Esthetic Lens presents another installment of Artist Talks. Artist Ally Fouts visits We forgot the moon while holding up the sun, an exhibition featuring the works of Kelly Kristin Jones at 062 Gallery.
I enter 062 Gallery, where I am to visit We forgot the moon while holding up the sun. Filling the surrounding walls are black and white digital photographs. Centered in the gallery space is the piece Orders of Empire, a daunting pile of neoclassical columns carefully balanced upon one another. I feel I have stumbled upon the aftermath of some sort of devastation: a toppled government building, the bones of a monster, the materialized fall of Rome. In public spaces, columns radiate a dominating and powerful presence. Seeing them jumbled in the corner, like spilled chess pieces, immediately reveals them for what they really are: cheap, plaster, and more sinister than what meets the eye. I talk with Kelly Kristin Jones about the work.
Ally Fouts: Let’s start with Orders of Empire. Can you tell me about this piece?
Kelly Kristin Jones: For the last five or six years, I’ve been making work on and around monuments in the built environment and what they signal. The work started with public historical monuments in the South and Midwest, but during the pandemic, I became interested in the private, domestic spaces that we were all confined to. These mostly decorative, neoclassical elements have been part of domestic life since the founding of our country.
During the last presidential administration, a leaked draft of an executive order, called “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” mandated that all new federal buildings had to be built in the neoclassical style. It struck me because many of the contested historic monuments that I’d been photographing for years used these neoclassical elements. And, I began to think about not only the figures on top of the monuments, but the pedestals and plinths themselves and what they might signal.
I think about Thomas Jefferson, plantation homes, and the big white columns that mark these territories as signaling whiteness and power. Orders of Empire is an ongoing piece that started last year when I began collecting used, cheaply made, neoclassical knockoffs from estate sales, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace.
As I was collecting, I realized they were all being sold by white suburban women. I had to consider these owners, the people who placed these in the home or just outside the home, and what that meant, and what those implications were as a white woman who lives in the suburbs.
I see this as a kind of meditation on the role that white women have always played in monument building and in the construction of white supremacy. It has been a really strange experience. I’ve learned a lot about the suburbs. I’ve gone to a lot of homes. I always ask what women have used them for. Lots you might expect: plants, art, photographs, one woman even had it in her bathroom. Sometimes inside, sometimes outside. It’s been quite an education.
This morning I brought in another two, and I’ll continue to collect these objects. This pile of columns will continue to grow over the course of the exhibition.
AF: Do you have a conversation with the seller about what you’re going to use them for?
KKJ: Yes. I get different reactions. The most common is a shrug, like “oh, you artists.” A lot of women don’t care. I am paying cash. There is a monetary exchange, so I can do what I want. A few women have gotten upset and we’ve tried to talk through it with one another, but we’ve not always ended on a real understanding.
For so many of us, this is a banal, nondescript object, something you might not even notice in someone’s entryway. This not noticing also signals a certain level of privilege. We need to pay attention to the things that surround us and the things that we surround ourselves with, and what they might signal or how they might communicate to reinforce certain myths or harmful narratives.
AF: I can imagine people reactivating defensively and blaming a lack of education in architecture for them not knowing the significance of these objects.
KKJ: Even those with education in architecture may disagree. I understand that, and I’m happy to have that discussion or debate. Nobody likes being called out as a racist or as owning something racist or placing something that signals a harmful or painful position. But again, I think that it speaks to our (in particular, white women like me) privilege of not having to consider these things.
AF: Did the leaked Executive Order serve as a catalyst for your interest in these columns?
KKJ: There was interest before that. I’d been photographing and creating installations around these public monuments for a long time. But the order underscored the importance of studying some of the architectural elements placed in public and private spaces and certainly helped to expand my awareness of the history of this scare tactic.
From the founding of our country, this kind of architecture has been used to signal white space and privilege: you are not welcome here. You have no place here.
Studying both urban and suburban architecture, one sees these columns again, and again and again. Even my closest McDonald’s has white columns. Banks, libraries, universities, and certainly the middle and upper-class homes have them. So many private and public sites feature these purely decorative and completely nonfunctional columns. Why?
