Danny Giles Draws a Black Frame Around Whiteness

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Danny Giles Draws a Black Frame Around Whiteness

By Emily Pothast February 20, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In March 2011, Austrian police apprehended a man suspected of robbing at least six banks, wearing a Barack Obama Halloween-style mask. Over the next several years, the so-called “Obama Robber” inspired a spate of copycat crimes in the United States. Between 2012 and 2017, gunmen wearing similar Obama masks held up a McDonalds in Florida, a Kangaroo Express in Kentucky, a number of convenience stores in California, and a Dunkin’ Donuts and Bank of America in New Hampshire. Surveillance videos of many of the heists may be found online: low-resolution, high-contrast captures in which the mask’s garish grin seems both absurd and sinister.  

The image of a cartoon Barack Obama committing armed robbery is a multivalent signifier that weaves together threads from the history of presidential impersonation and minstrelsy. Like the dead-eyed latex faces of former presidents worn by the bank robbers in the 1991 film Point Break, masks of Obama’s likeness exaggerate and distort his features. But Obama is unique among US presidents in that his caricature also calls on a history of racist tropes, a fact that becomes pointedly evident in surveillance footage that shows it being used to perform another racist trope: that of a Black man committing a crime.

Danny Giles. Figura (3), 2019; Graphite on ceramic; 12 x 12 x 4 in. Courtesy of SOIL Gallery. Photo: Emily Pothast.

Many of the works on paper in Danny Giles’s Figura (2019), currently on view at SOIL in Seattle, begin with surveillance images of Obama-masked gunmen as source material. Through successive layers of printing, collage, scanning, digitally manipulating, and translating to silkscreen, the images become further degraded and transformed—thus exploring, according to the exhibition essay, “notions of mimicry and abstraction.” Another layer of costumed performance occurs in the titles, which bear names like James Davis and Louis Ortiz, comedians and impersonators known for their Obama impressions.

Stationed on pedestals throughout the gallery are a number of monochromatic ceramic sculptures made using different Obama masks as molds. Through this manipulation and mimesis, Obama’s face becomes an emblem of both the limitations and possibilities of identity. As the exhibition essay puts it, the images and objects are “less about the 44th president than the notion of representation itself.”

Danny Giles. Untitled Wall Drawing, 2019; charcoal, gel medium, pumice, India ink on paper; 120 x 120 in. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Photo: Emily Pothast.

There is an ominous subtext to the consideration of representations of Obama from the vantage point of our present political moment. Obama’s presidency was constantly beset by racist conspiracy theories surrounding his birth certificate and citizenship; today the most prominent popularizer of those theories sits in the Oval Office. Long before Obama, racism haunted the presidency; now it feels like one of the only things that survived his tenure.

The white-supremacist assumptions undergirding art history and aesthetics are the subject of Giles’s other current exhibition in Seattle, The Practice and Science of Drawing a Sharp White Background, at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. The exhibition title simultaneously refers to The Practice and Science of Drawing, a pedagogical text by the English painter Harold Speed, and Glenn Ligon’s 1990 etching, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background). Together, these references suggest a context utterly saturated with a whiteness that imagines itself as neutral. In Untitled Wall Drawing (2019), Giles has framed a ten-by-ten-foot gallery wall with a thick, heavily textured black line built with charcoal, gel medium, pumice, and India ink on paper. Instead of simply placing art about Blackness into a white-walled gallery, Giles has drawn a frame around the whiteness itself.

This sumptuous, gritty combination of materials is used in many of the other drawings that line the walls of the gallery. The subject matter comprises visual snippets quoted from texts like Speed’s drawing manual, William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty, and Stephen Rogers Peck’s Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist—a book in which a blatantly hierarchical taxonomy informs such matters as how to render the bone structure of people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Giles draws these images with stripes of glue-like gel medium flocked with pigmented black powder, giving his surfaces the impression of etched lines (Hogarth’s original medium) under a powerful magnifying glass. Some of the drawings present the animated cross-hatching that structures the shadowy areas of Hogarth’s etchings as subjects in and of themselves, once again making the background the center of attention. Others contain recognizable elements, like Of Fear and Beauty (2018), which employs the serpentine S-curve that Hogarth considered to be the “Line of Beauty.” White Picture 10 (2019) is simply a grid, a drawing tool that imposes a regular structure over everything. Both the S-curve and the grid suggest a parallel between the mastery of drawing technique and the desire of whiteness to impose control on its surroundings.

Danny Giles. Louis Ortiz, 2018; screen print and graphite on paper; 30 x 22 in. Courtesy of SOIL Gallery. Photo: Emily Pothast.

By replicating and transforming images derived from processes that generate multiples, such as viral videos, mold making, and etching, Giles reveals an abiding interest in the roles that reproducibility and mass media have historically played in the dissemination and perpetuation of the structures of white supremacy. Both bodies of work were developed in tandem during the month of January 2019, when the Chicago-based Giles was working in Seattle as part of the Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency program. During this time, the white-walled Jacob Lawrence Gallery was transformed into a workshop in which the images and objects in both exhibitions informed each other. It is possible, therefore, to see a continuation of the hierarchies and mechanisms of control made visible in The Practice and Science of Drawing a Sharp White Background running through Figura like an invisible framework. The American presidency, like the history of art pedagogy, is an institution steeped in whiteness. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Obama’s presidency was the way his Blackness threw the whiteness of the White House into relief—a whiteness made all the more visible by the blatant racism that succeeded him.

Danny Giles: The Practice and Science of Drawing a Sharp White Background is on view at Jacob Lawrence Gallery in Seattle through February 28, 2019.

Danny Giles: Figura is on view at SOIL Gallery in Seattle through March 2, 2019. Both exhibitions were curated by Emily Zimmerman.  

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