Excavating the unconscious

Krista Franklin has a recurring fantasy in which she burns all her journals. 

“Watching the flames dance in a fire pit glowing from the kindling of my memories,” she writes in “On Time,” one of several lyrical essays included in Solo(s): Krista Franklin, a catalog of visual art and poetry by the Chicago-based artist. It was published in September, on the occasion of her exhibition of the same name opening at the DePaul Art Museum, which is on view through February 19.

I enjoy the shock of this confession flash my therapist’s neutral expression at my glee, every journal I’ve written transmuted to ash.

Me: I took an entire composition notebook from 20xx, and fed chunks into the metal teeth of the shredder until every bluebaby line was in ribbons.

Therapist: And how did that make you feel?

Franklin’s answer is redacted by way of a thick black line. 

In poetry, this method of self-censoring is known as erasure—the application of which is straightforward and obvious in this essay; we don’t know how Franklin felt about destroying her composition notebook. But in Franklin’s visual art, the idea of erasure transcends mere form or convention. Her writing and visual art practices are in constant communion, especially in her collage work, which features text and images from vintage magazines (mostly from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s). 

In these collages, the text that peeks through serves as the underpainting, a technique in which artists apply a base layer of their chosen medium, which informs the rest of the work. Franklin’s chosen medium is her own diaristic writings—a different approach to the productive destruction she fantasizes about by flame. 

“I’ll have a sheet of paper . . . and I’ll just start writing,” she says. “It’s usually things that I don’t necessarily want the viewer to see or to fully access. You might be able to see one or two words, but it could be anything. It’s usually me ranting about something that’s going on in my life that I’m not satisfied with, or being frustrated about something, and then using the paint, using the collage, using the other images to kind of fade it out. Not completely obscure it—because I do like the idea of the handwriting as texture, as a drawing gesture—but I also want the messages that I’m putting under there to be buried.”

Franklin is hardly the first to underpaint collage with text, nor will she be the last, as the form enjoys a resurgence in popularity of late. She wants the hidden messages to draw viewers in, beckoning us closer, but we are held back at arm’s length. There is rich interiority to Franklin’s work, and she is rightly protective of that.

Franklin uses her own diaristic writings as underpainting, a technique in which artists apply a base layer of their chosen medium.Credit: Dabin Ahn.

Franklin is a surrealist, a practitioner of a movement dedicated to divulging the unconscious mind through art. The practice has blended art and literature since its inception in the early 20th century. Early on in her practice, Franklin was heavily influenced by “AfroSurreal Manifesto,” a poem written by D. Scot Miller in 2009. Franklin’s 2018 exhibition at the Poetry Foundation, “ . . . to take root among the stars.,” grapples with her own practice through the surrealist lens. The exhibition, as described by the Poetry Foundation, “uses articles sourced from vintage Ebony magazines that address or make transparent space travel and radical imaginings.” A majority of the works from that project are included in Solo(s).

“‘ . . . to take root among the stars.’ in particular, was a very heavy-handed gesture of mine to try to parse out where I could see those evidences of surrealist activity in music, in books that were particularly written by or about Black people in the African diaspora,” Franklin says. “I was really trying to figure out: What is surrealism? How does it operate? How does it play out in my work?”

She is still discerning those answers, but the core tenet of surrealism, to excavate the unconscious, is embodied in the semiconcealed underpainting—or rather, the underwriting—that Franklin has elevated to a form of visual poetry.

“What is happening with surrealism, and what you’re hearing and seeing out of the artists, especially the women artists [in the early 20th century], has to do with that hidden world, that interior landscape that we’re so often taught to hide,” Franklin says. “Historically, a woman who was too free was going to get herself in a lot of trouble. I think [surrealism] really speaks to that passion that bubbles up.”   

Surrealism is not a form that remains in the era of its post-World War I origins; its foundational antiestablishment tenets are still very much at play across the practice. In 2012, Franklin founded the artistic collective du monde noir (originally known as AfroSurreal Chicago) along with fellow artists Devin Cain and Alexandria Eregbu, who together studied historical and contemporary AfroSurrealism, ultimately producing a performative exhibition in 2015 at Columbia College called “Marvelous Freedom: Vigilance of Desire, Revisited,” showcasing the work of Chicago artists of color making art through an AfroSurrealist lens.

