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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lisa Beane Tells the Truth

Lisa Beane has never shied away from addressing challenging political issues, but there is more urgency and audacity in her recent work. For the past two years, Beane has been focused on lynchings, drawn to the subject by the story of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year old Afghan woman who was murdered by an angry mob in March 2015 in Kabul. The incident occurred after Malikzada confronted a mullah selling charms outside a shrine. A devout woman, Malikzada was offended by this blasphemous activity happening in such close proximity to a holy site. Her piety proved her undoing; the mullah became so enraged by Malikzada's scolding that he turned around and accused her of burning a Koran. Word of this alleged act spread quickly through the crowd, which attacked Malikzada. In a frenzy, they beat her, stoned her and ran her over, finally setting what was left of her body on fire and throwing it into the river all in the presence of policemen.

Beane saw in the outcry here in the States blatant hypocrisy and convenient amnesia. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were doing much the same thing. Between the years 1877-1950 there were nearly 4,000 lynchings in the U.S., the vast majority in the South. What is almost worse to consider is that these events frequently took on a carnival atmosphere with women and children in attendance. And these weren't mere hangings. Victims would be tortured with brands, their limbs broken and some were burned alive, all in the presence of ordinary, church-going folk. Crowds as big as 15,000 were reported at these barbaric events. A whole industry of souvenir photography arose out of the lynchings (not to mention other "souvenirs", ears, fingers, genitals). Many of the photos of actual lynchings were turned into postcards that still exist today complete with sickeningly glib messages inscribed by sender to recipient.

It is these hateful mementos that provide the inspiration for the core of this body of work with paintings composed like postcards. Recurring imagery features the crowd of lynching spectators and stamps in the upper right or left corners. It is in these little rectangles, that resemble religious icons, that Beane places the lynched victims. The stamps are one cent both because that was the cost of a postcard stamp back when these postcards were printed and mailed, and also because one cent is about the value the perpetrators placed on the human beings they tortured and hanged. Working from the original images, Beane embellishes them with paint and adds halos to their martyred heads, canonizing those whose suffering was on a par with any experienced by the roster of Catholic saints. Often, Beane juxtaposes them with vintage images of happy white people who are either okay with what's going on or unaware, as if to say both are guilty. For how can 4,000 lynchings go on unnoticed?

A commanding work, Sheet Cake, Beane's portrait of a steely-eyed Robert E. Lee in striking dun-colored coat and green vest and sporting a hip-hop stud in one ear, addresses the very thing that bedevils white supremacists and explains their anti-science bias, namely, that we are all descended from a common ancestor, "Lucy", an extinct hominin from Africa. Set against a blood red background, a trickle of which runs down Lee's face, the portrait presents not the Lee of Southern lore—a man of honor and integrity, tortured by his decision to break with his country—but the man who upheld a system that brutalized an entire segment of the population. Beane drives home this point with "Trans Atlantic Trade Inc." written across the bottom, referencing the slave trade, and the bar code numbers, which represent the 12 million enslaved people transported across the Atlantic from Africa.

In her work, Beane uses a combination of image and writing set against broad passages of paint that is sometimes a lyrical atmospheric backdrop and other times, an emotionally charged aura rendered in bold brushstrokes.The scrawl of words and splintered composition impart an edgy street vibe to the work, almost as if the paintings are an urban wall peppered with graffiti and the layered visual fragments of old handbills.

Cartoon characters and child surrogates populate Beane's work, and the written passages have the syntax and style of a child as well as a particular juvenile naïveté. One senses Beane herself feels reduced to a vulnerable child in the face of these horrors and by using innocents both to bear witness and deliver the truth, Beane underscores the savagery being described.

Beane shares a similar raw aesthetic with reclusive outsider artist Henry Darger. In addition to the use of children and childlike perspective, their work features bright colors, wild, opulent flowers and samplings from popular culture. Though obviously more self-aware and engaged in the world than Darger who was powerless before his obsessions, like him, Beane's work is informed by childhood trauma. While hers was not on the same level as Darger who suffered shattering mental and physical abuse. Beane's father was a dentist and she enjoyed a loving family and affluent existence in Richmond. Still, being African-American in the 1960s South was not easy. Beane recalls as a child being told to get down on the floor of the car w1as her mother drove past a group of KKK in a field burning a cross.

"The title of the show is ‘Karma’", says Beane. "A big underlying point is: 'Do unto others.' The concept of karma—it all comes back to you, and at the end of the day we all have to answer for the good and the bad we have done to one another, the planet, animals and life itself. Selfish greed, fear of others being different, privileged mentality and superiority just for simple pigmentation is absurd. I have relatives who can pass for white. Does that make them white? This mentality is twisted, scary and harmful to society as a whole. Racism retards the progress of the United States and the world. The anger and cruelty is despicable beyond my understanding. Police brutality, preying on innocent people of color because they can, AND get away with most of the abuse, has become the new KKK. All of these paintings show the need for accepting individual responsibility for society's distorted view of privileged racism. How can people actually call Black Lives Matter the same as the KKK? Someone said to me the other day, 'Wow, you’re so angry,' after seeing the Lee painting. I told him, 'Really? No, I just hate the way racist, privileged people treat others and how long they have gotten away with it. Just because I stand up against them doesn’t make me angry, I just tell the truth.'"