I first saw Oakland-based artist Emily Wick’s jarringly dissonant flag photographs the week after the inauguration, when “nightmare” was fast becoming the most frequently used word in my vocabulary.
Wick’s photos depict a color-inverted U.S. flag in the streets of her Oakland neighborhood and in her home. Seen with the naked eyed or in unaltered photos, the flag looks both true to form and quite wrong with its stripes of blue and teal green. Inverted in Photoshop, the flag is corrected back to its proper red, white and blue, while skin tones, familiar streets and trees take on a sulfuric, alien sheen.
Nothing has mirrored how this election makes me feel about our country quite like Wick’s flag photos.
Variations on a flag
Wick is hardly the first artist to mess with the American flag. Jasper Johns took the flag as his subject to encourage deeper examination of its symbology. More recent and explicitly confrontational treatments come from David Hammons and Hank Willis Thomas, both African-American artists, whose reimagined U.S. and Confederate flags probe the promises of liberty and justice for all.
And most of us have by now seen the Shepard Fairey poster depicting a Muslim woman in an American flag hijab, rendered in the style of the Obama “Hope” poster.
Fairey’s image answers recent calls from some on the liberal left to take back the flag from far-right extremists. While I respect that call, I can’t join it. To my eye, there’s always been something coercive about the U.S. flag; the national identity it stands for and imposes often looks like a variant of Stockholm Syndrome.
And now, the bullying threat that goes hand in hand with the flag -- "Love It or Leave It” -- is curtailing First Amendment rights, silencing dissent or even questions about the government. It’s becoming codified in U.S. immigration policy requiring proof-of-patriotism entry tests.
I find Wick’s inverted flag images comforting in their queerness. There’s a click of recognition.
From an innocent time and place
The flag you see in Wick’s photos got its start in a more innocent time and place, seven years ago. She and her partner, also an artist, own Smokey’s Tangle, an Oakland anti-gallery that never takes itself too seriously (Hours: “We May Be Open”).
For a Fourth of July event in 2010, they wanted visitors to experience the classic “retinal fatigue” illusion with a color-inverted flag. (When you stare at the “wrong” flag -- teal and blue and yellow -- then look at a blank wall, your eyes project the afterimage of the flag in its true colors).
Wick began sewing with cheap fabric scraps, but felt she wasn’t doing the thing justice. She decided that if she was going to make a flag, she would do it right. So, armed with color theory research, sturdy canvas in just the right tones of teal and green, and extra needles, she took to her Singer.
It was slow going: the fabric was stiff and heavy; the needles kept breaking. When it became clear the flag would never be ready by July 4, she used it as a prop in her gallery’s photo booth. She took a series of inverted portraits of visitors at the sewing machine with the flag, each one appearing like some crazed Betsy Ross of the dystopia. Soon after, she finished construction, and the flag transitioned from photographic prop to self-contained object.
An object of resistance
Fast forward to Jan. 21, 2017, when Wick decided to haul the flag out of storage and carry it in the Oakland Women’s March. On the streets, in the context of protest, it took on a new life; it became a kind of performance art piece. Her exacting but off-color flag aroused attention and curiosity.
“People really wanted to know who I was representing,” says Wick. Some bystanders seemed quite agitated and angry. “A small number were concerned that it was a direct assault on America.”
She adds, without a trace of coyness, “It can be read that way.”
When she explained to people she encountered on BART and at the march that it was intended as an optical illusion, they seemed relieved.
“Everyone had a moment of surprise, then a smile,” Wick says. A few people were really excited about it. Without the aid of seeing it “right” in inverted photos, getting a fix on “what it is” seemed to set people at ease.
“I wasn’t just saying f-ck the U.S.," she says. "To me, it’s more of a game.” The distinction between picking a fight and inviting viewers to play is crucial, a distinction that's directly tied to Wick’s interest in seeing and knowing differently.
Closer knowing through sustained attention
All of Wick’s works attentively probe ways of seeing and relating to people, places, creatures and ideas -- exposing what she calls “unusual layers” beneath surfaces. Most often, the process of getting there requires unusual discipline that can deepen into ritual. It may involve waking every morning before sunrise for months to photograph her familiar neighborhood made “magical” by oblique light. The work is often rough-going, and excruciatingly gradual or iterative.
For example: Wick’s partner, a painter, is red-green colorblind. In an attempt to experience how he sees the world, she painstakingly mixed paints to reproduce the palette as he sees it. As with the flag, there was a much easier route to the palette (digital), but then she’d compromise her goal -- a deeper, closer knowing through this disciplined, sustained attention. She describes this project just as she describes her commitment to finishing the flag. “Getting myself into a situation where I’m in over my head, and the process of getting the project complete, becomes this journey of insanity,” she says.
She says “insanity” glibly, as it’s commonly used, probably to emphasize how overwhelming it can feel to be putting oneself through the paces as she does. I offer that it seems rather more like a journey of sanity. Some have likened the ardent, focused attention of the artist to a form of devotion, of prayer, and I’m drawn to that notion.
Wick decided to use this painstakingly made object -- the finishing of which she said transformed her -- as an invitation to examine our reflexive ways of understanding identity and belonging, especially at a time when integrating with what’s now “normal” would (and arguably should) make us feel crazy.
The in-between spaces
As Wick’s flag series evolves, the images are getting less cheeky, more somber. She described how the photos were helping her experience difficult emotions and create for herself an everyday space of resistance.
“It’s about practical measures to prevent harm, but it’s also emotional and personal," she says, "and that experience of living in a nightmare is real.” Despite her invitation to play, Wick is far from a Pollyanna. “There’s this nebulous feeling of staring into an abyss, where a nuclear war or something like it is not unthinkable,” she says.
Wick’s inverted flag, and the photos, are asking us to engage with the in-between spaces beyond the stark binaries they gracelessly expose. To depict nightmarish inversions might be the most beautiful way now of urging us to know the “unusual layers” beneath the surfaces of everything, and the in-between spaces that -- like it or not -- connect us all.