Steven Kinder: 552,830

March 14 - October 12, 2020

Who do you see when you see me?

For centuries, portraiture has been used to celebrate the politically and socially powerful, but there is also a rich history of artists throughout time using portraiture to capture the outcast or “othered.” Throughout his career, Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn drew and etched beggars of all kinds—orphans, the mentally ill, panhandlers—particularly those who rejected public assistance and chose to live on the streets. To this group he gave his most empathetic, compassionate, and consistent gaze. Spaniard Francisco de Goya, best known for his large-scale portraits of Spanish aristocracy and of the brutalities of war, privately recorded the elderly and ill for years. French Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for portraying dancers at the Moulin Rouge, also captured the private moments of sex workers bathing or tending to themselves in brothels—and these remain some of his most poignant and brilliant works. In 20th century America, the Social Realists of the 1930s, including John Biggers, Dorothea Lange, and Thomas Hart Benton, chronicled those hit hardest by the Great Depression, racism, social marginalization, and war. The list goes on.

Today there is a robust resurgence of artists using portraiture to explore themes of social inequity, with a focus on cultures that have been suppressed, excluded, violated, and silenced. Works by artists Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald (who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery), Kehinde Wiley (who painted President Barack Obama’s portrait), Titus Kaphar, Henry Taylor, and Aliza Nisenbaum, among others, are reaching international audiences and attracting critical acclaim. Embedded in their work are questions about who gets to be depicted, celebrated, and remembered in art. Whose histories and narratives are being repeated in art and society, and why? Who has been erased and ignored from the stories over time? Who is the actual subject of portrait painting: the sitter, the painter, or the viewer?

When we think of homelessness, we often and too easily think in broad categories. “Homeless,” like “migrant” or “immigrant,” is a blanket term used to describe hundreds of thousands of individuals with vastly differing personal stories and circumstances. The terms “unsheltered” or “housing insecure” are now also making their way into our vernacular as more sensitive alternatives, but can language help widen compassion or offer solutions? In the end, if we haven’t experienced being unsheltered ourselves, what do we truly understand about it? Can art help build a bridge?

Steven Kinder: 552,830 is an important contribution to this national conversation, particularly in a town like Brattleboro, Vermont, which, like many communities throughout the United States, is struggling with issues around housing insecurity.

The exhibition title refers to the total number of Americans who experienced homelessness in 2018, but Kinder has been meeting and working with people on the street for years, asking permission to take their photographs and offering compensation for the opportunity to paint their portraits. He is determined not to exploit or compromise anyone. If they don’t want to engage, he thanks them and walks away. It’s a business exchange for Kinder, but one with a heart. He is not speaking for the unsheltered. He simply wants to offer us a perspective on and a reflection of the person who has captured his attention.

And after that? He simply asks us to see them. To do this, he has removed all the signifiers of the immediate conditions in which they live. No cardboard boxes, cups, signs with messages, or blankets. There are sometimes pets included in his works, but the sitters always choose their own poses on their own terms.

Although Kinder has many years of experience educating himself about homelessness as a supporter of the national organization The Coalition for The Homeless, he does not comment on the conditions that brought each portrait sitter here. Instead, he guides our experience as viewers. Large, unstretched canvases hang from the ceiling by a simple system of hooks and string. To see the images, we need to lift our chins and eyes, as we would if we were looking at a historical portrait in an institution. This type of viewing is not typical of our experience walking by a rough sleeper. In that case, we usually look down, hoping to step over or pass by without any engagement, indifferent, our eyes often averted. Here, however, we have to transcend our normal way of moving through the world to engage with the art and, more importantly, with the people in the portraits.

Perhaps most poignantly, Kinder masterfully elicits from his sitters a sweet reveal of their true personalities—however briefly witnessed by him. We see this in Carmen’s wonderfully flirty smirk, or Chocolate tenderly touching the side of Jaime’s face, or Donna’s palms gently pressed together and extended towards us in prayer. These small but meaningful gestures remind us that each person depicted is unique, someone who deserves to be seen, not compartmentalized, and not defined solely or even mainly by the hardships they are currently experiencing. Through Kinder’s art we not only see them, we feel their humanity as we register their steady gaze right back at us.

— Katherine Gass Stowe, Curator

This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust and has been organized by BMAC in partnership with Groundworks Collaborative and other Brattleboro-area organizations addressing the problem of homelessness in our community.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Born in 1956 in Queens, New York, Steven Kinder studied at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Primarily a painter, Kinder has worked in a variety of mediums over the past 40 years. In addition to solo and group exhibitions in New York, Kinder’s work has been shown at Market Art & Design—The Hamptons and Art Basel Miami. He is represented by George Billis Gallery (New York, NY) and Sara Nightingale Gallery (Sag Harbor, NY).

RELATED RESOURCES

Photo Gallery

ACCOMPANYING MATERIALS

Exhibition Catalogue
Essay by Groundworks CollaborativeThe Importance of Seeing

RELATED EVENTS

March 14, Saturday, 3-5 p.m. – Opening of New Exhibits 
April 15, Wednesday, 7 p.m. – In Sight: What the Unseen Are Holding for Society 
April 18, Saturday, 1 p.m. – Curator Tour: Katherine Gass Stowe
May 3, Sunday, 4 p.m. – Homelessness: The Big Picture
May 14, Thursday, 7 p.m. – No Place Like Home: Housing in Windham County
May 26, Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. – Food for Thought: Homelessness in Brattleboro

SELECTED MEDIA COVERAGE

Telling the story of homelessness, person by personBrattleboro Reformer, Manchester Journal (3/7/20)
Eight new exhibits to open at BMAC Rutland Herald (3/9/20)
Arts and crafts, epic cycling adventures, and a phone grip with multiple uses – Boston Globe (3/12/20)
Photography, multimedia, and more – Brattleboro Reformer (3/12/20)

 

For media inquiries, please contact Erin Jenkins at erin@brattleboromuseum.org or 802-257-0124 x113.