Ken Gonzales-Day’s interdisciplinary and conceptually grounded projects consider the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems ranging from the lynching photograph to museum display. The Searching for California Hang Trees series offered a critical look at the legacies of landscape photography in the West while his most recent project considers the sculptural depiction of race. Using the sculpture and portrait bust collections of several major museums including: The J. Paul Getty Museum, The Field Museum, The Museum of Man in San Diego, L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, The Bode Museum, and Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, Profiled is as an exploration of the influence of eighteenth century "scientific" thought on twenty-first century institutions ranging from the prison to the museum. His Photo Arts Council (PAC) Prize winning book, Profiled, was published in 2011 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Gonzales-Day received a BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, an MFA from the University of California Irvine, and an MA from Hunter College in NYC. He is a Professor of Art at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. where he has taught since 1995. His work has been widely exhibited including: LACMA, Los Angeles; LAXART, Los Angeles; Tamayo Museum, Mexico City; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; The New Museum, NYC; Generali Foundation, Vienna, among others. In 2017, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography.
We spoke on November 20, 2017 at Ken's home in Silver Lake.
Paula: How did you come to realize that art could be a career?
Ken: I'd always been the class artist. When I was in eighth grade I went to a summer painting workshop for a week, and they had a very good art professor in middle school in Nampa, Idaho. I was already taking art classes at Boise State University when I was in high school.
Paula: I didn’t know you were from Idaho.
Ken: I was born in Santa Clara, California. My parents moved to Nampa, Idaho when I was thirteen years of age. Art was a way of trying to deal with the pressures of being in a place that was very strange to me, and it was very difficult for Latinos to be in that region of the country at that time. Art was a great way to process my experiences and to engage with them. That got me to think about going to art school, and I skipped my senior year of high school and studied at the L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Liege, Belgium as a Rotary Exchange Student. That was a total immersion experience; I painted every day. My background's painting and drawing.
I then applied to Parsons in New York. My undergraduate degree was in painting with an art history minor. My first Masters is in art history. I studied with Rosalind Krauss and Maurice Berger at CUNY in New York. Then I did the Whitney Independent Study Program. So moving from the high school artist to studying painting in Europe then going to an art college was all relatively quick. By 18 or 19 I'm pretty far in.
Paula: Why photography?
Ken: I was doing mixed media installations and I felt that painting was not able to address the kind of historical concerns like I wanted. For example, I could do a painting of any of the sculptures that I photographed, or any of the trees. It would be a lovely painting or a lovely drawing, but I wanted that indexical reference, the idea of the real that is in photography, so I started moving in that direction.
That's when I came out to UC Irvine, which had the largest color processor at the time. It was the size of a Volkswagen. Cathy Opie was working there as a lab tech. She taught me how to do studio lighting, and she was the person that managed all the equipment, so that was my concentrated entry into color.
Paula: Is there something about photography that sets it apart from other media?
Ken: I would say the main thing is that art was initially a kind of pleasure that one pursued in terms of craft and making and skill, but I started finding myself more drawn to other kinds of pleasures from historical research, thinking about history and materials, and so that's when the photography helped. You can think of it as if to freeze the material world; it has an indexical one-to-one relationship to the world. It's very useful for telling certain kinds of stories, revealing certain kinds of histories. The practice is more about documents or documenting practice, so the idea of a photograph of a newspaper from a particular date tells us something.
That aspect of photography is really unique. I felt like drawing and sketching couldn't quite do it, and by that point I was really interested in other aspects of history--from race construction to gender construction to ideas of difference in general--and trying to find ways to represent those. The Bone-Grass Boy project was mixed media, and Included painting, performance, narrative, historical fiction, and also photography. I had started that before UC Irvine, and was starting to do the research, but didn't have the technology to do the photographs. When I was at Irvine I started staging all of that and using the cameras and the lights, and then that project continued after I graduated for the next four or five years.
At that point I was thinking about photography differently. I was moving away from that narrative aspect, which that project was very much about, with me as a character from the story and my taking a picture that stands for that story, to what eventually becomes the Erased Lynching series, for which I'm using somebody else's photographs--found images and historical artifacts. I did a lot of research and used very simple Photoshop technology as a way of engaging with the photograph as a kind of historical trace, and creating works that trigger that idea of the historical so that people can engage with history in different ways.
With The Bone-Grass Boy, I'm sort of acting out history, which was enjoyable and fun and camp and playful, but in the end it wasn't doing enough for me. I wanted to try other things, so I moved to the research on the history on lynching in California, which included the search for California hang trees, as well as the Erased Lynching series. That took me another decade.
