, like the masks, their identities are being erased,” Cohen said. “In the case of all these people, in one way or another, they’re complicit in this discussion of American whiteness.”
The exhibit also includes photographs of monuments in Charlottesville as well as Civil War re-enactments and Virginia Historical Highway Markers. The photos of the signs are intentionally blurred.
“I’m questioning the legibility and the usefulness of the narrative ... in the way these things sit on the side of the highway and they have this paragraph of information that people speed by it and rarely, if ever, stop to read what’s going on. That’s one level of them not being a useful piece of history,” Cohen said. “If you do finally stop and read them, many of them are over-brief and not complete sentences, or there’s just not enough space to cover anything in any depth.”
Approximately 30 round ceramic sculptures are placed around the gallery space as part of Cohen’s “History Vessels Series.” Cohen used a slab roller to imprint text from the historical markers onto clay. A pile of ash surrounds each piece.
“I used a laser cutter and adhered it to the board so, I was printing these reproductions of the text in clay by running it through this thing that squeezes it into a big flat sheet and then I molded them into these shapes,” he explained. “In the end, they turned into these forms through the process that I was using that looked like something that was once alive but is sort of dead.”
Cohen used text from eight to 10 historical markers on Route 42 and Route 11 between Bridgewater and New Market.
He said he chose parts of the text that “highlighted certain things I thought were elements that white supremacy latches onto.”
Ros said Cohen’s “White Noise” is especially pertinent to recent events and the current political climate.
“This is today and the South has to continue to deal with this,” Ros said. “There’s some issues that we have to confront and talk about as a community, about who we are and how we’re going to preserve who we are and what we want.”
Cohen hopes visitors to the exhibit are inspired to start honest discussions about racism and white supremacy that doesn’t let the “white noise” poison and distract the conversation.
“I hope more than anything that it sparks questions and the ability to talk about it because I think the general desire among the loudest proponents of [white supremacy] is to end the conversation,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one answer to the problem, but having an honest discussion about it is the only way I can think to start fixing it.”
Cohen will give a gallery talk today starting at 4:30 p.m. at Duke Hall Gallery. He will give another artist lecture on Thursday at 5 p.m. in Duke Hall Room 1032.