A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures by Carmen Winant at The Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville

By March 16, 2024
Carmen Winant, Power control wheel (assorted risographs), 2022, risograph prints, edition of 1000. Printed by Professor Annie May Johnston and graduate student Kerry Maguire in the Riso Room at the University of Texas at Austin. Courtesy of the Artist and The Print Center, commissioned by The Print Center. Exhibition documentation courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee.
 

A wall at the top of the stairs on the third floor of the Knoxville Art Museum holds twenty t-shirts and clothes pinned up to thin rope lines. Once blank tees now read, “I gave him two names. Grandpa and Monster.” “I don’t want to be broken anymore.” “I survived.” Their assertive, unflinching words are immediate, visual representations of hearts full of emotion and strength from women survivors of domestic violence. This is a regional iteration run by the YWCA Knoxville & Tennessee Valley of The Clothesline Project, initiated in the 1990s to combat violence against women, which brings personal expressions into public spaces. There is a profound sense of solemnity that permeates the air as visitors confront the weight and history of pain and survival. Viewers are witnessing women’s frequently hidden experiences as they enter Carmen Winant’s exhibition A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures.

The exhibition shares Winant’s intensive research at the Women in Transition (WIT) and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) archives. Founded in 1971, Philadelphia’s WIT’s mission is to empower individuals to progress in their lives, to become independent and self-sufficient, and to live without fear of domestic violence and substance abuse. This grassroots initiative had the foresight to document their history, and create a trail of tangible evidence of 50+ years amassing publications, guides, photographs, and newspaper clippings to establish support systems for women.

Installation view of A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures by Carmen Winant at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee. Exhibition documentation courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee.

There is this perception of an archive as a dim, musty space filled with drawers and filing cabinets of well-aged documents—an inactive repository of historical artifacts. In contrast, Winant has resurfaced and recontextualized these images as a ‘thank you’ to the women supporting women and the counselors who offer a safe and supportive space to heal from trauma and establish bonds with those who empathize with their challenges. In this clean, silent museum space, WIT becomes a place for collective grief, it is sacred ground. Winant believes the archive can be comprehended as a dynamic system of direction and discourse. Along with images from WIT’s history, Winant includes images of WIT staffers answering hotlines, in fellowship one-on-one, or all together, offering an embrace. She combined them into collaged photo grids set against the backdrop of sun-bleached children’s construction paper. The paper’s surface once held a vibrant palette of bold and inviting colors: vivid primary colors and softer pastels like pink, lavender, and mint green have faded to softer, muted tones reminiscent of a nostalgic memory. The papers are held together with small rips of blue painter’s tape, which reference various types of labor and serve as formal devices, not dissimilar to a fragmented zip in a Barnett Newman painting.

The longest gallery wall is filled with the work, Newspaper clippings, 1972–2004, which is a collection of headlines culled from the personal collection of the artist, WIT’s Philadelphia-focused archive, and Denver’s NCADV, which brought a broader national perspective. There is an eerie silence to the work as you stand below it all, piecing together the past and near present. The photographic document is powerful. Documentation is more than merely a record of what they are reporting, it is capable of producing an intense emotional response echoing the original event. The clippings have no hierarchical arrangement and are intertwined with stories of self-defense, celebrations of women-led organizations, obituaries, salacious headlines, and tales of celebrity abusers full of provocative language, innuendo, or exaggeration crafted to draw in shoppers waiting at checkout. There are boldface names of football players, and musicians, highlighting that the story is sensationalized more for profit and entertainment than concern. Cumulatively, Newspaper clippings  illustrates the weight of time, drawing attention to how the media covers a story until it’s no longer entertaining, and how the front page quietly recedes to the centerspread.

Carmen Winant, Survival guide resource library, 2022, assorted publications. Courtesy of the Artist and The Print Center. Exhibition documentation courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Knowing the theme, visitors are aware they are walking into a charged exhibition long before arriving at the museum. For some, apprehension might be a natural reaction. But what makes this exhibition so unique is its ability to navigate through a spectrum of feelings and to use sudden shifts in mood and intensity to keep viewers fully immersed. It’s an emotional journey, to begin with the archival images from the office of women doing such difficult and necessary work, images that need celebrating but, in reality, just shine a light on their day-to-day. But these sudden drops are seemingly always around the corner, where your stomach lurches with fear and uncertainty. Images that resonate and haunt you long after the visit.

That is also true in the dark gallery that holds the work: Healing from trauma is a process that involves joy and coalition, 2022. The viewer is met with recreations of undeniable images of the lasting impact of gender-based violence. A carousel gently rotates 35mm slide images, that rhythmic, almost hypnotic, click-click-click through photos of volunteers working together, freshly drawn t-shirts, children catching up on schoolwork, a woman is sitting in a blue hospital gown, and her arm immobilized in a heavy sling. She sits in a nondescript, unforgivingly bright room, from which, with blackened eyes, she stares at the viewer, exuding defiance rather than defeat. The closed blinds behind her obscuring the outside world from looking in but add to the sense of isolation and confinement. The slide turned, and she appeared again closer this time. Gone are the details of the room. The image is a testament to the enduring power of art as a catalyst for remembering and social change, bluntly challenging the propensity for allowing images of this nature to vanish into the depths of American cultural amnesia.

Installation view of A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures by Carmen Winant at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee. Exhibition documentation courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee.

A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures by Carmen Winant is on view at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee through April 14, 2024.

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