As artist Stephen Towns was heading south to watch the solar eclipse in South Carolina last month, pondering Nat Turner's epiphany which came to him during an eclipse in 1831 in Virginia, some of Towns' paintings that were inspired by Turner's rebellion were causing a stir at Goucher College.
Now, six paintings representing insurgents in Turner's rebellion, staring intently and grasping at nooses around their necks with raised fists, are absent from Towns' solo show "A Migration" in Goucher's Rosenberg Gallery. What you see now when you walk into the space are six blue tape rectangles on the wall in their place, a statement, and big vinyl lettering on a podium that explains that the tape rectangles represent the works that were taken down.
Shortly after the exhibition was installed on a Friday, a black employee from Goucher's public safety department complained that these works were offensive and wanted them removed. That weekend (also the school's freshman orientation), the paintings were concealed by a big black curtain. After many texts and emails between public safety, the gallery's curator Laura Amussen, and the artist, Towns decided to take the paintings down and put up a statement.
The statement, which is also tucked into a binder containing prints of the removed paintings, explains that the works came out of Towns' research into Turner's rebellion and that his original intent with this work was "to honor the countless black men and women that fought against slavery, with the knowledge that their very fight may end their lives."
Towns goes on to note that "if you squint, the noose disappears and you see their raised fists. Though I am saddened to see the work go, I value Goucher's Black employees' concern. The intent of my work is to examine the breadth and complexity of American history both good and bad, it is not to fetishize Black pain, nor to diminish it."
And so the exhibit (which is on display through Oct. 16)—especially what is now missing from it—produces questions on context, authorship, and empathy. The Turner rebellion paintings in particular beg for close looking and critical thought while also provoking more automatic, emotional responses from their audience.
"It's painful being the person who wants the work to stay and wanting the work for people to see and understand and have these conversations," Towns told me over the phone, "but it's also painful being the person that works there and has to be surrounded by…[to] be in the work, and be in an environment where you don't feel comfortable already."
Towns says he gets pushback on the content of his work every now and then, and people often have strong emotional responses. At his excellent solo show at Galerie Myrtis last fall, where these six works were shown along with several others exploring Turner's rebellion, Towns says that people cried and had other visceral responses to the work. He notes the importance of providing enough context for the viewers. "I think the thing that sort of is different between the Myrtis show and what was installed at Goucher is that the Myrtis show had more of a cohesive sort of storyline and story arc," he says.
The space itself in the Rosenberg Gallery, right outside of the Kraushaar Auditorium, is challenging too: Two long walls display a few distinct bodies of Towns' work from 2014 and 2017, across from a nook that contains a couple other series including the Turner rebel paintings, which hung next to each other boldly in that stark nook. The space feels slightly less like a gallery proper; it's a bit more like a public walkway. Plus, that space was being used for events during orientation weekend—the worker who complained did not want to work in front of those pieces.
The show's curator Laura Amussen, who's also a Goucher art professor and the college's curator and director of exhibitions, says that in her 10 years at the school, she's never seen work removed from either of the two galleries—though occasionally things have been temporarily covered up, such as nude figures, for example, if younger school groups were coming through.
Although the suggestion of violence is more overt in Towns' paintings of the rebels, the other works on display offer narratives from which viewers could still extract something about pain or violence. But most would be hard-pressed to pull just that one angle out of his work—Towns is rarely didactic, never patronizing.
Elsewhere in "A Migration," paintings of black men in white T's in Sandtown, and on Pennsylvania Avenue, appear reverent and holy, their poses modeled after common representations of Christ and saints, against familiar rowhouse backdrops. In 'Are you Being Served?' a black man offers the viewer milk and honey—the prophetic symbol of faraway blessings from God, to be bestowed after a painstaking journey—from a wicker tray.
More often than not Towns' subjects transfix their viewers with their stares. Another series of six recent mixed media paintings called "Sunken" feature black men and women looking over their shoulders at the viewer, standing in front of copper seas and blue skies and big-masted ships, monarch butterflies (a symbol often employed by Towns; beyond the standard metamorphosis symbol, monarchs have been known to migrate across the Atlantic) alighting on their kente cloth and paisley-patterned clothing. Violence, in this case white people's theft, dehumanization, and abuse of African people to come build the new world for free—and the manifold ways that trauma lingers and manifests today in ways both subtle/intimate and political—is implicit in these particular paintings. But still, Towns' subjects always shoot back a stern resilience.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, Towns says, when he was in college, his work dealt more overtly with violent themes and imagery. "At a certain point I kept getting overly criticized about the work and it was always called too dark and that's when I veered away from doing that," he says.
"The thing that I struggle with when I do the research behind the work that I create is whether to be very overt about the incidents that I read about or just slightly reference them in the work," Towns continues. "So you can look at something that I make and you may not even know the history behind it because the imagery is not that violent. I think those six pieces, that imagery could easily be portrayed as violent."
After Towns removed those six paintings from the Goucher show, people talked about it on social media—some called the removal "censorship," others thought that the institution should have been able to provide more educational materials for viewers to help guide them through the work and its symbolism.
The crux of this whole thing is that sometimes you can't intellectualize your way out of what's causing you to react emotionally. Towns says he gets it—and he's still processing what's happened here.
"I think it wasn't really about being critical, it was about how it made them feel in that space," Towns says. "I get it, as a person of color, as a black man, I get it. Working at an institution that's primarily white, I've worked jobs where I'm cleaning, I've done that type of work before, so I can understand the sense of powerlessness that you have in those environments. And it's something like my work created such a visceral emotional reaction—I get why, why people would not want it there. But at the same time I want it there. When can it be about me and when can it not be about me?"
"Stephen Towns: A Migration" is on display at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery through Oct. 16. For more information, visit goucher.edu/rosenberg.