The most recent thing, which is Surface Tension at the Skirball, is really more of a documentary project in the sense that it's documenting, looking at murals that exist in the city today, or existed at the time I took them thinking about that idea of the photographic record or document. It’s like one giant snapshot of the city right now that people will be able to study in the future.
Paula: I see most of your work as having to do with race and identity. You touched on having been dropped into Idaho. Is that where this interest started? Where does that come from? You spend a lot of time thinking about and documenting different aspects of this.
Ken: It's in the murals, too, because of course it's looking at all the ways that people represent themselves in these murals, in communities and neighborhoods. I started thinking about the images of LA we don't see in the museums, or in the publications on Los Angeles. Certainly those are many of the images we rarely see.
I think I was drawn to explore race primarily because as a person of mixed ethnic background, I was always asked that question, "What are you?" That's not an empowering question. For anybody reading, they probably should not ask people that. As a young person I found myself either being seen as not Latino enough or not Anglo enough. I think that was the beginning of thinking about it. And then, of course, the larger question of anti-Mexican sentiment has paralleled my lifetime. As a young person, the idea of the wall between US and Mexico began this discussion. It goes back to the Bushes, the Clintons, and even before. I was a Mexican-American growing up with extended family members that were day-laborers, or worked in fields as I had done as a young person. I had that experience of being racialized--on the one hand being treated a certain way as a high school farm laborer, to on the other hand, presenting academic papers in a national and international context, even as a young person.
The challenges of what narratives need to be told, what stories can be told, and what stories I can help tell, were certainly part of the framework that has driven the work. And part of the pleasure of the work. I'm always trying to imagine if I had been exposed to this kind of work as a young person, or these kinds of questions. Wouldn't that have been useful?
There really are so few Latinos included in the mainstream museums and the publications that it's hard for people to know what they're looking at. We're not seen as a part of Latin-American art, because we're seen as Mexican-American. And then, having gone to school on the east coast, they're more familiar with Puerto Rican and Cuban context, and now Central American. All those differences are part of the interest.
Paula: That’s a good segue to Pacific Standard Time, because I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are about this. You participated in Pacific Standard Time in a few contexts. What was your first impression when you heard that this was going to happen?
Ken: The first discussions of it were at a dinner party that was held at Pilar Tomkins Rivas's house. She is the curator at the Vincent Price Museum. There was a group of Latinas that had gone to a presentation at the Getty, and this was sort of a informal dinner for people to think about what the Getty had said, and what was coming, and who it would include. Most of the early language did not include Mexican-Americans, people who are US citizens and a part of an American fabric of American diversity.
A group of us organized a two-day symposium which was held at the Getty and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. 300 people attended, and lots of artists from both sides of the border, and local artists and historians. That was for all of us a chance to explore some of the histories we thought might be overlooked in the official programming, and gave us a chance to share that information with potential curators. Some of those artists did get included in various shows, and some of the material got included, or essayists, or historians. That was an attempt to try to add a local component as PST was just beginning.
Many of the initial shows were curated by the local institutions that received money for research. There aren’t a great number of Latino curators at these institutions, so much of it was thought of in terms of travel to Latin American countries to see work, which is a certain way of curating shows. That gave a certain set of results. Some of those shows added some additional local people along the way and kept developing the exhibitions. There's quite a range now.
Overall, I'm quite supportive. I think it is a change for Angelenos to see the broad range of works and issues available. I've really enjoyed some of the shows, and I've also enjoyed the historical perspectives. I think the challenge will be whether there's any continued interest in the relationship between Los Angeles and Latinos, and how to better incorporate those themes and topics in the press. There doesn't seem to be as much interest among the mainstream press in what is going on here in Los Angeles, and that seems to echo the national sentiment that is anti-Mexican.
I think one of the challenges, since there are so few Latino curators, historians, and reviewers, is that there are just not enough people to do the work, to write on the work that really seems like it should be written on.
Paula: Does it have to be a Latino writer?
Ken: No, no. It would be great if there were people from other communities that value that work, but we haven't found that yet. In any event, I think that the kinds of questions that it's brought up are interesting, and it was planned long before the recent election. I think that idea of, "What is a Latin American artist?" "What is a Chicano artist?" "What's a Latino, or Latinx artist?" continues to challenge many people.
Paula: Does it matter? Why are those definitions important?
Ken: Historically, Latin American artists were seen as artists who reside in Latin America, so people that did not reside there were not included in those exhibitions. People of Latino or Chicano descent were seen as nationally or ethnically other, and they're not included in survey shows of American art. It's that in-between space, and if you look at the collecting history of any museum here in LA it’s very difficult to find their work in different collections.
