Alex Sweetman and Paula Gillen
Trigger Warnings Exhibition - Month of Photography 2021
Trigger warnings have entered our society only recently as part of a much larger push for cultural inclusivity, representation, and sensitivity. Mostly targeted at people with previous traumatic experiences, trigger warnings are used to alert an audience to potentially distressing material that may resurface those past traumas; however, the warnings have faced a great deal of controversy as they’ve been adopted into the American vocabulary. In the art world, the concept of trigger warnings is heavily intertwined with discussions about free speech and censorship--both complex topics in themselves. Can artists say whatever they want to? Can museums censor an artist’s work? Does art have to come with a warning? Who has the authority to make these decisions?
In the two-person show, “Trigger Warnings,” past and present collide through photography and video in a highly cognitive and psychological experience. The images shown were taken in the 1970s and 80s--a period notorious for pushing the boundaries of society and the boom time of film photography as an art form. This era had anti-establishment tendencies as a generation of youth experimented with sex and drugs, pushed back on the norms of capitalism, and explored socially progressive ideals in a more uncensored pre-digital environment. New ideas were being expressed artistically through conceptual and performance art, while gay, female, and civil rights gained traction. Later in the 80s, society was on a seemingly downward spiral of greed, inequality, cocaine, and crime as Reaganomics became the norm and the AIDS epidemic exploded. For all of the forward-thinking expression of this time, it was not devoid of traumas that are still experienced today. This exhibit explores the evolving attitude towards provocative material and challenges the viewer without shying away from the discomfort of being confrontational. Both Paula Gillen and Alex Sweetman grant independence to the viewer by offering an uncensored look at a more uncensored era of creation.
The show begins with earlier works, like the colorful, digitally remastered prints from Paula Gillen’s book, Head Trip: The 80s. These inventive images translate her own lived experiences and personal traumas into a highly psychological body of work that communicates her social-political feminist ideology. Alongside these heady pictures are Alex Sweetman’s documentary black-and-white images that were shot from 1969 -73 while he took classes at the cutting edge, influential photography workshop, Center of the Eye, in Aspen, Colorado. Sweetman’s keen eye has captured the social landscape in decisive moments throughout his artistic career, including his newest work, 2020 PTSD. This video brings the exhibit up to recent American history and documents our common cultural trauma by compiling and condensing stills from a tumultuous 13-month news cycle. Together, the art of Gillen and Sweetman invites the viewer into an intellectual space where they are released from the modern social pressures of conformity and political correctness and are encouraged to think about the meaning of trigger warnings and the changing attitudes towards visual representation across generations.
Clare Hall - March 2021