The original “Marvelous Freedom” exhibition happened in Chicago in 1976. Franklin and her collaborators referenced the title because they were trying to track and trace the influence of the international exhibition. “How can we extend that to the present moment and look at Black contemporary artists in the city who are making art in that vein, who may not even know that it’s surreal work?” they wondered.

Franklin is interested in exploring what it would take to create a new world, one that might not make sense through the schema of what we expect and exist within today. She feels Chicago is ripe for this exploration.  

“There’s a spirit of radicalism here,” Franklin says. “A resistance. Troubling the status quo, saying no. Protest. Resisting anything that might impede upon anyone’s freedoms. That is really a spirit, an energy, that keeps me here, and that’s very much tied into the surreal. This real world that we’re living in—it’s not doing the job.”

Nowhere is Franklin’s fondness for Chicago more apparent than in Library of Love, a project first staged in 2014 at the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life/Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. At that time, Franklin was fixated on heightened levels of violence in the city. Just shy of a decade later, Franklin and Ionit Behar, an associate curator at DePaul Art Museum, revisited and restaged Library of Love for “Solo(s).”The project remains Franklin’s visual love letter to a city in turmoil, in which visitors are invited to enter a home library setting filled with books about love. There is music playing and comfortable furniture; there are fresh flowers that Franklin herself tends to weekly. Beauty flourishes here, amidst the city’s chaos.

“If we understand an invisible library as mental, hidden, lost, censored, or one that does not yet exist, then tangible libraries do not repress mental libraries—they are only their mental support,” Behar writes in the Solo(s) catalog. “Invisible libraries like Library of Love take us to the very foundations of our humanity. Like libraries, love in its broadest form can be both visible and invisible, and it is present everywhere in Franklin’s practice—as a writer, performer, and visual poet, and especially as a human being—Library of Love encapsulates Franklin’s philosophy of life.” 

“We have to make a new world,” Franklin says. “And that to me is a part of the surrealist ideologies, to create a new world, to allow new worlds to emerge that may not make sense to you. I like that about this city . . . I feel like being in touch with the Chicago surrealists of the past has really helped me to understand that legacy that happens here.”

As a part of the revisited “Marvelous Freedom” exhibition, Franklin, along with April Sheridan and Ben Blount, designed a republication of “AfroSurreal Manifesto” in book form.

Sheridan is the special collections manager at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a longtime friend and collaborator of Franklin’s. Sheridan printed all of the letterpress pages in what would become Franklin’s 2018 artist book, Under the Knife, a truly stunning volume that Candor Arts, the publisher, described as “Part memoir, part treatise, part collage and experiment . . . an excavation; a dig at the sites of the construction and demolition of the poet/artist’s selves.” Portions of Under the Knife are also included in Solo(s).

“Krista is always timeless,” Sheridan says. “She’s always doing her own thing in a way that is moving between writing and collage and visual work. Sometimes they’re separate, and sometimes they’re together, but they’re always doing a really similar kind of work. It’s like she’s creating these dreamscapes for us.” 

Sheridan says she feels like visual artists are sometimes the best writers, and Franklin’s work is testament to such.

“I can be more intimate with the writing,” Franklin says. “There are things I can do in the writing that I’m not capable of doing in the visual art. I like the idea of it being underwriting, or giving further, deeper understanding of the concepts that I’m kind of working through in my [visual art] practice. The concepts vary. For me, it really is about history, it is about time—past, present, future—and the combination of those things, the amalgamation of that continuum. But then also there’s a lot in my work, mainly in my writing, that has to do with looking at the self, deep self-analysis.”

And here is where Franklin’s true identity as a surrealist comes into play. It is not only that she creates surrealist art, it is that the very act of her creation is in and of itself a surrealist act. “It’s tricky,” she says. “Because surrealism in and of itself morphs, it’s an organic body.”

As is Franklin’s body—all of ours are. Nothing needs to stay the same.

“Solo(s): Krista Franklin”Through 2/19: Wed-Thu 11 AM-7 PM, Fri-Sun 11 AM-5 PM, DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton, 773-325-7506, resources.depaul.edu/art-museum, free

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