Don’t Be Still: Robert Banks and John W. Carlson Collaborate at HEDGE

A woman screams in the dark, but makes no sound. The contours of her gaping mouth can be seen through the thin white sack fastened over her head. Her dress is as black as the shadows she casts on the riveted steel door behind her. Hands twist into claws, like the oxygen-starved digits of a woman buried alive clawing towards the open air. Grim, metallic music rumbles in the darkness.

The woman is Hilary Gent, painter and owner of HEDGE Gallery. In December of 2017, she donned the black dress and white hood in her gallery. She turned down the lights, so that the only illumination in the space was a small floodlight, fixed on her. Then, experimental director Robert Banks filmed her contortions, as painter John W. Carlson snapped reference photos on his phone.

Paintings by John W. Carlson from the Collaborative Exhibition Don't Be Still.

Painting by John W. Carlson from the Collaborative Exhibition Don’t Be Still.

“I’m going to have weird dreams tonight,” Gent joked, unhooded, during a break from filming. Despite the physical and emotional strains of posing, she trusts the two artists directing her tortured motions. She is one of ten models who donned the black dress and white hood to pose for the Banks and Carlson project Don’t Be Still, which opens to previews March 9 at HEDGE. With the exhibition, the artists hope to spark conversations about the pain inflicted by rigid gender roles.

The struggles of women and LGBTQ people to secure the same rights enjoyed by straight, cis men are more energetic and visible than ever. But too many of us still stubbornly hold people of all genders to strict, sexed standards. “Things haven’t so much changed, but people are being more exposed and candid,” Banks said. He hopes to inspire even more candidness, framing his art as an invitation to talk to each other about gender-specific burdens. “The more conversations, the better,” Banks said.

Though the artists hope for dialogue, their work communicates nonverbally. Banks’ short black-and-white films, to be projected on HEDGE’s walls and shown on screens, are silent. They were recorded on a LomoKino camera, a little device he describes as “gloriously analog.” Onscreen, the models move in jerky spurts, almost like stop motion animation. Yet Banks’ performers remain unmistakably human. The contrast between flesh-and-blood human bodies and robotic motions would be unsettling enough, but the subjects are also clearly struggling. They gasp, kick their legs, tug at the stifling hood, and flail their arms as if fending off attackers.

But any villains remain unseen and unnamed. “It’s not about Harvey Weinstein,” Carlson said. However, he admits the project might receive attention it would not have had #MeToo never happened. Even still, the conversations he hopes the show will prompt are broader than those about violence and harassment against women. It is not sexual harassment per se that is the artists’ target, but the cultural conditions which make it possible.

“It’s not about scaring people about how women are treated. It’s about how we can break out of our narrow stereotypes,” Carlson said. Stereotypes, for him, “suffocate” identity, and this suffocation is made literal by the hoods worn by models. In his paintings, the models’ choking anguish is depicted in broad strokes of black, gray, and white. Occasionally these ashen palettes are interrupted by a fog of pink, or the flash of red lips open in a full-throated scream.

Banks’ films and Carlson’s paintings will be the centerpieces of the exhibition. But besides static and moving images, the artists hope to create an “experience” built up with sound, human presence, and space. “It will almost be like going into a haunted house,” Banks said, referring to the immersive Halloween season attractions. The gallery will be darkened by blacked-out windows. The air will be filled with the music of Iron Oxide, a local noise band whose productions are filled with ominous buzzing, rumbling, and metallic scraping. At the preview, the models will be present “in costume,” wearing the black dresses.

Art that interrogates gender roles is typically labeled “feminist,” and unfortunately, there is a portion of any audience who will stop listening as soon as an artwork is described with that F-word. Banks and Carlson hope they will be able to draw people into conversation about gender expectations they otherwise wouldn’t have. Even still, the two artists are aware they are inviting controversy by being two men depicting women’s pain. “We’re expecting pushback,” Banks said.

Still from the Robert Banks film, Don't Be Still.

Still from the Robert Banks film, Don’t Be Still.

Though Don’t Be Still is the brainchild of two men, women’s input has changed the artists’ understanding of their own project. Unusually, Banks and Carlson invited their models to write statements about their participation in the production, and the issues it addresses. Gent pointed out that besides suggesting suffocation, the hood could also represent metaphorical “blindness” to the damage gender expectations inflict on people. “A lot of people are ‘blinded’ to the injustices men and women are going through,” Gent said. Another model surprised Carlson by noting that the images he and Banks were producing could be viewed as having an erotic dimension.

Interpreting the women in Banks and Carlson’s images as sexualized in their vulnerability reminds the artists of several archetypes. Banks associates the women with both “damsels in distress” and “femme fatales”—both victims and fighters. And then there’s the little black dress itself, a symbol of urbane flirtiness every young woman is “supposed” to own.

The hope is that with more eyes on this work, viewers will uncover even more hidden dimensions, and take the conversation in unforeseen directions. Dialogue is the aim, not solutions. However, the artists would not have undertaken the project if they were not optimistic that dialogue could be constructive.

“We don’t try to resolve it, but I don’t want to think as an artist or a person that there’s no hope,” Carlson said.

Beyond just hoping for hope, Carlson and Banks will represent a better future visually. They plan on placing the models’ hood under glass, like a relic of a less enlightened time preserved in a museum. Some of their images depict models uncurling from the fetal position and spreading their limbs, being “reborn” as if into a new, freer society.

A preview for Don’t Be Still will be held Friday, March 9 at HEDGE Gallery from 6 to 8pm. An opening reception for the exhibit will take place on Friday, March 16, from 5 to 9pm. The closing reception is Friday, April 20, from 5 to 9pm. HEDGE is located at 1300 West 78th Street, Suite 200, in Cleveland. For more information, call 216.650.4201 or go to