The collage is titled “Smile,” although neither figure wears a true smile. In this photo collage, artist Gary Burnley combines copies of two iconic images: a black-and-white photograph of lynching victim Emmett Till and another of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait “Mona Lisa.” According to the artist, what a viewer sees first, or how a viewer reads that image, very much depends on personal background as well as the role memory and expectations play in sorting out the meaning of the merged images.
Candela Books and Gallery’s latest exhibit, “Stranger in the Village” takes its title from a seminal essay by James Baldwin written about his experiences as the sole Black person living in a small Swiss village for a summer. Burnley's series is made up of collages intended to challenge and re-imagine historical portraiture and other narrative painting conventions emblematic of western culture and history.
The exhibit was originally scheduled in May, but the gallery was closed in March and didn’t reopen until September, with an abundance of caution. After 10 years of holding exhibit openings at night, they are now held for an entire day. Patrons must wear masks and gallery staffers cap the capacity at 10 people, including themselves. Weekdays continue to be quiet, but weekends have seen a steady trickle of art lovers eager to wander the gallery. For those not ready to venture out, Candela has also done a major overhaul on its website, the better to feature work on the gallery walls.
“We’re doing virtual and physical shows right now, but we’ve slowed way down on our programming,” explains gallery director Ashby Nickerson. “That transition has been pretty smooth for us as a photography gallery, even though we are all about objects.”
Another concession to the times is the availability of a $25 catalog featuring the work in each show. Made in limited runs of only 100, the catalogs have been shipped all over the country to art fans starved for new work. “It’s gratifying to ship the catalogs out when it’s so quiet in here,” Nickerson says of the extended audience.
For Burnley, knowing that the pandemic means far fewer people can view his work in person feels like a small price to pay considering the many lives affected worldwide. The artist’s work began about 16 years ago with images viewed through stereoscope devices. The idea of separate images merged in the eye and mind of the viewer intrigued him. A few years later, he began making physical collages to stretch and expand the experience of the stereoscopes: “The collages speak to coerced mergers, forced marriages,” Burnley says. “I’m physically deconstructing recognizable images then reassembling and uniting them with other images that disrupt and re-imagine the viewer's anticipated reading of them both.”
His work is based on the theory that images have different lives because personal and historical images have come to represent different things and are usually viewed with conflicting expectations. Yet both are part of how we form associations and find meaning in images.
“I’m interested in the struggle between what is known and expected from an image and what is unknown and could not be imagined. What is gained and what is lost in the process of having images from different sources, made for different reasons and different purposes sharing pictorial and mental space, sharing history, reason, circumstances or consequences,” he explains. “Is it possible to see the familiar differently?”
In the case of “Smile,” he used the “Mona Lisa” to represent the power, dignity and status of European women as a contrast with the history, racism and violence associated with Till’s youthful image. The collages in the exhibition are built from historical works being repurposed and combined with Burnley’s own personal archives, including yearbook photos and family photos, then carefully reconstructed so that new meanings can emerge. He admits that the decision is usually intuitive.
To start, he’ll look at art history texts until he’s struck by some quality that an image has or is intended to represent. He then looks through family albums or school yearbooks and imagines how they might coexist, what they have in common, what they have in conflict, in a shared space. “The images have a way of finding their own solutions, of talking to each other and retelling or reimagining their individual stories,” he says.
“Sometimes the process leads to a seamless resolution and sometimes the resolution is a much more complex, mysterious and difficult one.” Circles are used as a motif because he feels they soften the transition from one state to another as opposed to a square or triangle which feels more abrupt.
Most of all, Burnley wants the viewer to consider the possibilities.
“There’s a sense of seeing through something into something else, a peephole, a sense of revealing things that may be there but not easily visible, that we would not anticipate, that we could not imagine.”
Gary Burnley’s “Stranger in the Village” is on display through Dec. 31 at Candela Books and Gallery, 214 W. Broad St., Catalogs available at candelagallery.com.