'Hypervisible or invisible': Milwaukee artist explores trap of Black visibility
On the second floor of the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee, there is an airy, light-filled room dedicated to one sculpture.
Five tinted car windows are suspended from the ceiling. But removed from their usual context — cars — their curves are organic, even graceful. They almost look like wings. In some places, the tinted windows overlap, creating darker shades of gray.
The museum is housed in a 1920s Italian-style mansion that overlooks the lake. The wood floor creaks, and wide windows invite sunlight in. Reflections bounce off the piece and light spills onto the floor.
“It gives me a sense of awe every time I experience it,” said Phoenix Brown, the senior curator at the museum. “It feels like you’re in a different plane of existence because the room is so minimal and the piece is in the middle. It’s just dominant and above us.”
The work is that of Nick Drain, a young Milwaukee artist who often explores Black identity and the politics of visibility through photography and sculpture. It’s part of an ongoing exhibit at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum called “Grounded,” which features three rising, Midwestern contemporary artists whose work reflects their identity, memories, and personal histories.
“I saw such a large conversation about the value of representation,” said Drain, who uses he/they pronouns. “Phrases like ‘representation matters.’ I’m hearing all of these things, and I’m living in a world where I’m watching year after year, month after month, Black people being murdered at the hands of the state.”
It seemed like people talked about being in the public eye like it was always a good thing.
“What is the value of visibility in a world where the prevailing gaze is one that distinctly exists to harm you?” Drain said. “I didn’t really see much conversation or exploration around, maybe that actually isn’t the safest thing we can be doing.”
So began Drain’s fixation on invisibility. Was there a way to escape the white gaze? Would it be safer?
At the time, they were living in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, working on an undergraduate thesis at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. They noticed tinted windows on the streets, loaded with history.
“Walking around my neighborhood and going about my day to day, I started to realize Black people have been finding ways to make themselves invisible as a means of protection for longer than I’ve been alive,” they said. “This goes back hundreds of years.”
They ended up calling the piece “35% (A Lesson in Spectral Opacity Learned from My Neighbors).”
The tricky thing, Drain said, is that he often finds himself at either end of this spectrum.
“Being a Black person, I so often found myself rendered on one of two poles, being hyper-visible or invisible,” he said. “Without a doubt, there’s danger at both ends.”
Drain said it’s difficult, as a Black artist, to explore these questions. When we spoke, a video of Tyre Nichols’s brutal — and ultimately, fatal — beating at the hands of Memphis police had just been released.
“To be candid, it’s incredibly exhausting,” Drain said. “I’m reaching a place in my practice now where I’m learning that if I’m going to continue having a practice where these are things that I’m exploring, I have to learn some new ways to relate to it.”
Back at the museum, curator Phoenix Brown said when she looks at the piece, she thinks about the trap of visibility.
“We’re easy to exclude, but it’s hard to ignore our presence when threatening biases are placed upon our bodies,” she said.
Like the sculpture itself, with its layers of shadow, its meaning is layered too. “The more you peel it back, it’s also about how resilient Black people are,” Brown said.
Drain’s work is on display in the “Grounded” exhibition at the Villa Arts Museum through March 5.