LOS ANGELES — Historical Fiction, Tyler Shields’s new photography show at the Andrew Weiss gallery in Los Angeles, is an interpretation of some important moments in 20th-century US history. Shields, a former professional inline skater who launched his photography career on MySpace, fancies himself a provocateur. The greatest surprise of this show, though, may not have been intentional.
Shields is known for his super-saturated color photography, but its limitations became clear when I saw the photos. Online, the colors pop, but they’re flat fields lacking in gradation. The result is that many of the photos look like they’ve split into heavy color blocks instead of being printed as one smooth image, and it’s particularly noticeable in “Girl Running from Plane.” The black-and-white images, on the other hand, don’t demand as much attention on the internet, but in the gallery, they look a bit more worthy of their price tags ($17,500 for a 45 x 60 inch piece, if you’re shopping).
His focus for this show is the 1960s, and he’s reshot some familiar photographs and riffed on the era’s popular culture in others. Here are groovy-looking Pan Am passengers reading news of the moon landing. There are a couple of pictures of a dead Marilyn Monroe. Here are lots of beautiful women clutching newspapers and looking frantic at news of the death of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and James Dean.
So far, so pedestrian — until I got to the pictures about civil rights. This is where Shields shares something interesting about what Americans wish could be fictionalized about their own history.
There are two images of African-Americans taking action. The first, “American Flag,” appears to be a color restaging of “The Soiling of Old Glory,” Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 photo for the Boston Herald American. At the time of Forman’s photo, many white Bostonians were virulently opposed to the city’s court-ordered busing program, and “Glory” has lost none of its power to shock. It shows two white men, Joseph Rakes and Jim Kelly, seemingly on the verge of impaling an African-American, Ted Landsmark, with the pole end of a US flag.
Shields reverses that moment: two African-American men are seemingly on the verge of impaling a white police officer with a flag. The officer is a nod to the current movement against police brutality, and it’s a clever nod to the fact that Americans haven’t come as far as they’d like to believe on the matter of race relations. But simply reversing historical roles doesn’t make this fiction. Fiction’s a pursuit requiring the author to have enough imagination to embrace human possibility.
There’s a rich, fraught tradition of overturning America’s race problem in literature, from Mark Twain’s short 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson to Charles Johnson’s 1982 book, Oxherding Tale. But what makes them work is that they offer an exhaustive re-imagination of the social order — a confrontation with the fact that overthrowing the racial hierarchy would require the country to write a new present, future, and past.
“Flag” is narrower. It’s a revenge fantasy, as shallow as Quentin Tarantino’s historical movies, and for the same reason. Reversing the race of the perpetrator in a historical moment about hatred and violence is a cheap thrill. It feels good for a second — sticking it to the Man always does.
Ultimately, though, what makes art about a country’s racial history powerful is the same thing that makes art about any topic powerful — it opens possibilities, rather than constricting them. This can be done riotously, as Twain and Johnson did in literature, or it can be done with subtlety, as Steve McQueen did in 2002 with his art piece “Carib’s Leap.” In that piece, McQueen re-imagined a historical event — in the 17th century, a Carib community committed mass suicide in Grenada, rather than submit to the French —by showing falling bodies on one screen and a paradisiacal present of ocean and beach on another, until it becomes clear that he’s asking the viewer to imagine the reality of that present at the cost of this past. It’s startling and haunting rather than vulgar, and McQueen wouldn’t have been able to do it with a constricted view of humanity, which Shields shows here.
There are potent possibilities in imagining a country free from oppressive history, and at the moment that’s still a fictional nation. But to embody that story would’ve required Shields to alter the fortunes of his white protagonists in this show as well. It’s telling that the “fiction” part of his vision only comes into play with the African-American characters, and that he merely offers a vision of white America at the time that looks a little more glamorous than it actually was.
Air travel as playtime for a privileged class, squealing over celebrities, even mourning JFK — all of Shields’s characters for these pictures are white, and none of these photos question the facts behind the stories portrayed. It’s only the difficult truth of race relations that Shields feels the need to alter. The fact is that imagining a new possibility for race relations means a new history for all Americans, not only African-Americans. But I guess it’s more fun to take pictures of pretty women looking distressed.
The strongest work in the show is “Lynching.” It, too, doesn’t offer much room to breathe on initial impact. A naked, physically impressive African-American man is tugging on a rope that’s suspended over a river. At the end of the rope dangles a Ku Klux Klan member.
Again, the unimaginative role reversal, and the African-American’s naked, muscular body hearkens back to odious fictions about the hyper-sexualized African-American body that have inspired so much white fear. But what saves this particular picture is the fact that the KKK member is neither in the water nor too high above it. It’s impossible to tell if he’s being lynched, lowered, or lifted. In that small breath of ambiguity, the viewer can imagine many different histories — and that’s the best fiction of all.
“Tyler Shields: Historical Fiction” will be at the Andrew Weiss Gallery (2525 Michigan Avenue, D-4, Santa Monica, California) through June 30, 2015.