There to Observe: Steve Mumford’s Dispatches from Rallies and Protests
Steve Mumford: Drawings From America’s Front Lines at Postmasters Gallery
September 19 to October 24, 2020
54 Franklin Street, between Cortlandt Alley and Lafayette Street
New York City, postmastersart.com
Of the sixty or so drawings in Steve Mumford’s recent exhibition at Postmasters, all of which were done on site in a spiral sketch pad with either pencil or pen and ink, roughly half of them were worked up later with watercolor, using cell phone photos as reference. The uncolored ones range from a furious mass of rhythmic scribbles in Police Try to Separate Back the Blue Demonstrators and Counterprotestors, Bayridge, Brooklyn, NY, Jul. 12, 2020, (2020) to a considered group portrait in Officers Wong, Castillo and Chen at Occupy City Hall, New York City, Jul. 15, 2020, (2020). The speed and expressive qualities of the drawings seem to directly reflect the circumstances under which they were made. The colored pieces, some of which are double sheets, are like studies for full scale paintings. The depictions of the people involved move from quick impressions toward fully delineated types, with clothing, haircuts and expressions fleshed out. Some pieces feel like sheets from a graphic novel with comments and noise effects laid in. The range and confidence of Mumford’s method is extraordinary throughout.
The three main locales Mumford went to were Portland, Oregon; a Trump rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia; and his home turf, New York City. It is immediately evident that Mumford was there to observe, not to satirize or idealize. Everything is treated with the same cool objectivity, even as things get violent. One striking image, “Photojournalists Outside Wyckoff Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY, Apr. 7, 2020”, neatly encapsulates some of the questions posed by Mumford’s work. The painting shows a group of photographers from the back, all hung with impressive amounts of camera equipment as they approach a freezer morgue truck behind the hospital. What are they hoping for? It’s just a big truck; maybe an orderly will appear with a corpse on a gurney. I imagine Mumford hanging to the rear with pencil and sketch pad, taking in the scene without any special need for drama, trying to capture some of the paradoxes of the situation. The extended process of his observation is in sharp contrast with the photographer’s quest for a good “shot”. How does his artifact differ from a photo? Does his involvement in the production of the image depend more on memory and imagination, or less? One thing is for sure: His feeling for the reality he sees has a quality of engagement, almost like an interview, something photos are hard pressed to capture. You feel he is getting to know these people.
At the end of the day there is a conceptual aspect to Mumford’s work that is easily missed as we relate to it as illustration. It is an act of witness, and the paintings are almost a magnificent residue of that act. As with Goya’s “Disasters of War”, the whole presentation states emphatically, “I was there. This is what I saw.”