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“Imagining Families: Images and Voices”

National African American Museum

A Smithsonian Institution Project at the Arts and Industries Building to February 28

“Family Lives: Photographs by Tina Barney, Nic Nicosia, and Catherine Wagner”

What do “family values” look like? Can they be, as some politicians seem intent on asserting, described, prescribed, photographed, or filmed? Many commentators have cited the unsatisfactory pop-culture models created by television sitcoms, but Western art’s most ubiquitous family image is that of the unwed mother and her child. Some of the most compelling contemporary visual examinations of this theme are happening in photography and the contemporary art that it influences. Since the camera is no longer the exclusive tool of the artist, but a documentary device at work in millions of homes, it would seem to be particularly effective at capturing the elusive essence of family values.

That this is not the case, that the image of the family is evasive and uncircumscribable, is demonstrated by “Imagining Families: Images and Voices,” an exhibition of photographic works that exposes the partial, fragmentary nature of both families and our ability to visualize and understand them.

The exhibition is the first by the National African American Museum. The museum is described by Smithsonian Deputy Assistant Secretary Claudine Brown in the show’s catalog as “a three-dimensional family album for a large and extended family.” The exhibit reflects that definition, including work by American artists of Asian and European backgrounds as well as African ones. The resulting vision of family life and society reflects the complex matrix of influences at work in most American lives.

Housed in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, “Imagining Families” is also an admirable contemporary fine-art show, with works of a character and quality more usually presented at the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, or the National Museum of American Art. It’s a novel debut for a historical museum, but one that augurs well for the creative range of vision the museum will be able to implement.

What the show does not do is provide many good clues to the mystery of family values. Most of its works have as much to do with issues of friendship, gender identity, memory, historical documentation, racism, materialism, and art itself as they do with the nature of family. These themes affect family life and are affected by it, but that seems beside the point. In many cases, the artists’ feelings for the family members commemorated in the works, rather than anything visible in the works themselves, provide the link to the exhibit’s theme. In others, the image of children equals family. In yet others, the home is made to speak for the absent family it serves. In all cases, the family itself and the values that structure and determine its action are indeterminant.

Even Clarissa Sligh’s large documentary installation about the African-American Staten Island settlement Sandy Ground is as much a 150-year narrative of struggle, survival, and destruction as it is an investigation of the distinctive vision and energy that propelled the town’s founders, Eliza Morriss and Philip Cooler, in their family life. The implication is that in Sandy Ground family was the larger community, but the installation—a series of water photos layered with ghostly images of windows, doors, figures, and structures, and scrawled and typed words surrounding a central frame structure that shelters a sculpture of Morriss—is more personal than familial. Wall text panels recount the Cooler family story and describe the eventual decay and disappearance of the original settlement. Sligh structures her presentation around the figure of Morriss, but the overall effect is a poetic drama of life and death in which Morriss and Cooler are more archetypal actors than members of a family group.

Similar absences mystify the family experience in Lonnie Graham’s installation Living in a Spirit House: Aunt Dora’s Room, which constructs a domestic interior with a distinctive period and regional air. Ceramic flamingos sit on an old television set, photos of Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King hang over the ’30s radio, and a cosmetic jar sits beside the rocker Aunt Dora might recently have vacated. Margaret Stratton’s Inventory of My Mother’s House, an almost obsessive random documentation of objects from her mother’s home, is a chronicle of the material environment with which a family surrounds itself, but reveals nothing about its interaction or moral condition. And it is the text in Fern Logan’s American Hero and Questions that explains the suffering caused by a son’s rejection of his parents—a white father and an African-American mother—one of whom is the artist.

As the visitor moves through the exhibition, it becomes increasingly apparent that the family itself is hard to represent. Snapshots—the aides-mémoires offamily experience—operate through a complex reverberation of memory processes that rely on the viewer’s possession a similar memory-image bank. Photos of professional groups, school classes, or individual portraits made for framing or family albums are a genre that documents rather than interprets. By themselves, they leave a false impression of familiarity without increasing our understanding.

This phenomenon is dramatically demonstrated by Laurie Novak’s slide installation Gathered Visions, which has a beautiful soundtrack by Elizabeth Brown. Novak gathered family photographs, mostly snapshots, from nearly 75 women; she projects these as wall-size images in a darkened room. The images recycle every 20 minutes, and examine the experience of growing up female. The most effective—although ambiguous—sequences occur when the artist manipulates the slides so that the girls’ faces are seen through the transparent pages of books. Yet the work is not a critique of gender formation; it demonstrates is how formulaic are most family photographs, and how narrow is the actual range of imagination in images that purport to display the family. The effect of the whole is quite moving, but more for watching the frequency of apprehension on the girl-children’s faces: The effort of maintaining the myth of carefree childhood is clearly considerable.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, constructed, manipulated, or altered rather than “found” images also make the most forceful family critiques. Carrie Mae Weems is well-known for her staged explorations of family dynamics. Five are on view in “Imagining Families.” David Keating’s Family Legend and Troth, both commentaries on marriage and tradition, are enlargements or set pieces, and rely on words to make their point. Troth is a statement about “how money and objects got in the way of proper expression of love in our family.” In Family Legend, a photo of the artist’s great-grandfather is presented along with a listing of his civic and personal achievements. The former include bank and corporation presidencies and board memberships; the latter such labels as anti-Communist, anti-Semite, bigot, sexist, and homophobe. Here again, it’s the text that directs the correct “reading” of the image. The same is true of Diane Tani’s postmodern chromogenic photos with text exploring Asian-American identity.

In “Family Lives: Photographs by Tina Barney, Nic Nicosia, and Catherine Wagner,” a thematically similar exhibition of works by three cutting-edge photog raphers at the Corcoran, the images are either staged by the artists to reflect a particular, media-saturated definition of family or composed in such a way as to call emphatic attention to the photographer’s presence. These images are much more self-conscious about both the ideas they propose and the strategies by which they were created. Yet for all their theoretical positioning, they are less effective at eliciting a family essence than “Imagining Families,” which comes at its subjects with curiosity and affection rather than a contrived, voyeuristic hostility. As a consequence, the indifference, cruelty, struggle, and frustration chronicled at the Smithsonian are more deeply troubling, and offer a more pessimistic prognosis—despite the professional pessimism in the work of Barney, Nicosia, and Wagner. Theirs are large, glamorous, and impersonal images—which are, of course, another set of family values. And it’s a set that keeps any danger of “family feeling” effectively at bay.