Tensions were high from the election as controversy skyrocketed over a painting in the Winfisky Gallery on campus. With so many rumors and opinions floating around, it can be hard to get the full story.
I sat with Ken Reker, the curator of the current exhibition “State of The Union” to gain a better idea of the events that occurred over the past month. Reker put out an artist’s submission call for work in the form of visual art “that elicited a personal response from these participants about how the hopes and fears and concerns for this upcoming election cycle,” he said.
The show which opened on November 9 was of course built to be controversial, but that escalated when students started taking offense to one piece in particular, “Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair” by Garry D. Harley. There was much concern over the lack of description accompanied by the contentious painting which portrayed six members of the Klu Klux Klan dressed in ceremonial attire standing in a field. Reker said that an explanation was given in the guest book like it usually is, but after concerns from students the context was displayed in plain sight on the walls. Harley offered a very relevant and detailed explanation with his painting:
“Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair” is also a Digital Painting, again simulated by the various ‘fringe groups’ attracted to the message of the ‘Trump Campaign’ and the use of violence and intimidation of immigrant and minority citizens as a central organizing principle by the candidate.”
The misinterpretation of the piece did not seem to be an overall surprise to Reker. Considering the diversity at a college like Salem State, it is expected that multiple perspectives will clash. Everyone has a right to their freedom of speech whether it be the artists creating the piece or the students reacting to it.
“I understand that students are inundated every day with uncontextualized images and I think it’s important to understand that everybody comes to these images with their own set of experiences and understandings,” Reker said.
A week after the opening, Harley came back to the school for an open forum that gave the chance for students to ask questions and voice their concerns. He explained the intention behind the image to dismiss some of the miscommunications. The artists other piece hung unveiled on the other side of the gallery representing the use of propaganda through Nazi Germany. Printed sheets of paper were hung next to the paintings that portrayed examples of artists that have dealt with creating hard images of propaganda and hate in past art history. After the forum faculty decided to temporarily suspend the exhibit with a letter of apology being sent out to students and the community.
On Tuesday November 29 after covering the painting with a black curtain and taking into consideration freedom of speech, the faculty and art+design department and student leaders mutually agreed to reopen the gallery.
“I think the administration handled it very well and this has brought up more levels of inequity for students and faculty and it’s this organic thing that continues to change and alter but it seems it’s positively moving forward,” he said.
There are now visual artist descriptions posted with all the paintings and a table to voice concerns. Reker has been in the gallery since the reopening every
Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. until December 14. He was available to speak to students about any questions they had and provide support for any concerns. In the future, the faculty has decided to take precautions such as: posting a statement acknowledging the concerns raised about the gallery, provide a public reflection board near the exhibit, have expanded artists statements and a guide present during gallery hours to provide “reflective tours”.
This was not an easy issue for Salem State but it educated staff, faculty and the community with a better understanding of interpretation, art history, freedom of speech and personal opinion.