chris cohen
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Artist Statement

My work over the last decade has been an exploration of my white, male identity and the various contexts that have shaped it over my lifetime. This work began as an investigation of my roles as a father and a teacher, and those two contexts form the foundation for my expanding exploration of identity and mythologies of power and supremacy.

My most recent work has been an examination of the expressions of white supremacy on family, community, and national levels. On the family level, I have created a series of paintings from my family photo album in which I imagine an oversimplified idea of white male identity as a mask that hides the wearer. This “mask” also seems to be integrated into the faces of the wearers (all white males) in a way that seems to say that it is involuntary or hereditary. This series questions whether the wearer can remove the mask, and whether he is born with the mask or not. It also questions the racist notion that privilege is the birthright of men with “white” skin tones and certain ethnic backgrounds. I am suggesting that such a baseless sense of entitlement and the inhuman machinations required to maintain it are a threat to these same men’s identities and families. At the edges of this narrative lie unfinished portraits of my children, mask-less in their confident sense of self, representing hope that intolerance is as thin as a mask that can be rejected by the wearer.

On the community level, I have focused my multimedia sculpture/photo/installation work on the making of Virginia history. My reversed ceramic impressions taken from the cast-iron relief of Virginia Historical Highway Markers deconstruct the assertion that these signs are historical documents, concluding rather that they are, as an expression of white supremacy, territorial propaganda meant to assert that true Virginians are white Christians. The tiles are excerpts of the signs in which I have highlighted words and phrases on the sign that highlight this supremacist narrative. The effect is that the rest of the narrative from the sign, which attempts to give the narrative its historical authenticity, seems to be fading away while the underlying idea of white supremacy endures.

On a national level, I have created a series of photographs at various sites where this same mythology of whiteness as American-ness is being maintained: Civil War monuments, American heritage sites and museums, and Civil War reenactments. These photos expose the white-supremacist world view underlying this national re- making of history by showing it for what it is: a performance whose theme is white supremacy.

Because I identify as a white male, an artist, a father, a son, a Virginian, and an American, my work has almost by default become a response to white supremacy. What might have previously been written off as the rantings of a few racist ideologues has now been exposed as the coded language of at least a third of Americans. To be silent about this, in my mind, is to acquiesce to it. The more socially acceptable this kind of hate becomes, the more institutionalized it gets, the more Americans vote for people who espouse these beliefs, the more I will feel responsible to identify it for what it is. This could be my whole lifetime’s work, but I have hope that it will not be.