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Los Infrahumanos goes subterranean

By Christopher Squier

From Uruguay to the United States, Los Infrahumanos exists not just in a somewhat unknown space in Burling basement, but inhabits the tense historical space between two wartime allies. On Tuesday, Grace Withmory ’13 presented this exhibition of Antonio Frasoni linocut prints, which will be open to view through December 21.

Shirlene Luk ’15 and Hayley Hajic ’15 enjoy the new exhibit in the Print & Drawing Study Room in Burling basement. Photo by Connie Lee.

As this semester’s Faulconer Gallery intern, Withmory had the opportunity to curate an exhibition from Grinnell’s special collections, working with Curator of the Collection Kay Wilson, along with the staff of the Faulconer Gallery Milton Severe, Dan Strong, Tilly Woodward and Lesley Wright.

Echoing Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection, an earlier exhibition in Faulconer Gallery, Withmory has curated an exhibit directly concerned with a particular moment in history.  Los Infrahumanos, however, presents a much more interesting dialogue between art and history.

Frasconi, an international artist discussing the unequal treatment of Africans and African-Americans, did not balk at demonizing the oppression in the United States, despite the two countries’ alliance.

His prints depict the experiences and struggles of African-Americans, from enslavement and fieldwork through the continued enslavement post-abolition, and specifically up to the moment of the 1943 Detroit race riots. They enact a dark portrayal of reality, but a vision of justice for the future.

Frasconi’s prints, through harsh contrasts of black and white, undercut the idealized Uruguayan view of race relations in America. Violent, slashing diagonals interrupt depictions of dangerously awry and buckling buildings, while enormous faces float across the compositions.

“In every composition, there seems to be a mixture of straight, rigid lines with organic lines,” Withmory said. “I feel that it ties all the pieces together and shows that the life is very organic, confined with areas of rigid structure.”

Several planes of perspective seem to be in existence simultaneously, with block buildings collapsing on one another, as in Anguish, where three foregrounded figures flee an ominously dark and jagged regiment of toppling skyscrapers.

Another print, Freedom!…, depicts a gagged and blinded Statue of Liberty, holding a dollar bill icon in place of her flaming torch, while a lamenting man throws his hands in the air.  The crosspieces in the windows of slanted industrial block buildings transform into moralizing crosses.

Iconic imagery, from the Statue of Liberty to Abraham Lincoln, contrasts the hope for a more equal future with the reality of oppression in Detroit and America at the time. Across the board, Los Infrahumanos or “the subhumans” is an apt title to reflect the plight Frasconi depicts.

Social concerns and political obstacles from the past resurface throughout Withmory’s exhibition and highlight Grinnell’s focus on collecting predominately social protest pieces and works on paper.

For example, the College’s newly acquired Occupy prints and posters draw an interesting parallel with Los Infrahumanos by underscoring the continued struggle for equality across the 20th and 21st centuries.

“What drew me most to these was the fact that they address a social concern and they do it in such a way that it’s very direct,” Withmory said. “Coming into this exhibit as a viewer, you really grab that message, and I hope that viewers get an appreciation for art through its social concerns.”

Sourcing images of America from the news and media and drawing from images of inequality and injustice in his homeland, the influence of Frasconi’s past as a political cartoonist during the Spanish Civil War and WWII is evident in his work here. In some ways, this results in an exhibition that feels almost overly explicit.

“Just looking at the image, you can get an idea of what he’s trying to say, and he doesn’t try to hide it in any way,” Withmory said.

In her informational text, Withmory gives a sense of this controversy through a number of longwinded letters written between Frasconi and Native Son author Richard Wright. Following this correspondence, Frasconi adjusted his collection of prints, representing them as a book rather than an exhibition.

In lieu of the history of the series of prints, Withmory handles their exhibition well, displaying them in the same order Frasconi picked for his book. Framing their exhibition in the correspondence between Frasconi and Wright, Withmory provides greater historical context, transporting the viewer beyond the rectangular confines of the Print and Drawing Study Room.

“I feel like, for the size of the exhibit, she chose a really good series,” said Anna Halpin-Healy ’13. “Not only does it fit really well in the space, the series is interesting to see, since the pieces are all different and tell a story.”

The layout from left to right, encircling much of the room, along with the equal spacing and separation between each print allows, the series to read much like a book itself, with time to reflect on the art between paging to the next piece.

“It’s also interesting because this is a small space with a low ceiling, which I think she managed really well,” Halpin-Healy said.

Overall, Los Infrahumanos is a unique chance to see compelling work usually left unseen in the collections.

“One thing that I like about his work is that it shows that life is continually changing and that what may be something now is not necessarily what it is in the future,” Withmory said. “Not only [is it] aesthetically pleasing, but it shows a progression that is still continuing today.”

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