A toddler’s haphazard curls and flush cheeks are captured in a sweet but banal painting on view at last week’s LISTE art fair in Basel. The simplicity of the portrait, by artist Hamishi Farah, takes on new meaning when the title claims it. “Representation of Arlo” (2018) is a rendering of artist Dana Schutz’s son and a response to her painting “Open Casket” (2016). “Open Casket” was based on a funeral photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was tortured and murdered by two white men in 1955. Allegedly based on a photo found on the internet, Farah’s responsive work raises questions of consent — in historical and contemporary contexts — and whether the work is an appropriate reaction to Schutz’s political painting.
What does it mean to paint another person without consent? Art historically, Farah occupies a crowded room of artists who have acted in a predatory manner, adopting images from both private and public spaces and sources. Walker Evans’s Subway Portraits series is regarded as remarkable, despite the fact that he obtained those images by attaching a camera to his chest, lens peaking between coat buttons. If praising the images is considered an approval of the process, just moving through the world today provides consent for our likeness to appear in art production and be appropriated for public consumption and purchase. It is possible Farah found Arlo’s image within a private social media account intended for an intimate community. Arne Svenson obtained images of his subjects without their knowledge while they were in their own homes in his Neighbors series. He was sued and emerged victorious, both in the courts and in his career, successfully exhibiting the photo series subsequently. Is “Representation of Arlo” different? (Svenson’s series also included children, if the age of the subject is a point of contention.)
“The painting is very different from the photograph. I could never render the photograph ethically or emotionally,” Schutz told artnet News in 2017, discussing the differences between the photographs of Till’s open-casket funeral and her painting “Open Casket.” Schutz’s version of the photo includes a vermillion flower on a cummerbund and distinct brushstrokes in place of Till’s viciously disfigured face. Following inquiries from Hyperallergic, Farah and his gallery Arcadia Missa did not elaborate on where the artist found the image of Schutz’s son. Attempting to retrace Farah’s digital steps and locate the original photo used for the painting, I found two blurry images of Arlo, neither matching Farah’s painting. Perhaps, like Schutz, Farah did not copy a specific photo but synthesized and adapted several.
In a New York Times interview, Schutz said,
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.
Working from an understanding that motherhood interrupts classifications of race, Farah could claim a similar structure, one of a son-to-son connection. By inhabiting that space, Farah can gauge who will come to whose aid and protection. Who will claim that someone’s likeness is too sacred to reproduce or steal? In the same Times interview, Schutz added:
Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
The claim is problematic because Schutz seeks to inhabit the grief of a black mother in the 1950s whose son was murdered without justice by painting from photos. It is a shallow entanglement for its creator, and Farah exposes that. In the spirit of bell hooks, Farah returns us to the question: for whose gaze is either painting intended?
In Schutz’s defense of her work, she correctly acknowledged that the suffering experienced by Mamie Till has no boundary. Till bravely chose to show the public the brutality done to her 14-year-old child. The image of that pain cannot be decoupled from its context. Her act inspired other acts of resistance and garnered allies across racial divides. This visual call-and-response resonates across the decades and with artists today, reminding us of the potential terror of making and looking at images.
Based on the description of painting photos of a child from an arguably public space, without a parent’s consent, in response to a politically charged event and presenting it in a contemporary art context, it would be hard to determine if I am referring to “Open Casket” or “Representation of Arlo.” Like Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author, Farah makes clear that author’s intent is swiftly replaced by the reader’s interpretation. Just as no text or painting is neutral, neither is the reader, and his or her social experiences will make meaning with the marks of class, gender, and race. If Schutz’s goal was to express pain and empathy and give life to a conversation she perceived as relevant to a new context, Farah has aided her objective. Miraculously, Farah’s Arlo reminds us of Till, the context, the pain, and the possibilities of meaning read by different “authors.”
In Farah’s video artwork “Marginal Aesthetics” (2014), each new incarnation of an image is said to replace the previous version, suggesting that the artist was conceptually thinking about the commodification of images and pain well before “Open Casket” was made. “Representation of Arlo” may be read as predatory or a spectacle, but he is working with the same tools afforded other artists, including Schutz. If art allows viewers and creators the opportunity to understand what it is like to step into another’s shoes, Farah has made a pair that fits Schutz but is extremely uncomfortable.