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Cecily Cullen, Director and Curator of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art says of the new gallery exhibition Gravity of Perception: “This exhibition is inspired, in part, by the writing of Frederick Douglass who recognized that photography held the power to change a viewer’s thinking. [This exhibition] provides a profound opportunity for viewers to not only experience the impact of these images but to contemplate how they may shift our perspective and invite empathy.”

That’s a large legacy to have looking over your shoulder.

Sure enough, a medley of framed photos of Frederick Douglass greet the visitor to the exhibit on first wall on the left. It’s like seeing a dozen family photographs, but it’s only one man: a family tree with one set of eyes.

The gallery is filled with the conversation between the past and the present, the slavery Frederick Douglass faced and the systemic racism of today. It’s fitting that Douglass has a whole wall; there’s a sense of an audience standing behind us, watching how we live, how we treat each other, and what we choose to photograph.

Everything within Gravity of Perception is lens-based in some capacity. The melding of older, black-and-white photographs and new, high-definition images creates a contrast that morphs into its own singular subject: a moment not yet born and not yet dead. The stillness of the older photographs, with the subjects placed carefully, dances around the eyes, highlighting the tragedy at the heart of many of the pieces.

Kris Graves’ work “A Bleak Reality” photographs sites where black citizens were murdered in America. For almost all of these photos, there is a shrine or graffiti in memory of the victim, within Kris’ picture. It’s a gorgeous picture, but what sticks in my mind is the graffiti reading “RIP ALTON” across the parking lot, a mark left from a world I’ve never been to, a sight Graves captures as it is today, not as it was in that horrid moment when a man lost his life.

“The Murder of Alton Sterling” – Kris Graves.

In a similar way Krista Wortendyke’s work “#Mass_Observation” attempts an answer that Krista herself asks: “How are images used to create our perceptions of things that we can’t experience?” In “#Mass_Observation” she updates the 1930’s Mass-Observation project, capturing the same focus on the anonymous recordings of strangers’ conversations and behavior. Wortendyke’s artwork depicts protests in the wake of race-related violence and oppression, but the images are cropped and placed within blocks, like an Instagram feed. It’s a shift in the perception we have: are the images more potent when presented all at once? Or are we awash in grief, unable to pinpoint one image to act upon? When we haven’t experienced these events, how do we share the emotion among all of us? (You can see the work HERE).

“Mass Observation” – Krista Wortendyke

A “profound opportunity for viewers” to shift their perspective certainly lies in Lorenzo Triburgo’s work “Policing Gender”. There are three holy elements in Lorenzo’s work: ornate studio backdrops, expansive aerial shots, and headphones the viewer wears, putting the recorded voices of LGBTQ prisoners and the noises of their prisons directly into the viewers ears. The backdrops, named for individuals, are incredibly striking, visually powerful in their simplicity and presence. Standing in front of an empty curtain, listening to the voices of the invisible individuals in our prisons is surreal. The feeling of being attached, through their voice, to a person you cannot see, while standing in a room in Denver is hard to put into words. I will tell you this: I looked deeply at each of the large aerial photographs, hoping to see something that looked like another person. I will also tell you this: I do not know if having only two headphones was intentional, but I spent my time glancing furtively at the other user, wondering if he was listening to the same words I was. Be sure to attend Triburgo’s Artist Talk & Workshop on February 20th, at 6pm. Admission is free.

“Untitled Aerial 01” – Lorenzo Triburgo

Douglass’ words on photographs and the extrapolated conversation on the relationship between a piece and a viewer’s thinking informs all of the exhibition.

Marcella Ernest’s work “Because of Who I Am” is a fevered, passionate, non-linear film depicting a personal struggle with cultural gender norms on an individual scale. The use of scattered focus, the shifts between off-center images to drawings and back, create a maelstrom of emotions, leaping out of a single person and into the eye of the viewer. In this audio/visual piece, Ernest uses abstract imagery to create something much more concrete than a single moment in the film: a human connection. Of all the exhibits at Gravity, Ernest’s is separated in the focus on the individual. The relationship between an individual and their group is never clearer than in the non-traditional delivery of “Because of Who I Am.”

“Because of Who I Am 2” – Marcella Ernest

Tya Anthony is an artist who lives and works here in Denver, and serves on the Advisory Board for Leon Gallery, as well as the Board of Tilt West, itself a non-profit devoted to growing critical dialog in Denver art and culture. Anthony’s work plays with nostalgia, turning a Tarot deck into a celebration of bodies of color. These are gorgeous images, featuring eyes and edges replaced with gold dust. Like looking at mythological heroes from stories you’ve never heard, these figures transfix the viewer. These figures dance between what was and what is. These figures exalt themselves before the viewer.

“The High Priestess” From the Black Tarot Series – Tya Anthony

Conversely, the stack of bricks reading LEST WE FORGET not far from Anthony’s figures speak to what we must not forget. These bricks are part of Zora Murff’s work “The Shaping of the West (Lest We Forget)”. From the placard near his work: “I don’t know how many videos of Black people being killed by police offices I have watched, but I know the power these images possess. They are injurious yet informative, shifting how I navigate my Black body through this world. […] Creating a collection of images, objects, and image-objects meant to be scrutinized in both their historical and contemporary contexts, I metaphorically connect fast and slow violence. IN this body of work, witnessing is intertwined with critical analysis, and I provide a deeper understanding of systemic white supremacy and resulting violence therein.”

“The Shaping of the West (Lest We Forget)” and “Wall Surveyor” – Zora Murff

Murff’s work includes black plywood with the ghostly text of discriminatory housing practices, speaking of “incompatible racial and social groups” and the “Protection from Adverse Influences.” While there is joy to be found in Gravity of Perception, Murff’s work is a powerful reminder that what many Americans take for granted has been systemically stolen from bodies of color.

Analogous to these wooden pillars, Xaviera Simmons’ work in her “Sundown” series focuses on discriminatory towns where Black Americans were forced to remain hidden at night. What strikes the viewer is the amount of light that’s found in Simmons’ work. While depicting a dark history, the re-contextualized images feature a beauty, a vibrancy, and a sense of hope. From the description: “The works are tasked with the question, what would our contemporary landscape look like had Black Americans been able to create continued generational stability within America without the consistent threat of disenfranchisement? The sculptural and photographic works in this exhibition seek to re-engage the historical narrative to recover some of the possibilities of this vision.”

“Sundown Number 2” – Xaviera Simmons

Frederick Douglass isn’t alive. Yet, current events too often resemble what he fought against. There’s a seriousness to the images we make of other Americans. Gravity of Perception converses with our darkest moments, and locates them in our neighborhoods, in our prisons, and in our homes. There are moments of breakthrough and of joy. There are many opportunities to step outside the role of the viewer and into something else. Not into the roles of the people and their struggles portrayed in the exhibit, but rather into something other than a dispassionate viewer. I don’t have a word for it, not yet. I know that there needs to be more done than looking at pictures of a world I didn’t grow up in. I know the impact of this exhibition.

Frederick Douglass looks on.

Gravity of Perception runs from January 11th to March 23rd, and is organized by the Center for Visual Art and the Center for Fine Art Photography and is curated by Cecily Cullen, Hamidah Glasgow, and Natascha Seideneck. The center is located at 965 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO 80204, and is open Tuesday – Friday from 11am – 6pm, and on Saturday from 12 – 5pm. Events and gallery are free to attend unless noted otherwise.

Editor’s Note: Photographs of all works featured here were provided courtesy of the Center for Visual Art.