By SUE TAYLOR
Titled White Noise, Kerry Skarbakka’s first exhibition in Portland—at Northview Gallery, PCC Sylvania—unfolded a disturbing fantasy: in twenty-five powerful photographic and video works, a grisly-bearded white man prepares for an Armageddon of his own devising. We see him vigorously proclaiming his Bible verses, working out at a punching bag, shaving his face and his head. Ammunition piles up. Jesus appears on a billboard, offering him encouragement and reassurance. The righteous avenger scrawls a final note to the daughter he likely has not seen in years. Whatever mass violence he will inflict is left for us to imagine.
The would-be shooter is portrayed in these works by the artist himself. It is a bold move for Skarbakka, an assistant professor of photography at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who had to inhabit the role of a mad man continually for the several years it took him to realize this project. He is the tattooed antagonist who stands naked at the entrance to his garage in Castle Doctrine (aka Stand Your Ground Law) from 2016, armed not with one but with two big pistols, determined to defend his territory at all costs. He is the assailant in Neighborhood Watch, also from 2016, a series of twelve warning signs each imprinted with his bust-length image, out of focus and partly obscured by the gun he aims directly at the camera. Posted at various points around the perimeter of the gallery, the menacing signs positioned the viewer as target, making the gunman’s threat terrifying and personal.
Hanging overhead at the center of the exhibition, which closed in December, was American Muscle (2018), a huge photograph on stretched vinyl, almost eighteen feet long, of a vehicle undercarriage. Framed all around by sky, the car seen from below appeared, without a hoist, to hover in the air. The work bore the subtitle 2010 Dodge Challenger. A wall label provided a chilling explanation: the vehicle is the identical make and model that a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, injuring nineteen people and killing one. Skarbakka here has us envision what that one fatality, Heather Heyer, might have seen the moment of her death.
In such works, the artist probes a kind of murderous, masculinist rage whose societal effects are all too familiar from the news. It defines an insecure racial and class demographic that fulminates against minorities, feminists, the left, and/or the government, and pines for an ideal past when men were men, women knew their place, and Blacks accepted their servitude. Recently in the New York Review of Books, historian Adam Hochschild described this imaginary era as the Great Yesterday, a common myth embraced by disaffected groups vulnerable to malevolent demagoguery. Skarbakka evokes it in his exhibition with Antebellum Wallpaper (2017), sheathing a gallery partition in a reproduction of vintage wall-covering printed with a picturesque scene: a white manor house near a river with passing steamboat, white picket fence, and horse-drawn buggy carrying a white couple and their Black footman.
An entire ideology is encoded in this quaint Dixieland tableau, an example of the “white noise” to which Skarbakka alluded in the exhibition’s title. White noise in the usual sense is pervasive and ongoing, environmental, and fades from conscious awareness, like the unexamined assumptions that inform a person’s background and shape his behavior in the world. Beyond merely showing and condemning a social type in this exhibition, Skarbakka wondered how his Bible-beating alter ego came by his angry estrangement, what kind of “white noise” gave rise to his expectations, his sense of entitlement, and ultimately his disappointment and destructive fury.
On the antebellum wallpaper, the artist arranged framed photos from what might have been his character’s youth: snapshots of a towheaded boy with brother and mom in a modest family living room, in the backyard with his dogs, in the kitchen displaying the prized bass he’s just caught on a fishing trip with dad. Later, his teen missionary identification card reveals his evangelical indoctrination. A U.S. flag flies on the porch. Then things fall apart: a sheriff’s sale sign is taped on the door of a foreclosed house, empty interiors show busted sheet rock and leaking ceilings. The boy becomes a man, leaves home, joins the army. The handsome blue-eyed recruit is photographed in camouflage fatigues with the stars and stripes draped behind him.
Many of these images, it turns out, derive from the artist’s own family album. What makes Skarbakka’s project truly profound is his personal implication in the narrative of toxic American masculinity he constructs in White Noise. Skarbakka grew up in Tennessee in an Evangelical Christian household and later served in the military. Significantly, he began work on this exhibition after the birth of his own child, troubled by the potential transmission of a certain type of male-identified behavior from fathers to sons.
He pondered the problem of inheritance in his exhibition, grouping together on one wall three photos of three generations: the image of the artist himself as his pistol-wielding persona in the aforementioned Castle Doctrine, flanked by photographs (both 2016) of his son and father respectively. In the latter, titled Pedigree, a fisherman sits alone at the rear of a boat, his back turned, arms hanging loosely, cigarette in hand—an image of utter detachment if not dejection. Here is a father aloof and unavailable. Vaccines depicts a wailing baby pinned in place by mother’s hands as he receives his shots from a pediatrician or nurse. What lies ahead for this infant, we want to know? Must boys inherit the ways of their fathers, or can they be inoculated somehow against a kind of virulent manliness that may result in alienation and even erupt in violence?
Such questions issue from Skarbakka’s actual point of view, that is, from outside his racist, pugilist persona as he contemplates his own individual development. An artist, teacher, and family man, he worried in White Noise how, given his upbringing and experience, he could instead have become the noxious soul he portrays. Was it nature or some aspect of nurture that allowed him, once inculcated into an oppressive belief system, to escape it? Are there qualities of character that allow one to transcend one’s circumstances? In conversation with a fellow photographer in the catalogue to his exhibition, Skarbakka discusses the dangerous potential of his received doctrinaire influences and white male privilege, noting, “I’m also proof that you can change.”
It is tantalizing to speculate how his creative role-play may have functioned in this (ongoing?) transformative process. In the hands of another artist, the angry white man may have emerged as a mere cliché. For Skarbakka, though, everything is at stake as he simultaneously displays and disavows his potential exhibitionist swagger and lethal aggression, projecting it onto a fictional other. Getting into character in this brave and brilliant project—toying with guns, growing his beard wild, shaving it off, ritualizing rage and regret—may also have been a way for him to exorcise his own nagging demons.
Sue Taylor received her BA in art history from Roosevelt University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Formerly critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, she is a longtime corresponding editor from Portland for Art in America and professor emerita of art history at Portland State University. Her many publications include Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT) and the forthcoming Grant Wood’s Secrets (University of Delaware Press).