It's not that Black and White
Brooklyn couple examines America's race struggle through China silk
From Metro on March 30, 2007
If ever there were an argument against going into business with your spouse, Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry deconstruct its strength – as they do carefully unveiled prejudices. Sitting in their 2,000 square-foot loft, canvases stacked around a train station big enough for their three-year-old son Otis to make-believe in, the world is as Otis sees it: New York apartments are big, wall art is signed by the likes of Wangechi Mutu and Kehinde Wiley and parents don’t have to come in the same color – though they do have to keep quiet while “Cars” is on.
But the fact is much of McCallum and Tarry’s work is inspired by America’s red-blood, white and blue reality of racial violence, and the kind of comic episodes or race-based misunderstandings that regularly sparked the laugh tracks on early ‘80’s sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family.” The idea for their video work, “Cut,” for example, which features the couple caressing, then shaving each other’s heads, partially came about in response to a particularly long Saturday Tarry spent getting her hair done on Nostrand Avenue.
“Over the course of six hours I kept calling, asking “Are you done yet?” McCallum remembers.
“Finally, he came into the salon, burst through the door and said ‘You’ve been here since 11 o’clock, what are you doing?” Tarry says with a laugh at the memory. “Everybody cracked up because he didn’t…”
“…get it,” McCallum says, finishing her thought.
And then there is the unfunny moment they stumble on while researching their latest work, “Whitewash,” a series of oil paintings depicting Civil Rights-era photographs. A white woman who wanted to marry her black lover in spite of the time’s anti-miscegenation laws put the “one drop of blood” rule to the test. “She dramatically takes a vial of his blood in court and drinks it, and says, ‘Now, there, I’m black,’” Tarry explains.
Through a veil of translucent china silk, these photographic memories are literally – and intentionally – lost in reproduction. “When you look through the silk to the painted surface it tends to have this kind of softening effect,” McCallum says. “It sort of visualizes the way in which memory works,” Tarry says the missing legs and removed subjects challenge the viewers to fill in the blanks for themselves. “Are these iconic images relevant now? Have they lost their potency? Do we need to remember?”
More than 10 years after the couple met and decided to merge their conceptual approaches – his more civic, hers more self-referential – McCallum and Tarry are committed to remembering the history through their work which they divvy up evenly. But their commitment goes deeper still. “We’re thinking about Otis.” McCallum says, “What is the dynamic that he is going to have to pay with?”
While his parents – and the rest of us – figure it out, Otis requests a volume crank. The cartoon cars race across his screen in high-definition color.