There’s nothing I love more than a feminist killjoy, and in Liberty Theater, Rosalind Fox Solomon just might ruin your day. This solo exhibition pins whiteness to the wall at a time when white people seem to be newly discovering each other’s whiteness. But Fox Solomon’s photographs make it clear that she has been paying attention for quite some time now.
To be a feminist killjoy, according to Sara Ahmed, “is to be the one who “’spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness.” Given that white supremacy’s invisibility to most white people produces a type of complacency, this comfort is carefully preserved when white artists address racism by choosing to depict black suffering. This is why we get Dana Schutz making a grotesque painting of Emmett Till in his casket, instead of a grotesque painting of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose lies provoked Till’s murder. In the 64 black-and-white images lining the walls of Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery, Fox Solomon makes a more disruptive choice, revealing the banal terror and trauma of whiteness itself.
Presented in conjunction with the release of her fifth monograph, Liberty Theater documents the people Fox Solomon encountered on her travels through seven southern states in the US from the 1970s to the 1990s. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee – even if you’ve never set foot in any of these places, their histories of violence haunt black people everywhere. That explicit brutality is accounted for here too, though with remarkable restraint; Fox Solomon presents only a single photograph, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1975, of a battered and bloody black face. We need no further evidence, because violence is lurking whichever way you look.
You can see it in Billy Carter’s face, as he smirks for the camera alongside a black woman sorting peanuts, and staring right through you in Plains, Georgia, 1976. You can see it in the casual way the white office worker chews on his straw in Chattanooga, Tennessee [Noon at the classic Cat Club], 1977, ogling the naked black woman before him, her teeth forced into a smile. You can see it in the lone photograph that is not a portrait, Medals, Scottsboro, Alabama, 1976, in which the bald eagle, the KKK, the Coca-Cola logo and the Indian Head Penny are all melted into belt buckles to be flaunted over bellies.
The familiarity of these images is striking; we are used to white men brandishing their power, whether we recognize what is happening or not. We’ve seen this swagger before. Fox Solomon saves a more nuanced gaze for the less-rendered cruelty both endured and perpetuated by white women. The tensions and submissions of domesticity, heterosexuality, and motherhood pulse throughout the exhibition, even as we catch a glimpse of the blatant aggression displayed in Ready to Fire, Scottsboro, Alabama, 1976. The lash of beauty standards recurs, often to bizarre effect, as with the woman posing next to her doppelganger mannequin bust in Two Tongues, Two Heads, Hixson, Tennessee, 1975. And then, in the space of just two adjacent photographs, Fox Solomon concedes the privilege that persists, dropping us into the sunken place. In Chattanooga, Tennessee [Couple at a cocktail supper], 1977, a white middle-aged couple sit side-by-side, plates on laps, the woman leaning slightly and familiarly into her husband’s body as she looks up and across the room. Following her sightline leads us to the arm of a white man wrapped possessively around a black woman in Miami Beach, Florida [Couple on a Couch], 1994. She seems to be pleading for her escape and questioning our complicity all at once.
Fox Solomon has spoken about photographing others in an attempt to better understand herself, and you can feel her grappling with the limits of what she can access, what she can intuit, and what she can know as she navigates race, class, and gender in the American South. Emotion is embedded in these images, although the intimacy tends to be curbed in her photographs of black subjects whose bodies often exude a formal strain. But the inherent affect is magnified by their sequencing, concluding with a final dozen-or-so shots that are almost bewildering in their excess of sentiment. Here the surreal gestures, until now deployed sparingly, are ratcheted up – from costume to chicken to clown, accompanied by a handful of eerie doll photographs, one of Fox Solomon’s signature metaphors for womanhood. This unsettling composition affirms the distortions that whiteness inflicts on us all. Trapped in history, none of us is free.