Chris Cohen drives by the faded historical markers each time he goes to school and each time he comes back home. The age-old “WHERE ASHBY FELL,” wouldn’t leave his mind.
The studio art graduate was curious about white, southern identity. He himself is a white, southern man from the little city of Lynchburg. Cohen needed to start a conversation. It was a consistent theme in Virginia; Confederate soldiers’ names were sown along highways, grown adults were living in the past — participating in Civil War reenactments — and white supremacy groups were alive and well.
The political climate piqued his interest, so he explored it. Cohen traveled to historical sites like Charlottesville to take photographs. He attended Civil War reenactments and documented as much as he could to make sense of it all.
Cohen’s MFA thesis exhibition was soon born. He called it “White Noise.” It reflects his upbringing and America’s history regarding white identity. It’s open at Duke Hall from April 22 to May 25.
“I’m trying to make something here that is accessible,” Cohen said. “And accessible on a personal level. People do relate to it.”
The exhibit is challenging.
The right wall past the entrance showcases small black and white photographs of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. Moving to the middle is like walking into a family living room. There is a fireplace and a few chairs and lamps, but above the furniture, family paintings hang. Most of the people’s faces are painted with white masks. It’s haunting.
Here, Cohen recognizes the ideology he explored in his father, grandfather and other people from their generation. He says they’re destroying things they care about and don’t realize it. So he puts the mask on his father, his grandfather, himself and his younger brother to talk about what the ugliness looks like from the outside. The only ones he doesn’t paint the whiteness on are his own children.
“I think people can relate to this idea of the mask … this idea of any kind of cultural baggage your family has that’s in resistance to any sort of change,” Cohen said. “It’s something they hide behind or something that hides being able to have a deeper connection to who that person is because of certain fears or certain barriers that they put up.”
Cohen walked into the program as a painter, but didn’t just pick up a paintbrush to create his art. He’s expanded his artistic repertoire to include installation, ceramics and photography in his exhibit. This departure from one medium to the others included “a lot of tweaking.”
He stops at the ceramics, brown cylinder structures atop black mulch-like material, marked with letters from the historical plaques like territorial marks. It looked like the pieces had been growing, but died a violent death, Cohen said.
Along the back wall are columns filled with large chunks of white salt. Dark plants sprout from the top. Cohen explained that if people salt the earth, no one else can use it. Below them — like roots — are the markers once again. The words are backward and some are upside down, conveying the distortion of these toxic ideologies.
Cohen then looks to his Civil War reenactment photography. For him, he felt the need to editorialize and add his own point of view as the artist. To do that, he made it obvious that he was behind the camera.
“I wasn’t necessarily taking photos of people in Civil War costumes,” Cohen said. “I ended up taking pictures of all the little kids that were there and the people in transition going back to their cars. I was trying to point out the ahistorical nature of this thing. It was about now, not 100 years ago.”
Through “White Noise,” Cohen asks questions but realizes he can’t completely control the conversation. But what’s important for Cohen is that he’s inserting himself in the discourse.
He speaks to people who underwent similar experiences to him, whether that be through life events or with family. He wants to talk about it. He won’t accept it through silence.
Director and chief curator of Duke Hall exhibit John Ros worked directly with Cohen and admired his ability to ask thoughtful questions. He calls it a successful exhibit because of its personal nature.
“He’s looking at the mirror first before he dare point fingers at anyone else,” Ros said. “He really is looking at himself first. He’s saying, ‘I’m a part of this problem, and I want to come up with a solution. And in order to do so, I’m gonna ask the hard questions of myself and my family.’”
Ros was able to help get a portion of Cohen’s exhibit accepted in the Spring/Break Art Show in New York City last month. This experience helped Cohen prepare for the current one in Duke Hall.
Thesis adviser Dr. Cole Welter said Cohen has constantly worked since the time he was admitted to candidacy for the MFA program. The issues he analyzed spurred him to think deeply and create art from it.
“The topic is absolutely current,” Welter said. “We are in this country, undergoing a political dialogue which needs to happen. The exhibit is topical, it raises questions and exactly the kind of exhibit that’s represented at a quality university.”
For the future, Cohen will be teaching with a tenure track position at Randolph College back at his home of Lynchburg. He’ll be close to his family and will be able to teach and pursue the work of what he’s always considered himself: an artist.
“I think people should engage with art,” Cohen said. “I don’t think people should be afraid of it. I also think artists shouldn’t be afraid to do things that might be a little controversial or painful or difficult. It pays you back in spades.”
Contact Kailey Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.