Conscience of artist is missing in photos

ArtReview

December 02, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Goldie's mother, addicted for years to heroin and crack-cocaine, died when Goldie was just 16. To cope with the loss, Goldie started injecting heroin and smoking crack cocaine herself. The results were just about what one might expect.

New York photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally, who spent six years documenting the lives of people in her distressed Brooklyn neighborhood, recounts Goldie's story in Moving Walls 7, one of a continuing series of exhibitions sponsored by the Open Society Institute that opens today at Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.

Kenneally's stark black-and-white images, accompanied by terse captions, describe a brutal world of chronic drug and alcohol addiction, out-of-wedlock births, domestic violence, periodic incarceration and the ineffectual interventions of a failed social welfare system.

We see boyfriends appear and disappear, children neglected and abandoned, apartments turned into drug dens and filthy stairwells that become the only safe refuges of desperate women and children.

Through it all, the artist manages to bear witness, though nothing in her photographs tells us what else she might have done for her subjects besides snapping their pictures, nor whether, despite the care and skill she devoted to her project, the photographs made any difference at all in the lives she documented. In the end, the show raises more questions than it answers.

Take, for example, one of Kenneally's most harrowing images: Goldie, pregnant with her second child, Little Jeannette, has just gone into labor on a couch in her friend Fay's apartment, which doubles as a crack house.

Between contractions, Goldie smokes crack to calm her nerves. When the pain gets really bad, she squeezes the crack pipe in her fist to distract herself from what's happening.

Looking at the image, one's deepest impulse is to scream: "Brenda, put the stupid camera down and call 911!"

Or: "Brenda, get that crack pipe out of Goldie's hand and take the woman to the emergency room right now!"

Presumably, the whole point of taking such a picture is to appeal to our conscience.

But what's so painfully obvious in this picture is the absence of the photographer herself, notwithstanding the fact that hers is a semi-journalistic enterprise in which the artist's job is to tell the story, not be part of it.

If simple humanity is part of the point, however, then something is definitely missing here.

Kenneally has every right to make her images as harrowing as she wishes. Yet if she won't do the right thing in such a situation (take the pipe, summon help) what moral standing does she have to ask anything of us at all?

Such considerations dwarf all the other questions, such as why don't the drug treatment programs Goldie and her friends are constantly in and out of ever seem to work, or how come the child welfare agency, which puts their kids in foster care every time they're arrested or sent to detox, keep returning them to their mothers' inept custody?

We may not expect government to work anymore, but when artists make personal appeals to our conscience, as Kenneally does, they'd better be ready to show that they've got one of their own.

An interesting companion show of photographs about Mexican immigrant laborers by Jon Lowenstein rounds out the exhibition.

Moving Walls 7 runs through Jan. 15. There will be a panel discussion with the artists from 7 to 9 tonight. The gallery is at 847 N. Howard St. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Call 410-225-3130.

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