In the quinquennial art exhibition “Greater New York,” on view now at MoMA PS1, sculptor Doreen Garner’s work Lucy’s Agony (2021) references the gut-churning experiments conducted on Black women by doctors like the so-called “father of modern gynecology” J. Marion Sims, who experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia. Garner’s work often reflects on weighty issues of trauma afflicted on Black bodies, and the seemingly never-ending archive to mine.
Garner, who is also a tattoo artist, understands the way skin behaves more than most, using it as her canvas when creating body art, and creating the most lifelike version of it for her corporeal sculptures. Following the peak of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, the artist made a conscious decision to take a different tack with her work and attempt to create sculptures of white bodies—something she had never done before. In an exclusive interview with Art21, Garner reflects on her choice, saying, “I don’t want to put a bunch of bloody Black bodies just by themselves as entertainment.”
Production still from the Art21 New York Close Up film, “Doreen Garner on Her Own Terms.” © Art21, Inc., 2021.
In the video, Garner describes how difficult it was to make the white flesh look as lifelike as possible and discusses the historical problem of capturing Black skin aesthetically, from photographic film that does not accurately render Black subjects to misrepresentations in paintings: “It’s really crazy for me to actively try to get their skin tone right, when there hasn’t been the same amount of consideration in ways that they represent us.” Garner also considers the fact that her more recent pieces—including a work of white skin that was on view at Art Basel—have yet to sell, a problem she never had with her Black sculptures. “Just thinking about ways that pieces that I’ve made that have had Black bodies have sold faster,” she says. “Something to think about.”
While she faces the anxieties and disconcerting facts of a ruthless art market, Garner turns to her tattooing practice, which she views as an extension of her fine art. “With my tattoos, I’m just trying to create the images that Black people want to get on their body forever,” Garner tells Art21. “Things that they resonate with, things that make them feel beautiful.”
Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. Garner’s work is on view as part of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1 through April 18, 2022.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.
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