New Digs

Emory launches gallery with intriguing Isolated Incidents

The sign that greets visitors to Emory's new Visual Arts Building and Gallery is more terrifying than the withering hauteur of the Prada-clad staff at a Chelsea art gallery.

Posted on the road leading to the gallery is "Authorized Vehicles Only" with the additional threat of a $100 fine.

But a visit to Emory's stunning new addition is probably worth defying that institutional Cerberus guarding the gate to culture. With its copper-paneled exterior sporting numerous box-like projections and light-flooded exhibition area, the space is a wonderful improvement to the grim little alcove that formerly passed as the visual arts program's exhibition space.

The inaugural exhibition is Pat Ward Williams: Isolated Incidents, an intriguing if often disjointed survey of the Florida-based artist's panoptic view of race.

The images vary immensely in attitude and the emotions they provoke. On one hand, there are calm photographs of interstate landscapes taken from a car, such as "Road to Recovery - Bridges."

Provoking a far different response is "Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock," an assemblage whose centerpiece is an image Ward Williams has taken from a 1937 issue of Life magazine of a black man tied with chain link to a tree, his shirt torn away. The magazine text accompanying the image explains how the man was tortured with a blowtorch and then lynched. The image is deeply disturbing, but hard to turn away from, tapping into the queasy human paradox that wants to confront our horrific nature - whether in films or stories about the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust - but also turn away from the images and deny their relationship to our civilized society.

Ward Williams, whose artwork was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, evokes the power of certain images to invade our souls and color forever how we see the world.

On another wall is a long, frieze-like enlargement of a vintage photograph featuring a bevy of African-American women dressed in 1950s formal gowns. Ward Williams has tacked family photographs of her own elegantly clad relatives onto the image surface. Handwritten text describes the social club her mother belonged to, a recipe for crab salad, and her mother's belief that "uplifting the race" meant good manners, not the Afro-centric movement of the '60s that so captivated her artist daughter.

It would be hard to blame anyone who feels confused by the variety of subject matter and tones incorporated into this terse survey drawn from several decades of Ward Williams' work. The exhibit may demand more indulgence than viewers are willing to give to unite such seemingly incongruous work.

The show is called Isolated Incidents, which in some part explains the sensation of a show that stitches several bodies of work together. But rather than making literal connections between the pieces, it is possible to see them as the visual memories and experiences, both personal and public, that fill the artist's mind.

We are all creatures whose brains buzz with the anecdotes, family history and newspaper photographs through which we filter the world.

Ward Williams makes the point in formal ways, too, using wooden window transoms to frame many of her images, or leaving the film sprockets on a photograph visible so we understand that everything is about the frame, the perspective, what we choose to see, and what we deny. Nothing is neutral.

And so, her own parents' emphasis on elegance and good manners turns out to have more in common with that gruesome image from Life than is first evident. What Ward Williams' parents defied was what that photograph attempted: to reduce "black" to something debased and animal-like, a trophy tucked into a wallet to prove the essential worthlessness and expendability of the life it documented.


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