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MoMA Adds Ken Gonzales-Day’s The Wonder Gaze to Permanent Collection

Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), "Erased Lynching" series, 2006

The Museum of Modern Art has acquired  The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), 2006, by Ken Gonzales-Day, into the permanent collection. Gonzales-Day is represent by Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park) is one of the most recognized photographic works by Ken Gonzales-Day. It depicts the lynching of Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes in Saint James Park, San Jose, CA, in 1933. It is part of the Erased Lynchings series (2002-ongoing), which began with a focus on the history of lynching in California and has brought new scholarship and awareness to the history of lynching nationwide. The research specifically expanded the number of known cases in California, and the work now includes the lynching of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and Jews, in the American West and nationwide.

The Erased Lynchings series began as an artistic response to the realization that racially motivated lynching and vigilantism had been underrepresented and mis-represented in a number of historical texts. The project sought to highlight the then, little known fact that race was a contributing factor in California’s own history of lynching and vigilantism. In fact, if historical lynchings of African Americans, Chinese, Latinos, and Native Americans were grouped together, they outnumber white on white vigilantism by nearly two to one, and reveal that race is undeniably a contributing reason for violence.

The imagery in the initial series derived from appropriated lynching postcards and other archival source materials from which Gonzales-Day meticulously removed victims and ropes. This conceptual gesture redirects the viewer’s attention away from the lifeless body of the victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and spectacle, the formal aspects of lynching photography, including the role of the photographer and the impact of flash photography, and finally towards the crowd, a document of active and passive participants in each lynching.

As an artistic gesture, these absences or empty spaces become emblematic of a forgotten history—made all the more palpable in light of our expanding understanding of America’s history of lynching. The project is documented in Gonzales-Day’s first monograph, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Lynching in the West: 1850- 1935 (Duke University Press, 2006).

These works were created to raise awareness and to help viewers visualize whiteness by drawing attention to what is missing, absent, erased. Rather than re-victimizing those murdered in such collective and often premeditated acts of killing, the work allows the viewer to literally focus on the crowd—complete with their jeering or smiling faces—in the hopes of promoting a critical exploration of American history.

The Erased Lynchings project was created in solidarity with a range of new scholarship on lynching that began to emerge in the early 2000s—and was actually sparked by anti-immigration/anti-Latinx rhetoric and actions that directly led to an increase in vigilante activity against Mexican and other immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border in the early 2000s. To do this, the project includes a 300 page monograph—Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (published by Duke University Press in 2006 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize)—which details hundreds of cases of lynching in the State of California and expanded the number of known cases in the state from 50, to over 350.

Since then, the series has continued to grow to address and include cases from many regions of the nation and even Mexico in an attempt to show the impact of lynching on many POC communities. Challenging the traditional understanding of racialized violence in America, the project initially sought to address the historical erasure of Latinxs, Native Americans, Chinese, African-Americans, and others, from historical accounts of lynching in the American West.

Erased Lynchings considers and responds to this historical erasure though a number of conceptual interventions that interrogate the legacy of lynching and its relationship to photography. Such images once circulated as postcards, view cards, and were collected in albums. Today, many of these images continue to circulate through on-line auctions, antique stores, and archival and non-archival copy prints. The works reflect upon this forgotten past while inviting the viewer to consider how these legacies of oppression and denial have been transformed within a more contemporary landscape.

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