Review by Gerhard Clausing •
Overcoming the past is a prerequisite for a better future. While we cannot change any of the things our predecessors have done, our obligation is to open ourselves to an honest assessment of the past and to bring about improvements. An honest acknowledgment of historical events and of cultural shifts can set the groundwork for what is to come, as the real definition of making the future “great” for everyone requires revising the antiquated status quo. This is especially urgent at this time: demonstrations for equitable treatment and equal opportunities show a dire urgency for solutions.
This is where this project by Kathleen Y. Clark makes a timely contribution. Fancy tableware serves as a symbol at official functions and is meant to display the glory of the state. The style of the dishes displays the “pomp and circumstance” of the achievements of a country, and this display of grandeur withholds the details of what was behind all those accomplishments. Clark uses photographs of many generations of official White House dinnerware (the dishes known as “china,” as in the project title) from many presidential administrations as the basis for reinterpretations in new mixed-media compositions. Thus artistically conceived “fake” dishes become truth-tellers in presenting a more straight-forward assessment of past realities.
Kathleen Clark adds the missing pieces, the reality behind the facade. As she states, “My intent is to shine a light on often-destructive events which happened by decision or neglect within each administration, providing a stark contrast to the assumption of civilization and culture set around historic dining tables.” She takes a variety of historical visuals that illustrate such events and phenomena from the same periods – slavery which in the US was prevalent well into the latter part of the 19th century (its aftermath following us into the present), forceful acquisition of land to facilitate expansion (to the detriment of native populations, including in Hawaii), wars and economic disasters, and more – and incorporates them seamlessly into the design of the plates, as if they had always been there. Administrations from the founding of the United States through the present are included, and #45 gets a special treatment of twelve plates, two of which you can see in the last double-page spread below.
The result is a beautiful set of images that display imagined, more honest tableware: it makes us think about the past and what brought about the problems which are the accumulated results and need to be solved now. The plates are beautifully constructed amalgams of simultaneous historical realities, combined by the artist into one. Had these imagined plates been used at actual fancy White House dinners, the guests would certainly have been less capable of digesting their fancy meals.
As we view this project, we are grateful for all the reminders of past dichotomies: looking back, we have a sense that many administrations had serious problems or chose to engage in various actions, some of which were accepted by the majority of the public at the time. In looking back, we find that some of these were less worthy of pride than people realized.
The research that was needed to combine various historical elements in visually appealing ways that make serious statements is quite an accomplishment. The images in this photobook are printed well on generously-sized pages, and the pleasure of viewing them is exceeded only by the hope that projects such as this one, along with other current developments, will help us achieve an equitable future without violence and rancor.
The White House China is a welcome addition to our understanding of history and for overcoming a legacy with some unfortunate components. And remember, a critical stance is a necessary ingredient that leads toward improvement. An important project indeed!
Kathleen Y. Clark – The White House China
Photographer: Kathleen Y. Clark (born in Vancouver, Washington; lives in the Los Angeles area in California)
Self-published; © 2020
Texts: Artist statement and notes on each image by Kathleen Y. Clark
Hardback with illustrated cover; perfect-bound; 114 pages, paginated, with 59 color images; 10.75 x 8.5 inches; printed by Edition One Books, Berkeley, California
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