"Conversations on Mortality" at 22 North looks to transcend the silence about the dying side of living
Conversations on mortality are difficult, often avoided, and in America, they are traditionally taboo. The 22 North gallery in Ypsilanti welcomes the thought-provoking exhibit Conversations on Mortality, which confronts our impermanence, the inevitability of death.
The exhibition's multimedia works engage with loss, mourning, and what is left behind once someone is gone. Described by the curators as “a chance to transcend the silence,” Conversations on Mortality offers works driven by the lives of the artists. Not only do they address the complexity of their mortality and loss of loved ones, but also their experiences of living with disability, illness, and the impact of COVID-19.
Entering the space, hanging lanterns in an autumnal palette cheerily frame serendipitously matching works by curators Sharlene Welton and Tim Tonachella. I had a chance to speak with Welton who is both the show’s curator and an artist when I visited 22 North. Welton said she created the lanterns as part of an interactive element to the opening night, where visitors were able to decorate and write their names on the lanterns before hanging them. The pieces by Welton (a large painting) and Tonachella (two photographs of cemetery views) were brought in last minute when an artist was unable to make the show, but adding the works ended up being a great aesthetic success.
Welton and Tonachella’s gallery statement notes the overlapping threads among the works, as artists grapple with the questions, “How do we embrace the changes that come from death and dying, and more importantly, how we assimilate the loss into our daily living?” Though these may, ultimately, be unanswerable questions, they are worth asking—especially when operating within a mainstream American culture that predominantly ignores them.
The curators’ works appear alongside those of Jack Cameron, Marta Carvajal, Andrew Ross Evans, Ralph Jones, Jan Brown, Dennis Loren, Danny Rebb, Dorothy Jett-Carter, Pat Duff, the Rodriguez Family (Linda Rodgriguez, Rose Rodriguez and Anita Morrison [Rodriguez]), and Sue E. Schneider. The artists, all working in Michigan, were selected and invited to exhibit by the curators.
Works in the exhibition challenge the notion that we should be silent about death and dying. And for many cultures, death is as much a part of life as anything else. Día de los Muertos altars, for example, are imbued with a sense of life. The tradition's vibrancy and depth are captured by the centrally placed installation created by the Rodriguez family titled Rodriguez/Garcia/Cortina Ofrenda for Día de los Muertos. The multidimensional work is complex and intimate. The altar can be approached from any angle, with a multitude of objects, both personal and symbolic. A panel stands next to the altar with a history of Día de los Muertos. The panel also includes a visual chart of some of the common symbolism present in altars, which can be used to reference elements within the Rodriguez Family’s installation.
Photography is prominently represented in Conversations on Mortality, and a striking black-and-white photograph by Detroit-based photographer Ralph Jones immediately caught my eye. Titled Honoring Our Father, its formal simplicity contrasts with the immensity of the content it captures. The framed archival giclée print shows off a set of man’s hands pinning a cufflink—decorated with a small photograph of a man—onto another man’s dark tuxedo sleeve. Formal wear immediately suggests a sense of ceremony, probably funereal, which is confirmed in the image title. A simple gesture of pinning on a cufflink becomes laden with significance with the realization that a small photograph is imprinted on it. The style of portraiture and dress indicates the photograph was likely taken in the mid-20th century. Visually, the work contains all the clues to conclude that the photograph is of a recently deceased loved one, and this image was likely taken at his funeral.
The small photographic keepsake in the form of a physical object is one of many similar examples of small shrines or large monuments that people create for the dead.
Ralph Jones’ works show viewers an array of dedications to the dead. Mourning Tree is a photograph of a site filled with snow-covered offerings such as wreaths, photographs, holiday decorations, synthetic flower bouquets, American flags, and other detritus radiating from the tree trunk. The photo was taken as part of a two-year project in which Jones documented the Delray subdivision in Detroit. It is unclear what took place at the site, with the photographer stating he was “told two extremely different stories by people living in the area.” Ultimately, all that he was able to gather was “that there was some sort of conflict between neighbors that led to a ‘tragic’ incident.”
Jones' third photograph in the exhibit, also from the Delray project, captures a smaller, more personal memorial site. A basketball jersey, a pair of Converse All-Stars, jewelry, and glasses are all affixed to a wooden pole. Looking at it, I had the distinct impression that these items could all be put together on a living person and form an entire outfit. Someone once wore these things, and now they are gone.
