by David M. Roth
The old adage about ignorance of history condemning us to repeat it appears to be a driving force behind the work of LA artist Monica Lundy. She’s devoted the past nine years to examining the fates of incarcerated women, turning archival photos into portraits on paper that attempt to reclaim lives marred or destroyed by injustice. The artist previously made paintings of prostitutes derived from early 20th century SFPD photos, and other works based on institutional photos of female patients at Stockton State Hospital and inmates at San Quentin Prison. Her last show in this space, based on historic photos of SF’s Fillmore District, featured pictures of Japanese-American residents before they were sent to WWII relocation camps and African-Americans before “redevelopment” pushed them out of the neighborhood.
Her current series, Deviance: Women in the Asylum During the Fascist Regime, employs a similar modus operandi. It’s based on a trove of photos and documents that were exhibited at the Rome Area History Museum under the same title, prefixed with the words Flowers of Evil. Lundy saw the show in 2016 during a six-week artist residency at the American Academy. Her stay subsequently stretched to a year after one of the exhibition’s organizers, Annacarla Valeriano, of the University of Teramo, offered to help her examine the archives of the Sant’Antonio Abate asylum, the psychiatric hospital from which the source photos for this series, made during 20 years of fascist rule (1920 to 1943), were culled. The paintings add a fresh chapter to the artist’s ongoing examination of the dark corners of women’s history.
What justified the incarceration of these innocent women and their barbaric treatment, which included, among many things, the withholding of basic necessities? The most common reason listed on medical records was a condition called “female deviance.” It had nothing to do with mental illness. Records reveal behavioral descriptions such as talkative, unstable, inconsistent, extravagant, excited, insolent, unruly, impulsive, nervous, erotic, restless, irritable, sensational, red in the face and flirtatious. Today we see this for what it is: men using state power to control women. Attached to each file was an inmate's photograph. Fascists, like Nazis, thought "deviants" possessed common traits and physical characteristics that could be identified and cataloged.
Viewers familiar with Lundy’s work will note striking differences between these paintings and those that came before. Where the surfaces of her portraits of prostitutes consisted of thick accretions of acrylic paint and cinders that resembled geological events coaxed into corporeal form, her Italian asylum paintings, while employing many of the same materials and methods (coffee, ink, mica and selective burning of paper), exhibit none of the former series’ topographic qualities. Lundy continues to build up thick surfaces, but she now scrapes them to near-flatness. Up close, the portraits have the look of pieced-together forensic evidence, the main elements being blotchy stains and burned segments set against yawning tracts of white space. Their fractured, almost apparitional appearance mirrors the photographic process, of forms and shadows emerging from chemical baths that were fouled during development, leaving some information intact, some lost.
Consequently, it’s difficult to establish a sense of who these women really were. We see their identifying physical features clearly enough, but from them all we can do is speculate, noting the expressions they wore at the moment they were captured. And while hairstyles, clothing and skin color do give some indication about where, on the social ladder, these women stood before they were forcibly removed from society, their identities and their emotional lives remain shrouded. By contrast, Lundy’s highly expressive paintings of prostitutes, through sheer force of their roiling, volcanic surfaces, spill so much information about the subjects’ psychological makeup you can almost feel them as a physical presence. Could the gap between the visible and the unknown in her asylum paintings be bridged? Valeriano, the Italian researcher, uncovered and analyzed 7,000 records from the asylum’s archives. Excerpts from those documents would have made enlightening wall labels.
Here it’s worth noting that Lundy earned her MFA at Mills College and studied with Hung Liu, the Chinese-American painter, who, for decades, has worked from historic photos with the intent of “summoning ghosts.” By dint of the subjects’ surroundings, her paintings offer a lot of social and historical commentary – particularly for viewers versed in 19th and 20th century Chinese history.
For Lundy, who spent her childhood living in a Saudi Arabia, women’s issues have long loomed large. Early on she sensed that the women she lived among were treated as inferiors, held separate and hidden from society. Even as a foreigner, she often experienced these limitations and judgments. As a young girl she also felt the sting of sexual harassment. After that experience, pivoting her attention towards prisoners, prostitutes and patients seemed natural, maybe inevitable.
The relevance of this work seems obvious, and not just for women in underdeveloped countries. While writing this review I came across this headline from the August 26 edition of The New York Times: “Women in Politics Often Must run a Gantlet of Vile Intimidation.” The story reveals that threats of physical violence against female office seekers are now common, so much so they’re now seen as par for the course, like sexual harassment in the workplace. This news, coupled with what we learn from Lundy, points to the unsettling possibility that life for American women under Trump could easily wind up looking a lot like what it was for Italian women under Mussolini.
Our government has already jailed the children of innocent asylum seekers, slow-walked court orders to free them, and scared away countless others from exercising constitutionally protected rights. Meanwhile, chants of “Lock her up!” still resound at Trump rallies. What’s next?
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Deviance: Women in the Asylum During the Fascist Regime @ Nancy Toomey Fine Art, through October 13, 2018. Artist Reception: September 8, 5-7 pm.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.