A few years ago, in my former neighborhood in Queens, I passed an ornamental column amid the sidewalk trash. Regret prompted me to backtrack and haul the plaster orphan home. It’s since moved with me to Chicago, where, bearing a pothos, it receives many compliments.
Columns, particularly of the classical order, have a powerful allure. They are elegant, evoke high art, and can feel beguiling, as I realized on that summer stroll. They can seem incongruous in our surroundings, particularly on a city sidewalk. Columns are really everywhere though: decorating banks, colleges, museums, and federal buildings throughout the country.
This all might seem obvious, but artist Kelly Kristin Jones knows there’s something more insidious behind the ubiquity of columns. “They are symbols used by white people to reinforce power,” she said when we spoke in June. “It’s so ingrained that we’re not conscious of why they’re so heavily used throughout our built spaces.”
Jones has spent several years interrogating the prevalence of such markers in the U.S., focusing on public (and taxpayer-maintained) monuments to long-dead white men that have fueled national debate–and, in Chicago, a public arts reevaluation. For her ongoing work In time and paradise, Jones documents herself and others while they hold up photographs of the sky in front of local statues that depict controversial people. In the course of these performances, Jones does not identify the subjects of the statues for the viewer, which invites us to imagine the possibilities of who should be memorialized atop the pedestals. The resulting documentation makes it appear as though the original statues have been erased, echoing the darkroom technique of dodging.
While Jones was cooped indoors last year, she began thinking about ideologies of whiteness that are baked into everyday domestic life. She bought ornamental columns from local sellers on Craigslist and Facebook, made of cheap materials such as plastic, wood, plaster, or metal. The growing stockpile of columns is the centerpiece of Jones’s show “We forgot the moon while holding up the sun” at Bridgeport’s 062 gallery in the Zhou B Art Center. The resulting piece, Orders of Empire, features dozens of columns spilling from a corner to evoke an ancient ruin. The exhibition, which also includes photography, works to untangle the pervasive legacies of white supremacy that haunt in plain sight; to show that a column is not just a column.
The crux of this systemic architectural sleight is the white and Right-wing obsession with antiquity. Rutgers professor Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro wrote that ancient Greeks and Romans “affirmed the ancient nobility and capacity for rule of the white race, while also offering a model of righteous empire and civilized slave ownership.” Monteiro outlines this in her essay “Power Structures: White Columns, White Marble, White Supremacy,” which she posted on Medium in October 2020. Monteiro tells us that the so-called founding fathers “. . . set their heritage claims in stone,” and traces the incessant formation of white national identity from Thomas Jefferson (whose plantation Monticello has become a byword for whitewashed histories of enslavement) to the farcical tradition of plantation weddings, and from the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (which revolved around a Robert E. Lee statue) to Trump’s “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order. Neoclassical architecture, Monteiro writes, was and remains a way for white men to “[seed] the landscape with the signs of the European past–of European heritage–quite literally marking the territory of whiteness.”
Jones’s work seeks to avoid didacticism and invites us to excavate the calculated history of unbalanced power simply by making it immense and inescapable. She collects and calls attention to the bread crumbs of this history beyond the south, still largely the focus of today’s debates over monuments. Interestingly, her column sellers all live in predominantly white, western, and northern Chicago suburbs. They’re also all white women. “I realized that that was the work,” Jones said. “I’ve been thinking about the role white women have always and continue to play in upholding white supremacy.” The point is not to suggest that women are intentionally signaling white spaces but that “this agenda is at work, even if we are unaware or don’t want to acknowledge it.”
Echoing protestors’ righteous toppling of monuments that gained momentum last summer, Orders of Empire wrenches columns from their cozy camouflage. Literally upended, they are exposed as gimcrack–hollow props, not regal pedestals. In convening them, Jones creates what I’d called a counter-monument, a marker that simultaneously makes visible and deconstructs collective ideas of heritage. Over the exhibition’s course, the pile has grown, becoming more unwieldy as well as absurd in its utter futility.
Jones also visited predominantly white suburbs to create her photographs on view, driving to places such as River Forest, Riverside, Downers Grove, Elmhurst, and Wheaton. Over the past year, she’s trespassed into private yards to photograph public-facing markers that are, again, curiously low-grade. The cheap busts of white men and faux Greco-Roman urns are more reminders that whiteness dominates. Jones uses Adobe Photoshop’s spot healing brush to render the documented markers unrecognizable, then prints and cuts the photos to the scale of the object’s silhouette. At night, she returns to the site, conceals the marker with the photo, and photographs it by moonlight. The resulting prints, richly tonal and mysterious, are small subversions. They capture a momentary redaction of power–filtered through time and commercialization–by attentive, almost healing gestures. Some are noticeably edited, like an image that shows the clear outline of a bust or another, the contours of an amphora. But the most effective of Jones’s interventions are those that nearly blend with their surroundings, like happy glitches in the landscape.
Jones is aware that being a white woman has allowed her to do this work–so far, no one has called the police on her. Her race is one of the reasons I’d argue that she should be doing this work: white artists don’t feel the expectations that many artists of color do to make work about race, and infrequently examine whiteness without speaking for nonwhite communities.
And Jones’s work is ceaseless and ongoing. She is amassing a collection of vintage and tourist postcards depicting sites with historical monuments, more than 700 of which were displayed in Wish you were here, an installation she mounted earlier this year at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in northwest Indiana. She digitally alters the postcards to remove controversial markers, reclaiming the tools of the very process used to mythologize them. Jones is also accumulating snapshots of white women posing with contested monuments, and the growing binder already points to an enduring process of patriotic identity building–one intrinsically tied to the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s funding of hundreds of Confederate statues.
In building and wrestling with these various material archives, Jones seems to be heeding artist Xaviera Simmons’s call for white artists: “Go further and work more rigorously to undo yourselves . . . do the cultural autopsy, name what whiteness is and the centuries of harm it has done . . . ” Jones names, interrogates, and implicates whiteness, better equipping us to work at dismantling it in our personal spaces. v