Dorothy Jett-Carter’s Sacred Cloth brings a physical garment into the space, encased in a glass display frame, hung from the wall. Next to the garment is a piece of white paper with a poem, “Sacred Cloth,” which begins: “I did not realize this was sacred cloth when I cut it. / I did not know that he would be soon gone from this life.” The poem references the loss of her husband, which the work and Jett-Carter’s book Kente Cloth and Apricot Brandy, a Love Story both address. A copy of the book sits at the bottom right of the display frame. These items together form a portrait of the artists’ loss, what came before and after. The cloth, perhaps thought to have some other purpose when cut, will forever be a memorialized object on display in remembrance of that loss.
Sharlene Welton’s painting Ghost Bike commemorates a tragic incident felt by a community. A white bike adorned with trinkets and flowers leans against a wooden utility post on the side of the road, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Haggerty Road in Canton, Michigan. Welton explains the origins of the memorial bike, which she wondered about each time she passed it. Finally, she stopped one day and read the story, which was on a sign above the bike. Represented in the painting, it reads, in all capital letters: “This bike symbolizes that someone was killed on a bike by a motorist, hopefully it will serve as a reminder to other drives to watch out for cyclists.” The sign does not reveal much. In her artist statement, however, Welton explains what happened: “For many years, the loving family came and decorated it with colorful plastic flowers in remembrance of a young mother who was killed while crossing the road on her bicycle. She was on her way to deliver freshly baked cookies.“ Welton further elaborates that the reason she was driving this route was to visit her own mother in a nursing home, always carrying a sweet treat herself.
After having lost both of her parents—one during the pandemic—Welton commemorates these relationships through painting. In Farewell, she captures her devastating loss in an oil painting representing her last visit with her father during peak COVID restrictions. She writes: “To lose a parent is heartbreaking. But to lose a parent during the pandemic? Even more heartbreaking. After my last visit, I remember stripping down on the kitchen porch … showering to eradicate a worldwide pandemic.”
Perhaps the most recognizable memorial to the dead, at least in America, is the 19th-/20th-century cemetery, with its concrete and marble tombstones, weeping angel sculptures, obelisks, and mausoleums. Tim Tonachella captures this aesthetic in his starkly contrasting images taken in Detroit cemeteries. Tonachella, a Detroit-born and lifelong photographer, was born legally blind. He returned to Detroit after “a long hiatus,” where he experienced a “life-changing mentorship with a professional photographer.” Since then, his work has been supported and embraced by the Detroit community, which has allowed him to step into curatorial work as he continues to document Detroit through his unique lens.
Andrew Ross Evans’ photographic works hang above wood-burned texts that are written by the characters in the images: Blade Emissary, Wrath Emissary, and Mortal Tissue. Stylized and containing an element of fantasy, his works address death, mortality, and the fleetingness of time. In his artist statement, he writes, “I photograph to cheat death, to immortalize a moment in time.“ Photography is an apt medium for this, with its unique ability to capture a passing moment, seemingly capturing it forever. Yet photographs ultimately denote death, a topic of discussion by theorists such as Roland Barthes, which he interrogated in his Camera Lucida, a work heavily influenced by the death of his mother.
Mortality is not only about death but also about its inevitability. And for many, chronic illness and cancer can raise questions about mortality. For photographer Danny Rebb, the topic is “a subject that we in our culture are reticent to discuss.” He says, “Personally, I have no issue doing so due to having come to terms with my own mortality a number of years ago“ as a survivor of cancer and addiction. Rebb’s Chemo Self-Portrait shows the artist in the midst of his treatments. After a near-death experience induced by a chemotherapy complication-related coma, Rebb sees every day as a gift.
The gallery statement notes: “At some point for all of us, loss occurs … There is no measure for our individual or collective pain and grief, especially after a worldwide pandemic.” Though some of us might like to, on a typical day, avoid the topic of death, these Conversations on Mortality show us the beauty, tenderness, and connectedness we can find in the darkness of loss.
Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.
"Conversations on Mortality" runs November 4-25 at 22 North, 22 North Huron Street Ypsilanti. By appointment only.