Adam Shulman: Paint it White


APRIL 1 - MAY 6, 2018

On March 17th, 2017 Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) was unveiled at the Whitney Biennial and was, simultaneously, the impetus for heated international discourse concerning the validity of visual censorship and historic ownership over subjective content—it garnered protests and incited urgent reflection on the socio-political role of contemporary art, and artists, in the current political climate. Can a white artist make artwork about the black experience? Should artwork be censored?

Dana Schutz,  Open Casket , (2016). (Collection of the artist/Courtesy of Whitney Museum)

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, (2016). (Collection of the artist/Courtesy of Whitney Museum)

Two weeks later “Gold of Africa” opened at the Tinney Contemporary in Nashville on April 1st, exhibiting a series of portrait work by photographer Adam Shulman. Given the proximity of these two art events, the opening for “Gold of Africa” is implicitly entrenched in the recent discourse warranted by Schutz’s painting. However, given its locality, Shulman’s work is also politically autonomous for the specific issues it presents.

Comprised of 19 large digital inkjet photographs, “Gold of Africa” is a series of studio portraits featuring lithe black men and women whose nude bodies have been adorned with a cracked, gold-hued clay. The application of clay has been done in a decorative manner, applied to various parts of the depicted bodies, which, through its particular placement, resembles a number of “wearable” items—likewise revealing and concealing certain parts of the athletic bodies. The images, all of which have been made against the same black backdrop, are dense, shadowy, where the figures appear to be shrouded or emerging from this dark environment. There is only a single source of light in each photograph, directed flatly at the face or body of the individual within the frame, illuminating the clay as the brightest point in each image.

One can assume that Shulman, like many other artists, was either directly or indirectly inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio portraits from the late 60′s and 70′s in the production of this series. The intentionality of the studio, his lighting, square composition, and use of classical nude bodies, are aesthetic hallmarks of Mapplethorpe’s work.

However, where Mapplethorpe’s use of the classical nude was a formal thematic used to adhere his otherwise controversial images of sadomasochism culture within classic aesthetic standards, Shulman’s use of the nude does not facilitate greater conceptual or aesthetic reasoning. This is apparent from the lack of accessible signifying factors included within the frame(s). Rather, Shulman’s nude figures are exhibited exclusively for the sexual appreciation of the black nude body.

In his statement for “Gold of Africa” Shulman writes; “showcasing beautiful African bodies covered in what appears to be golden, cracked, desert earth, each model captivates the viewer with overwhelming power and beauty. The mass of an entire continent lies behind their eyes or under the contours of each muscle or shadow”.

This is problematic. It is a derivative gesture, appropriating fashion photography ideology in a recognizable fine art aesthetic, but more concerning is the actual function of these images to commodify the black body as a sexual object. Shulman has implicated the male gaze as the vehicle by which these images have been produced, while simultaneously exoticizing the black body and assumed narratives of African culture.

Shulman, a white man, attributes the conception of these images to his work in and out of Africa over the last six years as a medical physician. In a statement on the Tinney Contemporary website, he says he has “seen the beauty of life in its purest form in the people of Africa”, and that these images “metaphorically represent the gold of Africa as being the people and the land, and not gold itself.”

At best, this approach arrives at the intersection of white savior industrial complex and romantic primitivism, whereby the white western male goes to “solve” the issues facing struggling nations or people of color, and in doing so, visually exploits and exoticizes those visual forms and people for his own pleasure, or conceit.

The very process by which these images came to fruition, and which Shulman exhibits in a series of supplementary videos alongside the photographs, encapsulates this methodology entirely. It is quite simple: to produce the “gold clay” aesthetic Shulman mixed white clay and then hand painted the various shapes onto the bodies of his models. The gold luster which appears in the corresponding photographs was later digitally fabricated in Photoshop.

In exhibiting these videos alongside his photographs, Shulman elects to elevate the significance of this process as an artistic equivalency. It is inevitably transmuted as a visual didactic for his fetishization of the black body, where Shulman, like Midas, touches them with whiteness. The gold is a metaphorical fallacy and imagined scenario ascribed by Shulman as a digital falsehood onto his African models.

The conceptual functionality of studio photography is that it facilitates a space which is bereft of real-life applications. It is a manner of working which allows an artist to construct an environment free from signifying factors and which may detach a portrait, or a still life, into an autonomous situation. Particularly, the use of an entirely black or white backdrop further abstracts studio portraits, eliminating contextual evidence and reducing the field of inquiry to a kind of “head space”. As such, Shulman’s use of the studio and particular dense lighting situation has implicated his subjects into an imaginary, or dream-like, situation where the models float within the frame, darkness both concealing and revealing their nude bodies. In this manner, Shulman has actualized in “Gold of Africa” an ideated space where the appearance of gold reads as an imagined illusion—devaluing the real life potential of such a gold applique.  

The effect of the studio as a setting for actualizing is an evocative framework for Shulman, as it also clearly indicates incidental tropes of romantic primitivism; painted cuffs, stripes akin to bars, and painted “warrior” armor or “indigenous” jewelry. The intentionality of this imagery is unavoidable, because, like Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, it recalls a specifically black experience that remains an unresolved wound.

In an interview with Nashville Arts on “Gold of Africa” Shulman says, regarding the use of gold clay; “I wanted the gold to feel almost like a suffocating barrier…Her eyes tell the story of a continent’s history, the mass of an entire continent just hidden behind the depths of her stare.” Later, in that same article by Karen Parr-Moody he says; “This could be a metaphor for (her) ancestors’ tumultuous past, for the shackles that took those ancestors from their native lands.”

To what effect does this type of imagery serve other than to exploit and commodify the historically tragic experience of a specific race? Particularly, an experience that is not the (white) artists? Is there curatorial legitimacy in exhibiting these types of work? These were the questions raised in response to Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, and which should irrefutably have been raised in response to Shulman’s work, and all art affiliated practices functioning in this political climate. Curators, artists, and viewers, have a responsibility to ask these type of questions and to engage critically on the role of visual arts as a purveyor of systemic socio-political issues, or a conduit for effecting discourse and change.