In the United States, skin color determines the value and quality of one’s life: it can determine whether someone is a consumer or consumer, whether someone is raped and tortured, whether one is given medical care or undergoing experiments without anesthesia. To this day, the myth persists that black patients have less pain and need less painkillers than white patients.
Doreen Lynette Garner’s experience as a tattoo artist has shaped her fascination with and ease with simulating skin. Garner renders flesh in silicon with unforgiving realism, depicting the pathology of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy as white skin marked with sores, ulcers, and pustules, symptoms of diseases introduced by European traders and colonizers. Her art is history that becomes flesh and blood. It’s violent and direct, like an accident or a medical illustration. It’s body horror in the style of David Cronenberg – which accurately captures the absolute horror of slavery.
When I visited Garner’s QUIET At the New Museum, curated by Vivian Crockett, the red-tinted glass wall and red lights made me feel like I had stepped into a slaughterhouse. Everything on the show appears through a haze of blood mixed with generational trauma and anger. I literally saw “red”. The title harks back to the victim narrative by celebrating acts of resistance to the slave trade and medical experimentation on enslaved African women. The title could also refer to the act of recreating and reinterpreting works from the art historical canon, which is dominated by white males from countries that participated in the slave trade.
Three of the four sculptures on display focus on the Middle Passage – the phase of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were transported to America. Of approximately 12.5 million enslaved Africans transported through the Middle Passage, approximately 15 percent (nearly 2 million) died during the journey. In the middle of the gallery “The Festival of Pigs” — a diseased, disemboweled carcass – hanging from the ceiling in a reference to Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Oxen (1655) and Soutine’s Cattle Carcass (c.1925). In Garner’s work, cattle become pigs – positioned as an infection vector. The pig refers not only to European colonizers, but also to the forced consumption of sick cattle on slave ships. A black hand wielding a knife emerges from under a platform, teasing the theme of resistance that runs throughout the exhibition.
Another work is entitled I’d Rather the Viscera of Me Floating on the Surface of the Sea than Be Dragged into Hell by Those Pale and Free (2022). The title is a reference to a verse from the song “Oh Freedom”: “And before I would be a slave/I would be buried in my grave.” The title also refers to the slave ship New Britannia. In 1773, a group of enslaved Africans gained access to arms and staged a revolt. Faced with defeat and the hell of enslavement, the leaders of the revolt blew up the ship, killing almost all 300 on board.
Garner reinterprets JMW Turner’s composition in the 1840 painting “The Slave Ship” as an epic scene in the flesh: a sky of white skin and a bloody sunset – an abstraction of the scene that focuses on the carnage around a swirling Summoning soup from body parts after an explosion. Although Turner’s painting was considered highly progressive at the time, it did not escape close scrutiny. Turner portrayed the violence of the Zong Massacre of 1840 from the respectable distance of a romantic marine painter; Garner’s composition confronts the viewer with immediacy and urgency.
Earlier this year I encountered When You Are Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at Garner’s exhibition Pale in comparison at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia. A shark, depicted as diseased white flesh, hovers in a dark room with black walls, a nod to Damien Hirst’s infamous 1991 sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. A cross section on one side shows the remains of the shark’s last meal: an unrecognizable tuft of African skin and hair and a very noticeable black foot.
Speaking to Garner at the exhibit, she explained how sharks were used as a means of torture and control on slave ships: “They tied people up with ropes and dunked them in the water, and the sharks tore their bodies apart. They would do this publicly to discourage black people who are still on the boat from jumping overboard because it would also be a business loss for them.”
In Take This and Remember Me (2022), the artist addresses the role of religion in the institutions of slavery by recreating the composition of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1512). God giving life to Adam is replaced by a black hand passing a weapon to another black hand – the beginning of the revolt in New Brittania.
“Here hang the skins of a surgical sadist!
Of being physically attacked
those who identify as black women,
those who used to identify as black women,
and those identified at birth as Black women,” 2022
The sculpture titled above is aimed at the statue of J. Marion Sims in Central Park. This work offers a catharsis following the artist’s 2019 exhibition at Pioneer Works, which focused on experimentation on enslaved Africans without consent or anesthesia. The Speedbag provides an outlet for the anger of Sims’ victims.
With her art, Garner makes it clear that we need to talk about the Middle Passage and avoid glossing over the atrocities committed because many people are uncomfortable enough banning books and glossing over curriculum. The United States needs to talk about the Middle Passage because the state of Texas was on the verge of changing language in textbooks to describe enslaved Africans as “involuntary migrants.” We must share the stories of resistance. Doreen Garner arms a medium we all understand – the flesh.
Doreen Lynette Garner: REVOLT continues through October 16 at The New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Vivian Crockett.
Doreen Lynette Garner: Pale in comparison continues through July 25 at the SCAD Museum of Art (601 Turner Blvd., Savannah, Georgia). The exhibition was curated by DJ Hellerman and will be presented as part of SCAD deFINE ART 2022.