As churchgoers gathered this past Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, attendees at the opening of Doreen Garner’s current exhibition at JTT, She Is Risen, experienced a wholly different reflection on bodily sacrifice and rebirth. The first thing viewers will notice about Garner’s works is likely the omnipresence of vaginas, vulvas, and the typically concealed insides of human reproductive organs. In “Olympia” (2019), we revisit Édouard Manet’s iconic painting, but find its two figures reduced to warped representations of body parts. On the left, a bare and ghostly white pelvis displayed on a wood shelf is splayed. Its vaginal slit opens to a void; legs missing, the body’s visible interior is composed of bright red and yellow silicone viscera. On a shelf just to the right are three fabricated flowers with brown, hairy stems. They open to reveal pink calla-lily type buds, recalling vulvas, surrounded by metal pins.
This presentation parallels Manet’s painting in surprising ways: though the figure of Olympia is said to have shocked French viewers with her active bearing and assertive gaze, here, the flowers standing in for the Black maid appear more animated — though they are also less human. Garner’s “Olympia” makes visible an argument advanced by the artist Lorraine O’Grady in “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (1992): that Manet used the maid to create an oppositional composition portraying female subjectivity as a construct coded through whiteness. In O’Grady’s words, “the ‘femininity’ of the white female body is ensured by assigning the not-white to a chaos safely removed from sight … only the white body remains as the object of a voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze.”
The visually arresting “Betsey’s Flag” (2019) is the centerpiece of the exhibition, and it is Garner’s most immediate and edifying distillation of the Colonial-era horrors she dredges up in She Is Risen. In this piece, strips of silicone in varying shades of brown replicate breasts, navels, and vulvas taken from the bodies of Black women; Garner has stapled them together to create a monstrous Betsy Ross flag. Realistic enough to elicit uneasiness, these skin “stripes” are accompanied by stars cut out from the flesh strips, revealing layers of yellow subcutaneous fat. On the back of the flag is a rendering of swirling subdermal flesh, a miniature cosmos, more gorgeous than it is grotesque. Garner uses pearls and crystals to mimic fat cells and muscle tissue, and they are uniquely beautiful in their faux-corporeality.
Garner’s emphasis on reproductive organs is a facet of her larger interest in exposing the hidden viscera of the body, placing viewers in an encounter with the material structures functioning under the surfaces of the skin. More importantly, the artist has all of us confront a historical trauma that has long been obscured, namely, the unspeakable abuses perpetrated on the bodies — and subjectivities — of Black women within the Western colonizer’s crusade towards scientific and cultural “progress.” In “Betsey’s Flag,” Garner looks back to the 19th century (as she did in a previous exhibition at Pioneer Works, White Man on a Pedestal), referencing the torturous experiments J. Marion Sims conducted on enslaved Black women for his gynecological research in the 1800s. “Betsey” was the name of one of his subjects, and the 16 stars on the flag refer not to the number of American colonies, but to the number of cots in Sim’s lab for the women he operated on.
Yet Garner doesn’t limit her purview to the past, and stresses that such routine dehumanizations endure in our contemporary moment. In a piece titled “Heard from Her Larynx: Sandra” (2019), a surreal, hair-covered gramophone plays a recording of Sandra Bland’s arrest after a 2015 traffic stop when activated, pointing to the carceral brutalities that led to Bland’s death shortly after.
Garner’s representations of the vagina are often deconstructed or abstracted, but the sheer relentlessness of this imagery reveals her interest in engaging with its culturally encoded symbolism, politics, and dualities. Though it’s now mostly known as an emblem of sexual empowerment and vitality (particularly in such key feminist artworks as Judy Chicago’s monumental “The Dinner Party”), the vagina has also been portrayed as an abject wound. Garner’s work is a welcome departure from well-worn tropes: by using this ur-symbol to explore racialized otherness and violence, she reclaims the vagina from its historically entrenched use by white feminist artists. In Hortense Spillers’ widely cited essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers describes how the “captive flesh/body” was treated as a “living laboratory” by the captor, though she laments that most won’t be up to the task of retrieving these “mutilated female bodies” — meaning that most won’t truly memorialize and identify with them now. Garner proves to be the exception. She Is Risen is a powerful reminder of the racialized traumas that haunt us into the present day — traumas that have not been fully exorcised, and must not be forgotten.
Doreen Garner: She Is Risen continues at JTT (191 Chrystie Street, Manhattan) through May 26.