Casually posed and respectful, Amanda Hankerson’s photographic portraits appear professional but unremarkable, their subjects a random sample of black and white Americans whose neutral surroundings — kitchen, bedroom, garden — suggest only the barest details of their lives. A well-tailored collar may hint at affluent good taste, Navy fatigues at a profession, but not much more.
Behind the bland surfaces, however, lies a poignant, doubtless painful, racial history. Called “The Hankersons,” the portraits are all of people who happen to share the photographer’s uncommon last name.
Hankerson, who is white, was surprised to be contacted via Facebook by an African-American woman who wondered if they might be related. After much correspondence, she visited and photographed the woman at home in New York. More research revealed that most Hankersons are black and can trace their ancestry to a South Carolina plantation where, apparently, the white owners shared their name with their slaves. Hankerson’s quiet photographs wisely leave the country’s racial troubles untouched, focusing instead on solitary individuals whose contemplative expressions suggest they are mulling something, perhaps even their family history.
The understated dignity of Hankerson’s images is typical of the work by her fellow 2012-13 Jerome Fellowship winners on display through Nov. 10 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Presented to artists just launching their careers, the $10,000 Jerome awards often produce a ragged display of experimental pieces, some perfectly done and others half-baked.
By contrast, this year’s winners have focused clearly and edited well. While diverse in media, their well-grounded projects seem promising foundations for future careers.
Wind and weather
Wind and weather are phenomena with which Susannah Bielak interacts in metaphoric projects that include a video of a young woman responding to a powerful electric fan — moving, clutching, circling, rubbing against it, as the fan blows an invisible stream of air against her. In other videos a cowboy practices lariat tricks facing the four directions, wind buffets a young woman wearing a huge paper collar, and a yellow-gowned woman induces responses (raised arms, jerks, leaps) from a circle of performers lying on a frozen lake. Her displays include a “Breath Drawing” and a diagram of the Beaufort scale, a measurement of wind and its effects. The common element in these strange documents appears to be Bielak’s effort to make the invisible (wind, a command) visible.
Like Bielak, Michael Hoyt enlisted other people to complete his project. A community-center arts administrator by profession, he expanded his community this past year by building a bike-propelled drawing cart that he set up in parks around town this summer. Then he drew portraits of curious people who stopped to talk, using Chinese ink and brushes to create simple but revealing monochrome sketches of his young, old and very multicultural companions. Called “One Another,” his project has the simple but valuable goal of launching conversations among strangers.
Landscape and portraiture
As painters, Melissa Loop and Lauren Roche are the most traditional of this Jerome class, Loop focusing on exotic tropical landscapes and Roche on expressive little portraits of feral women marked by missing teeth and polka-dot body paint. Both give conventional subjects highly expressive and deeply personal interpretations.
Loop claims Hudson River School landscapes as an inspiration, those grand 19th-century vistas of unspoiled American wilderness that lured Euro-Americans westward in pursuit of the nation’s Manifest Destiny, never mind the bloody consequences to the continent’s original inhabitants. Visits to Belize and Mexico triggered much of her current work, thinly painted impressions of lush jungles, shanty villages and beach shacks that reflect the exploitative contemporary reality more than idealistic visions. But Hudson River grandeur does echo in her magnificent “The Sublimity Outweighs the Tragedy.” Roughly 7 feet tall by 10 feet wide, “Sublimity” is indeed sublime, a green paradise in a mountain valley shimmering with delicate layers of gold, pink and coral gorgeous enough to seduce the most hardened cynic to worship, and perhaps even preserve, nature.
Roche attacks the portrait genre with brio, turning out 20- by 16-inch images of women rightly dubbed “fierce.” Typically seated and often clutching a furry avatar (dog, monkey-like child, hobbyhorse) the women are masked or black-faced, teeth filed, torsos streaked and splotched with red, yellow or black paint. Simultaneously abused and defiant, scared and scary, these are extraordinary creatures whose raw originality has the compelling power of Egon Schiele’s neurotic self-portraits.