A WSW Artist Profile
By Lee Conell
Rachel Frank was eating dinner when her home was flooded with images of torture: Hooded and humiliated Iraqi prisoners, some wearing leashes, some piled on top of one another, were crouched alongside American soldiers who offered toothy grins, gave thumbs up, and posed around or on top of the detainees. The photographs of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib had just been uncovered and flashes of the grotesque filled American living rooms. In the media blitz that followed, many noted that the photographs reminded them of kids mugging for the camera. They reminded Frank of Francisco Goya.
“I was struck by how much they resembled some sort of macabre performance,” says Frank. “The soldiers had positioned the prisoners in certain ways, staging them, and then photographed the ‘scene.’ Looking at the photographs, I felt like I was seeing something medieval, something below the surface, raw. I immediately saw resemblances to Goya’s allegorical scenes in Los Caprichios—many of which depicted the torture and humiliation of the Spanish Inquisition.”
The aesthetic connection Frank made between prison abuse and Goya’s satirical prints would ultimately lead her to the Women’s Studio Workshop’s Artist’s Book Residency. At the Workshop, Frank produced a book of prints based off of her recent performance piece, Sleep of Reason, which examined the theatrical implications of prisoner abuse depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs. Set up as tableaux vivants, actors wearing hoods, masks and donkey heads—all created by Frank—appeared frozen in staged scenes, sometimes leashed, sometimes staring at one another, always transfixed like statues. During the performance, these scenes were momentarily illuminated with bursts of light, before falling into longer periods of a darkness that blinded the audience to the actors on set. The briefly lit living picture was left lingering only in the viewer’s mind.
This play between light and shadow was essential to Frank’s piece. “In the U.S. we think of ourselves as this very enlightened people,” she says, “but there’s a darkness that keeps coming into the world despite our ideas of enlightenment.”
The political dimension of the work is not the only reason Frank returned to Sleep of Reason for her WSW residency; the aesthetic possibilities that arise from crossing and blurring the borders between media excited Frank even as a young girl growing up in small-town Kentucky. As a child, she remembers visiting a museum where she saw a Degas ballerina statue whose skirt was made of a fabric material different from the rest of the bronze sculpture. “I was like, wow, you can do that?” she said. “I was very excited that you didn’t have to just draw lighthouses.”
Still, Frank recalls being mostly alone in her excitement. She grew up in a conservative town more concerned with high school football than the arts. “Where I went to school, students were still allowed chewing tobacco in class,” she says. When she enrolled in Kansas City Art Institute as an undergraduate, she had never seen contemporary art before. “I had to work very hard to catch up,” said Frank. “In a way, this inspired me to keep working hard in everything I do.”
This work ethic proved especially useful during Frank’s WSW residency. “It still seems sort of incredible to me to produce an edition of 50 handmade books in six or seven weeks,” she says. She often spent 12 hours a day in the studio, but found the Workshop conducive to such rigorous work. “Everyone was really helpful, supportive and organized, so every day I knew what I needed to be doing and had guidance.” Still, Frank, who considers herself primarily a sculptor, had a lot to grapple with: She needed to refresh her silkscreen skills, learn new techniques, like binding and making covers, and mastering various cutting skills.
She also had to adapt what she calls a “sculptural performance” piece into a book. But Frank frequently moves between genres, blending the boundaries of various forms, even in a single project. In the performed version of Sleep of Reason, Frank says, “the actors and scenes feel like they are in a gray area between sculpture and theater, where one expects to see more action and dialogue. When I’m directing the actors, I’m thinking about them as a still piece, walking around and trying to gauge how audience members might perceive their frozen stance. It still feels like sculpting to me.”
In translating the work to book form, Frank felt she was returning to some of the performance’s original sources and inspirations: Both the static photographs of torture and the Goya etchings satirizing Spanish society. “Books are usually structured by narrative, so it seemed logical to take it back to a format that forces one to slowly look at one image then another as you are turning pages—like a performance for one instead of an audience,” Frank says.
Still, the process had challenges. The spirit of the piece got lost when she tried to make the images in the book replicate the images of the performance. Frank had to re-sculpt her narrative structure, shaping it to fit the new format.
“Before the residency, I spent a lot of time rearranging the prototype ink paintings I had developed for the book trying to make a narrative that would convey the feeling of the performance,” said Frank. “Instead of recreating the rhythm of the performance: a scene then darkness, then another scene, I ended up with a book that shows one movement from darkness to light and then back to darkness. It’s different in many ways from the structure of the performance, but I think it is more successful as a complete narrative not following the performance exactly.”
The real-time movement of hooded actors and props lent the stage version of Sleep of Reason an automatic transience. But in book form Frank’s masked monsters are not fleeting. Formed of black ink and white space, they stare perpetually and unwaveringly at the viewer. Their gaze is as permanent as the smirking soldiers in the Abu Ghraib photographs that appeared on television screens. Those photographs dispersed with the first commercial break. The powerful images in Frank’s book grant no such reprieve.
Lee Conell lives in the Hudson Valley, where she is a graduate student teaching first-year composition. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and has been anthologized in Backpack Writing (Pearson, 2010).