On top of that, you have different generations within the Latinx community, and different ideas about what that work should do, and different ideas about how community should play into it. It's very easy to have the conversation feel like it's not being productive because people are either over-identifying or dis-identifying, or building borders or walls within the community. For example, the Phantom Sightings exhibition at LACMA that I was in some years ago was very interested in breaking down the traditional boundaries of what was seen as Chicano art and what was seen as Latin American art, and tried to acknowledge the fluid nature and movement of people across the continent until very recently in history.
Paula: There are so many people who are of mixed heritage, and many who come from all over the world and are part of the city that even to define your terms is getting tricky. So what do you do?
Ken: That will be the challenge of the future. Obviously, on the one hand we'd love to see all such boundaries disappear, and on the other hand, we're also trying to see that the different concerns, interests, and histories of particular communities are somehow reflected in the landscape, and in the museums, institutions, and newspapers that represent this city on some level.
Paula: Are you hopeful that this will spark some more curiosity, some more interest from the institutions?
Ken: Ideally what'll happen, or what should happen, is to have representation of all parties, all the way up and down the stratus. Many of us have already thought about these issues in terms of feminism. Should there be women directors at museums? Should there be women curators? Should there be women artists?
Paula: It makes a difference.
Ken: Right. We've seen that, and many of us understand that to be true without any doubts when it comes to gender. It just will take more time for people to think about cultural difference in that way; where you expect to see diversity at the board level, at the curatorial level, at the newspapers and magazines. It is being done because the work merits it.
I'm hopeful of course. There's a range of works, issues, and topics that weren't taught previously, and we are now learning these histories for the first time. That part of it is very exciting. I suspect that I will keep learning from these shows in the months and years to come, so the fact that the Getty supported so many institutions to explore the topic however they wanted was pretty unique. These are all questions that we'll all get better at thinking about and presenting.
The other exciting thing was there was quite a lot of contemporary work showcased in the PST gallery associated exhibitions, which were not funded, but were listed as sort of extra-curricular activities for PST visitors. I think quite a number of visitors came from all over the globe, so that was also a great way to showcase Los Angeles.
Paula: Last subject. I'm always interested in mentorship, and the idea of passing on your knowledge. What do you get out of teaching?
Ken: I enjoy teaching. I've been at Scripps a few years, so that has been useful both for my research as well as for my teaching, because a lot of my work is focused on research and history. It's wonderful to have access to libraries and collections to work with, as well as to teach and share with students how to do research with primary documents and with other kinds of resources. It also gives me access to a darkroom, and I still do use it once in a while.
Our students work closely with us on their capstone project, which is like a senior exhibition. If they choose to go on to graduate school, we'll keep in touch. Occasionally I work with students at the Claremont Graduate University,so that gives me a different experience with older students, and they also often help in the classroom.
Paula: What is this generation interested in? Are there themes? Are there things that this generation is thinking about in their practice?
Ken: Well, yes, there are current things, of course. I would say self-care is a thing that comes up a lot, because they're learning about themselves. These are mostly residential colleges, so they tend to be exploring different aspects of their intellectual and personal life. Many are coming from smaller towns, so it might be the first exposure to a big city, or being near a big city, and of course we have so many museums and cultural institutions here. A lot of students do internships at museums, so there are different ways that they're entering the industry.
Interest in photography remains high. I have long waiting lists for all my classes, in part because now everybody's a photographer because of smartphones. There are many students that want to see what it's like to work in a darkroom, touch a roll of film, touch a camera and feel it wind, adjust a lens, understand what light is. I find that it's an interesting world in which I'll have students say that they've been a photographer for many years, but they've never actually touched a roll of film because they've been working in high school, and digitally, and they have their social media, and they have websites, but they've been published already in some manner.
It’s a different way of thinking about it. They're actually coming to Intro to Photography after having done other kinds of photography. From my perspective, it's great, because once they have some experience, we can really engage more critically with image making, and decide what they're going to do with it.
Paula What’s coming up?
Ken: I have a show opening at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC on March 24 and running through February 2019. Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar will be a photographic exploration of representations of Native Americans in our nation's capital. It will allow viewers to think about presence and absence in a number of different ways photographically, and also historically. I'm very much looking forward to that show.
Surface Tension by Ken Gonzales-Day is on display at the Skirball Center Through February 25, 2018. Ken’s work can also be seen at Luis de Jesus Gallery. Click here for more information about Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzalds-Day and Titus Kaphar.