Conceptual photographer Nikita Gale's 1961 remembers when 

Gale excavates the past to consider present notions about identity

RETHINKING HISTORY: Untitled single leaf diptych from book entitled 1961 (2012) by Nikita Gale

Jon Ciliberto/Courtesy the artist and Poem 88

RETHINKING HISTORY: Untitled single leaf diptych from book entitled 1961 (2012) by Nikita Gale

Nikita Gale's work at {Poem88} depicts the tumult of America in 1961 (the year also gives the show its name), particularly focusing on the era's racial tensions and specific events surrounding the American Civil Rights Movement. In the artworks she uses archival mug shots of Freedom Riders, activists that employed nonviolent protests on public transportation to fight for desegregation in the Jim Crow South. Gale, who originally began this project while a resident at the Center for Photography in Woodstock, New York, combines the mug shots with family photographs found at a flea market, as well as selected text from letters written by both Georgia's then-lieutenant governor and the grand wizard of the KKK to impose a stark view of racism.

Gale presents the works in diptych format, displaying the Freedom Riders' mug shots on one side and the family photos on the other. The juxtaposition presents the disparity between complacency and activism in the political landscape of 1960s America. Gale contrasts the families and the Freedom Riders by integrating parts of the Riders' faces. She has methodically cut triangles out of them and rearranged the puzzle pieces to replace the eyes or chin of one Rider with the same features from another of a different race, but the same gender. The white Riders appear like a reproach to the cheerful white family.

Gale displays a striking dichotomy in an untitled diptych that contrasts a wedding picture taken on a sunny day with a mug shot of a white Rider whose mouth is cut out and replaced by a black woman's. While one woman experiences the happiest day of her life, the others are struggling to speak.

Another untitled diptych shows a family in a boat, cruising along as a teenage girl peers into the camera. She's fighting to smile while facing into the harsh sun. The effort pulls her lips up into a defiant snarl. The rest of the found photos feature white faces beaming while on vacation, at picnics, cheerleading, or boy scouting. These are the images most fondly remembered about the year 1961, those idylls perpetuated in "Mad Men." With nostalgia comes a kind of forgiveness for the sins of omission America committed in those years. But the activists' grainy black-and-white mug shots disallow the temptation to idealize the era.

Indecipherable, out of context lines of text heighten the viewer's apprehension, particularly since it's unclear whether the lieutenant governor or the grand wizard wrote them. Not that it matters much because the message is clear: "We have seen reason give way to emotions"; "We have had a preview of what will happen"; "We don't need you so we want you." These are powerful men for whom the reasonable course of action is to separate the races, not cheapen the American dream with the frivolous, emotional idea of equality.

Despite the unease 1961 evokes, Gale's artist's statement discusses the work in terse, intellectual terms: "... an archaeologist pieces together narratives based on available artifacts ... instead of piecing together explanations of utilitarian processes, I am seeking to piece together emotional, intangible phenomena." Gale, who studied archeology at Yale and currently works in advertising, is talented at excavating information and streamlining it into an aesthetically pleasing package.

The clean geometric lines she cuts from the washed-out faces of the Freedom Riders, the flat colors used to dye the installation shots dispersed between the diptychs, the matter-of-fact layout of the photographs and text within the frames, and the abundance of negative space surrounding each image remove intimacy from the works. Still, they are capable of evoking innumerable responses. Yet the agency Gale gives the viewer provides the show with a dangerous austerity, in which it's possible one may not feel anything at all.


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