Thoughts on Visibility in Juan Logan’s Ghost and John Hesselius’s Charles Calvert and His Slave

Juan Logan. Ghost. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2010 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2010.11.1-6 © Juan Logan

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Prints, Drawing & Photographs vaults and came across one of the prints from Juan Logan’s Ghost series (2009). I was completely taken by the depth and mystery of the image – totally up my alley visually – and yet, unsure of the subject matter. I was in hurry and mentally filed away the work as something to revisit. A bit later, I stumbled across the piece again, and Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, mentioned to me that the images are ghostings of shackles. Yes, shackles – for necks, arms and feet. In learning this, the piece got a bit deeper and a bit darker.

It is no secret that slavery haunts us. Recent events in Baltimore and across the country have brought race to the forefront of American minds, but race has always been an issue at the fore and at the very foundation of America.

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

It makes sense to me to pair Ghost with a painting currently on view in the American Wing of the BMA. John Hesselius’s 1761 canvas Charles Calvert and His Slave depicts Charles Calvert, third baron of Baltimore, at the age of five with another boy kneeling at his right – his slave. I cringe when I see this painting, as I’m sure many of our visitors do. Yet with proper contextualization, it is important to have the painting on view as a reminder of America’s history, and as a reminder of why race and racism is as prevalent a topic today as it has ever been.

The painting also raises the question of whose histories we preserve. Living quite near Calvert Street, which nearly spans the length of the city, I very quickly caught on to “Calvert” as a familiar name after my move to Baltimore. Yet, next to Ghost, Charles Calvert and His Slave can take on a new context and a new gravity. When considering this pair, it is fruitful to think about the concealment at work in both images and how each artist employs this concealment to his advantage. Although Hesselius has foregrounded the young Charles Calvert, when paired with Logan’s work, we are forced to think beyond the boy in his head-to-toe pink clothes to the other boy who has very much been “othered”. We do not know his story. We hold onto a small detail, he holds a drum while the boy Calvert holds the sticks.

Ghost, on the other hand, withholds information through its abstract imagery. To create the series of prints which comprise Ghost, Logan has spray-painted over physical shackles placed on a surface and used the “ghost” image left behind as the basis for his etched polymer plates. This process results in the abstract silvery shapes of the image. The series draws you in and then with new knowledge of its origin the image and its title takes on new meaning.

248 years passed between the time that Hesselius and Logan each created these works and the ghost of American slavery looms still. Yet, it is encouraging to me that collections can challenge us to give these pressing issues thought and much deserved conversation. Through my experience at museums and my time so far at the BMA, I am learning more and more that collection and ownership are tricky concepts, ones that are important to revisit thoughtfully and frequently.

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