Vanessa Clifton’s Thesis Exhibition: “Redbones, Yellowbones, & Lightbrights”

by Aileen Gallagher

On April 6th, 2012, artist Vanessa Clifton presented her thesis exhibition Redbones, Yellowbones, & Lightbrights in the Saniwax Gallery in the Park Trades Center of downtown Kalamazoo. Running until April 20th, this relatively simple exhibition consists of a series of four pairs of photographs taking up a single wall of suite 209. The effect, however, was huge. Within these fairly large photographs were people of color, each pair looking directly towards each other. The pairs within these images were not necessarily looking intensely towards one another, but the closeness of the pairings and the flat affect that each displays leaves the viewer with a sense of tension.

I use the phrase “people of color” because this is the heart of Vanessa Clifton’s thesis. Her work examines the social hierarchy based solely on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin within the black community. According to Clifton’s artist statement, the African American community has been divided in a number of ways since U.S. slavery. With the photographs placed closely together in a way that makes it appear that the paired individuals within each photograph are looking at each other on a single wall, the large space of the gallery allows the viewer to examine the four pairs of individuals gaze at each other. The open space of the gallery allows the viewer to stand back and see the pairs as a unified whole. Almost as if the viewer were the rest of society, finally seeing this divide played out in front of them.

Vanessa Clifton, Redbones, Yellowbones, & Lightbrights, 2012, Inkjet Prints

Clifton’s work had added a new level of identity in a way that digs deeper into race.  Usually works that express some sort of identity, be it black, white, Asian, or Latino, do not cause much of a reaction in me because of two things. First, I usually cannot relate to the identity of the artist, which is not to say that I don’t appreciate their work. And second, works of this sort usually express an aspect of identity – any identity – that is already known and celebrated. What Clifton’s work has done was show me that there can often be a layer overlooked. A layer that digs into what already exists and is well known. Clifton’s deeper understanding of African American society causes the viewer to reexamine their idea of race and see that it is not as clear-cut as it is sometimes seen. Identity will always be something artists are interested in expressing. And perhaps art that explores identity will not be works that everyone can relate to, but sometimes they can inspire an individual with a new idea. And maybe these inspired individuals will go on to express this idea in a different way in their own art, thus continuing the flow and fluctuation of a single idea over time.

While examining the gazes of the people within the images, I thought about how Clifton might have been inspired. With all art, I wonder how the artist came to their final product and what idea they originally started with. Was there some work on identity that she viewed that inspired her to continue the theme? Perhaps it was the work of the nineties, when cultural identity became a strong focus point for many artists. [1] One can also think of D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke’s recent documentary Dark Girls, in which they explore the problems faced by girls of darker complexions.[2]

Clifton’s work also inspires the psychologist within me. While considering my definition of race and the many sublevels that could be included in that definition, I had to stop and wonder how this hierarchy within black society was created. In the natural world, such social hierarchies are determined by intrinsic factors, such as body size, and extrinsic factors, such as previous social experiences. [3] Because the dividing factor is skin color, an arbitrary characteristic that does not naturally benefit the organism, one would imagine that it was the previous social experiences, being the influence of white society, which created this hierarchy within black society.

Vanessa Clifton’s work inspired me to trace the steps an idea has taken to get to where it is in the present. Because the ideas her work presents are new to me, I feel the need to explore where these ideas came from and how they have developed. That is not to say that I believe her exhibition is the final idea, but just the first step for me as an interested viewer as I work backwards to see how this idea developed and what else is out there. Who inspired the artist who inspired me? What ideas do we all share, and how have they changed as time went on? This leads me to think about contemporary art and the way I define it. The artistic movements that are occurring now are within my definition of contemporary art. But I am becoming more and more aware of the difficulties of how to draw a line for the beginning as well as the end. I am still unable to answer this issue adequately, however I do believe that when defining contemporary art, one must consider not only what is happening now but also the works that inspired the art today. How far back one needs to go is probably defined by the changing concept at hand. I like to think about it as being similar to the telephone game. One person starts with an idea and then passes it to the next person. And this continues until the last person receives the message but at that point the original message has been replace by something often completely different. How many artists does it take to change a single idea? Or more appropriately, how far back do we trace an idea until we see a major change that has happened? I believe the difficultly in defining contemporary art lies in the vast number of ideas that have changed at different rates over the years. While discussing contemporary art, Pamela Lee is quoted, “contemporary art history is premature because it is always in a perpetual state of becoming, one that alternates endlessly between novelty and critical (as well as commercial) exhaustion.”[4] The work of Vanessa Clifton is just the current end point, for me as an individual, of an idea that experienced many changes as it traveled through the decades.

[1] Henry M. Sayre, “In the Clutches of Time,” A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945, ed. Amelia Jones (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 107-126.

[2] The Official Dark Girls Movie Website, Accessed April 11, 2012,

[3] Jeffery L. Beacham, “Models of dominance hierarchy formation: Effects of prior experience and intrinsic traits,” Behavior Vol. 140, no. 10 (2003).

[4] Quoted in Hal Foster, “Contemporary Extracts,” e-flux  no. 12 (2010).


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