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Art Review: 'Without Sanctuary' digs deeply into painful issues of inhumanity

Saturday, September 29, 2001

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Strictly speaking, lynching is an illegal mob action that results in the death of a human being.

The Rev. Deryck Tines Mitchell leads the Warhol Choir in singing "Amazing Grace" during opening ceremonies for "Without Sanctuary" in the lobby of The Andy Warhol Museum. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

While a repellent notion, the succinctness of a definition gives the subject a remote quality. To get up close -- as near as you'll ever want to come -- to the decimated humanity encapsulated within the term, visit "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" at The Andy Warhol Museum.

There, one horrific apparition after another makes visceral what one dares not imagine. Comprehension is also elusive when confronted with the limp human forms that hang doll-like in broad daylight in public spaces.

Such scenes are so far from the sphere of experience of the average visitor that it takes effort to deduce their full component of meaning. Because of the shocking nature of the photographs, it's difficult to process all of the implications at once.

The lifeless figures are the most obvious focus, and one vacillates between an aberrant fascination with the morbid and an attempt to put a face on the deceased. Who was this person? How, why, did he come to this?

A second layer is added when the corpses have been stripped, burned and otherwise mutilated. That the ultimate savagery -- cold-blooded execution -- was not sufficient to satisfy the torturers compounds the atrocities.

The visitor needn't speculate as to whom the "deviants" capable of carrying out such actions were because they are present in many of the photographs. Smiling, even jubilant, crowds of what appear to be average townspeople -- men, women and even children -- surround the victims with a festivity one would expect at a county fair.

That seeming anomaly, coupled with the abhorrent fact that most of the 100 images shown are postcards that were unself-consciously mailed to friends and relatives throughout the country, squelches the easy dismissal of these lynchings as isolated stealth acts by fringe individuals.

So what are they? And what relevance do they have for a viewer historically removed from them?

These are the kinds of questions the Warhol hopes to raise. And the museum is to be commended for having the courage and the leadership to take on this important humanitarian task, made all the more urgent in light of this month's equally incomprehensible terrorist attack on civility and moral order.

"Without Sanctuary" is not an art exhibition: The photographs shown are commercial products that were made for profit, not as aesthetic expression.

The images, which were compiled by Atlanta residents James Allen and John Littlefield, generated such overwhelming response when first exhibited at a small New York City gallery last year that the New-York Historical Society gave them a subsequent venue. To their credit, the museum expanded upon the first showing with informative labels, programming and community outreach designed to diminish the sensationalism of the subject and to maximize its educative capacity. Also, all museum staff attended sessions that addressed their own emotions while preparing them to relate to those of visitors.

The Warhol has followed this preparatory activity and set the tone of the Pittsburgh run -- the first venue outside New York -- with opening day ceremonies that emphasized the commonality of the experience and the necessity of vigilance against contemporary and future manifestations of it.

What I haven't mentioned heretofore is that most of the lynched shown are black males. While the grievous suffering inflicted upon generations of African Americans by these sanctioned odious social rituals should not be denied and should be addressed, mentally categorizing such events as a black problem or even specifically a racial issue is to not only miss the point, but also the opportunity to isolate attitudes that continue to support such behavior globally.

Further, such framing risks splitting the audience experience into one of us vs. them, casting the African American as victim and the contemporary white as hapless inheritor of his own racial stigma.

Using this exhibition as an avenue into civic sharing -- of reactions, concerns, grievances, insights, suggestions and more -- would pay tribute to those who died in such despicable fashion. It would shift the privilege of witness from the mindlessly violent who were in historic attendance to those attempting to make peace today.

The Warhol has scheduled numerous opportunities, including upcoming community and artist forums and daily dialogue sessions, to allow the participation that completes the viewing of the images.

That one may see and discuss parallels to the immediate tragedy in our country -- or to other historic events like the Holocaust -- doesn't diminish the specific suffering of African Americans. It does show how complex and ingrained in the human psyche the capacity to go horrendously haywire is.

It won't go away by ignoring it.

The exhibition runs through Dec. 31. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 10 p.m. Friday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 children and students and free Tuesdays during the exhibition, and to members. For information, call 412-237-8300 or visit www.warhol.org.

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