It is not unusual that artists approach archives to find out more about the way certain laws, institutions and policies have been conceived. Those grandiose spaces of remembrance are often not accessible to many, and so the artist becomes a sort of mediator between the present and past while unraveling the same problematic social or political mechanisms.
The upcoming solo exhibition Killing the Negative of the American artist Joel Daniel Phillips at Hashimoto Contemporary will bring to light the artist’s new drawing series based on the photographs made by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression that were eventually government-censored.
Based on the legacy of classical draftsmanship, Joel Daniel Phillips’ well versed artistic practice tends to dissect the contemporary social circumstances by focusing on the unheard stories of the marginalized communities. By examining the notion of historical amnesia, truth, and the veracity of the stories, the artist expresses another side of storytelling through his black-and-white re-contextualizations of archival historical material in an attempt to shed a light on the urgency of collective care and social justice.
In 2019, Phillips saw the photograph by Walker Evans with a large black spot located at the center of the image. This intervention was not an addition to the photograph, but a purposeful act.
Namely, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a New Deal agency established in 1937 to deal with the rural poverty during the Great Depression. For the purposes of the project, 145,000 photographs were commissioned, and some of them such as Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange gained an iconic status, while many others were marked as unworthy and destroyed with the black hole. The process of selection and destruction of the photographs was conducted by the head of the FSA, Roy Stryker.
Killing the Negative is focused on the effect a single person’s decision making had on shaping of the collective understating of the nation. Stryker’s editing process is problematic to such an extent that he is considered responsible for erasing truthful records of social circumstances surrounding the Great Depression.
For his drawings, Phillips literally appropriated the black mark as the symbol of government censorship and the physical proof of historical revision that disrupted the original image and simultaneously made an entirely new one.
These works unravel a staggering similarity of the Great Depression era with the current moment as the issues of class, race, labor, communal goods, socio-economics and ecological protection stand out from the authentic censored FSA photographs. As a matter of fact, Phillips’ works indicate that even after almost a century the society hasn’t learned anything and keeps repeating the same patterns of not articulating the collective past and not empowering the communities in solidarity.
Killing The Negative will be on display at Hashimoto Contemporary in New York City from 17 October until 7 November 2020. The gallery will be open by appointment only and to maintain visits according to the safety measures masks are a mandatory prerequisite for entry.
Featured image: Joel Daniel Phillips - Killed Negative #12 / After Carl Mydans, detail, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and ink on paper, 25.5 x 59.5 in. All images courtesy Hashimoto Contemporary.
San Francisco, United States of America