Recently, we submitted two pieces of work for an exhibition that explored the topic of identity. We were excited to read in the prospectus that it requested work that would “examine our notions of self” and investigate “constituent parts of identity,” and asked the question “How much of an individual’s identity is personal and self-constructed, and how much of it depends on something socially created?” These ideas were so appealing because they are the exact notions and questions that compose a significant portion of the conceptual foundation of our work.
Portrait of Madame X [After Singer Sargent], 2013
Mrs. George Swinton (after Sargent), 2017
Both photographs above were selected by the curator and were subsequently excluded by university staff. In our correspondence with them, the staff articulated their understanding of how the work addressed the theme, and how it raised questions that deserved attention. However, they stated that their venue wasn’t the right location to further the types of discussions that typically accompany our work. Once we understood that the university was owned and operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we could better understand their concerns and perspective, and we chose to graciously honor their choice.
For valid reasons or not, frankly, it sucks to have work censored. But were we to focus on that, we wouldn’t have been open to the gift that followed. The entire experience drove up within both Niki and I a raft of feelings, thoughts, and emotions that ultimately surfaced a greater commitment to our work and increased connection between us as artists. Below are three key discoveries.
Like most any artist would be, we were shocked and angry when we initially received the news about our work being censored. But we both recognized that to stay in that space of anger neither served us nor the mission of our work. In fact, we took a step back and recognized that one of the primary reasons we make work as part of the Muse series is to foster respective discourse and exchange of ideas and perspectives. Specifically, we hope our work challenges untruths and misguided prejudices against individuals who do not conform to strict masculine or feminine identities.
During the formulation of our letter to the university staff addressing the matter, both Niki and I were reminded of the values and morals fostered by our undergraduate experiences at small Lutheran liberal arts colleges. As Niki is an alum of St. Olaf in Minnesota and I am an alum of Bethany College in Kansas, we recognized that our religious educations led us to understand that we are to be open-minded; that we as humans are not to judge others; that we are to treat all individuals with respect, dignity, and compassion; that we are to love others regardless of the intricacies that make up their identity; and that we have a responsibility to continue our individual growth by seeking out and engaging in diverse experiences with a variety of people from different backgrounds.
Quality & Context
While aesthetics and technical adeptness are an inherent part of the work in the Muse series, our desire isn’t to make art that is purely decorative or “pretty.” Good works of art challenge us; they question social constructs, and they ask viewers to look at things from different points of view. As artists, every choice of costume, set, and source painting upon which the photograph is based is imbued with meaning and characterized by deliberate intention. We acknowledge that this context is not always discernible by all viewers, which may cause the work to seem confrontational or offensive. This has never been our intended outcome. Through blog posts, in-person conversations, artist talks, etc., we make concerted efforts to help people see the intention and considerations that go into each piece.
Annunciation (after Botticelli), 2015
In hindsight, perhaps for this exhibition we should have submitted the Annunciation (After Botticelli), a piece that more overtly bridges the topics of religion, identity, and gender. But then again, our journey just might not have been as fortuitous.