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Playing against type

Stereo Propaganda captures and then redefines racist imagery

Freud called jokes "repressed wishes," and artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier's deconstruction of racist "humor" is clear evidence that such jokes are rarely innocuous.

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When it comes to American race relations, what humor most often represses beneath a veneer of joshing good fun is savage, degrading violence and dehumanization.

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Marshall-Linnemeier doesn't want for ammunition. The premise of her solo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Stereo Propaganda: Deconstructing Stereotypes, Reconstructing Identity, are the stereographic cards manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that allowed viewers, using a stereoscope viewer, to translate two images shown side by side into one 3-D image. For contemporary viewers, stereographic cards provide a window into social history — in this case the history of racism in America, a topic the artist plumbs with thoroughness and variety in her exhibition of photo-based work.

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Though the stereograph technology was once "cutting edge," the content could be crude — visual jokes about little black babies and watermelon, tired old women posed "comically" next to ramshackle homes, groups of black townsfolk gathered on the street to "gossip" — the only imagined context for community in the racist photographer's eye. The staged, cruelly mocking images were an endorsement of stereotypes many already held about black people; it's an endorsement that Marshall-Linnemeier's work seeks to exorcise and overturn.

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The first image in the exhibition "I Know Who" is a shocker, evidence of the shamelessness of racial caricature, so sinister in intent it could even mock and degrade a defenseless child. In a manipulated digital print, Marshall-Linnemeier has taken a mocking portrait of a little girl posed on a wooden crate, flanked with a watermelon and a derogatory slur and, in a gesture that shows up again and again, reworked snickering into something spiritual and tender. The artist has salvaged the child from her racism-defined historical purgatory by framing her face with flower petals and surrounding her with butterflies in a gesture that feels like someone laying flowers on a loved one's grave.

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If photography represents another way the dominant white culture has framed and pilloried black Americans, then Marshall-Linnemeier employs the tools of painting and computer manipulation to, as her exhibition title suggests, "reconstruct identity." Marshall-Linnemeier is a revisionist who layers imagery, employs text and paints directly onto photo-based imagery to imbue African-Americans with a degree of mysticism, adoration, strength, spirituality and nobility.

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Marshall is at her best when something lyrical and mystical is at work, when racism is fought with images that reflect something far deeper.

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Where the artist stumbles is in allowing the desire for retribution to cripple her cause. Overstatement is one potential trap, as in the silent movie-style story told in 12 digital prints for "The Awakening — A Tree Remembers." The story at first appears to offer a metaphor for the violence of lynching in the destruction of two magnificent trees. As metaphor, the story of the trees is powerful. But when the artist then talks overtly about lynching, her evocative powers are greatly diminished. Her work is most persuasive and spiritually arresting when meaning is inferred and not baldly stated by the artist, as in another photograph of a dirt-poor shack beneath which the artist has reworked the words of "America, the Beautiful." In her alternative lyrics, the artist indicts a nation founded on dependency of oil, migrant workers and "corporate landowners." But that MoveOn.org litany of contemporary complaints actually serves to diminish the perverse particularity of American slavery.

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In this and many other cases, the artist would do well to let her trenchant, provocative juxtaposition of photographs do the talking. Artists have often misused text, allowed it to overwhelm what their art does best on its own, making its case subtly, without words.

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Stereo Propaganda is an exhibition that demands to be seen. Even if the artist's tactics may occasionally falter, her obvious belief in the power of images to change us for bad ... and for good ... is hard to deny.



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