AF: Each column serves as a collected item from an uncomfortable exchange with someone. When you look at each of them, do you have specific memories of the conversation, the day you went to pick it up, the seller, etc.?
KKJ: Each one does represent an exchange. Typically involving online messaging, a long drive to their home, and an in-person interaction.
This work started during COVID, so these all bring to mind a masked exchange during a scary time for our country and world. Sometimes I wonder if being masked allowed the seller and I to have a more vulnerable conversation about whiteness.
AF: Can you talk about the photographs filling the perimeter of the gallery?
KKJ: These are photographs made at night in the Chicago suburbs. For so long, we’ve focused on the institutions and structures of the Southern US as being at fault when it comes to race and privilege.But these contested monuments and problematic narratives are here too. They’re everywhere.
For the last three years, I’ve been working in public parks across Chicago. These are host to all sorts of deeply problematic, even violent, monuments and markers of white men.
With this show, I wanted to ground my practice in the suburbs and think about private domestic spaces that provide safe haven for the damaging, dangerous story that is white supremacy. All of these are images of markers and monuments found on private property. I go there during the day to make an image of the monument, then retreat to my studio and “misuse” Photoshop’s healing tool on the entire monument.
I’m left with these scarred, glitchy images that I cut out to match the size and shape of each monument. I go back to the original site at night with the photographic print and I attach them to the monument. It’s a kind of camouflage or covering for each monument.
So, yes. I’m trespassing. I’m in people’s gardens and private yards. I’m crawling around in the dark with my camera and these cutout paper photographs to hide a contested monument.
The idea is to reconsider how these private spaces are marked by whiteness. We have busts of historical figures, faux antiquities, and engraved rocks all speaking to a marked racialized territory.
AF: Have you had any altercations with people while trespassing?
KKJ: I haven’t run into anyone yet. There was one time while making an image that a man started circling me in his car. I felt like he was taunting me but it actually made for a really nice photograph.
I’ve never been approached, which has been a really different experience than previous work made in public parks in the middle of the day (when I’m always approached by people).
The fact that I have not been harassed and no one has called the cops on me absolutely speaks to my own privilege as a white woman making photographs in the middle of the night. I am sure if I were a young man of color, I would have all sorts of really terrifying stories to tell about interactions with people.
AF: What does your scouting process look like for finding these private property monuments?
KKJ: The best way has been to take long walks through the burbs with my daughter. I try to do some online scouting. There are different websites maintained by individuals that catalogue monuments. But, when walking I will often find several locations on the same block.
AF: Can you talk more about your choice to make these disjointed images rather than seamless images where the monument is completely erased?
KKJ: These objects need to go away. I find them to be deeply harmful, violent objects and signals. But I also believe that even if we scrub both the public and private landscape of these racist markers and monuments, we are going to be left with real scars.
I love the name of the spot healing tool, because there’s no real healing. There’s always a scar. Things change, pixels realign, but there is an inherent destruction that cannot be avoided. So, I don’t want the image to be sexy. To me, it would be problematic to act like it never happened, especially as a white person making the work.
AF: You mention these monuments and columns as being “violent” objects. Can you speak more about how an object not designed to cause harm in the same way a weapon is, has resulted in still being an object of extreme violence?
KKJ: So, this is why I’m making the work.
For so long, we’ve told ourselves or we’ve been told, that these are merely decorative objects to make spaces beautiful or assert a kind of culture. In fact, they do signal a very specific culture, and that’s the culture of white supremacy.
From the beginning of our country, neoclassical architecture has been used to mark a space of whiteness. We use markers across both public and private spaces in a very threatening way. White people told ourselves that this was about the decorative, but that’s what makes this all the more insidious.
The white column does a really good job of illustrating that because it’s so easy for a woman to say that “oh, that’s just where I put my plants.” You see these columns at home decor stores. They’re everywhere. They are powerful. They operate in a way that many of us are just not conscious of and this is why I find them incredibly successful and undeniably violent.
We forgot the moon while holding up the sun is open at 062 Gallery until July 23, 2021. To view more of Jones’ work, visit her Website and Instagram. 062 Gallery is housed within the Zhou B Art Center.