Jay Katelansky, Phantom, and #BlackLivesMatter: Art You Need To See

by Madelyn Sundquist

Jay Katelansky works with multimedia, using striking and direct visuals to communicate the weightlessness of black bodies in the United States and to the justice system. In “only if Eric was Phantom” (below), she takes an image of Eric Garner confronting a police officer, and edits lasers to shoot out of his eyes before the officer has a chance to become violent with him. In other works such as those pictured, Katelansky creates subjects and objects that have the opportunity to represent Phantom in a tale of black crime and police confrontation. Darting from photography manipulation, to narrative paintings, to installation work, Katelansky creates an ever-shifting narrative of blackness in this country mediated by her concept of Phantom. The works pictured and interview are taken from fall of 2015 and spring 2016, while Katelansky lived and studied in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Q: When did you decide to start managing your voice through visual art?

Katelansky: I think the moment was my third year in undergrad when Trayvon Martin was killed and no one in my classes knew who Emmett Till was. I went to a small women’s college in Pennsylvania, only 500 women, so even if we didn’t know each other, we saw each other every day and added each other on Facebook. No one was posting then about Trayvon and what had happened, and it just felt like I was the only one who knew what was happening at all.

So I thought, well, you know the only way I can talk about this, since we didn’t have classes geared towards this stuff, is all art. We didn’t have any ethnic studies courses or anything like that, so there are students who come from parts of Pennsylvania or any parts of the country who don’t have the language, and they’re placed in Philadelphia where it’s a huge diverse community and they don’t have the discourse to navigate it. So I was like, OK, well, I guess I’m going to be the one who talks about it, because no one else is!

Q: Can you briefly explain Phantom as a concept?

Katelansky: Phantom is a shape-shifting, gender-shifting, time-traveling being that exists in the past, present, and future. It is such a broad concept that it’s hard to pin down—Phantom is not just one thing. Phantom is a book, Phantom is, you know, an AriZona Iced Tea can; Phantom is a hole, but it is also me and the people in my community.

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Q: When did Phantom start becoming a vehicle for your work, beyond just a concept?

Katelansky: I was introduced to a concept called “Phantom Negro Weapons” in undergrad, and someone who had been following me on the Internet, who knows my art sent me the link thinking it would be interesting for my work. It sat with me, this idea of the Phantom Negro Weapon, which is based off of the idea of a Phantom Negro Assailant, so then I thought about what if there was an actual being – a superhero or a villain or someone who could inhabit this space.

I didn’t start making this work specifically on Phantom until last year, so my first year in Madison I was just making all this anxious work about being here.  I was making portraits of people who had passed away, which just became too much, especially in this space. In Philly, I got to leave academia and my small school, which was just one building, and go into a city. I could be in any part of the city; I didn’t have to stay where it was predominantly white. But here, there’s really no option, I mean, there are other parts of Madison that I could leave to, but it doesn’t make much sense considering the kind of community I’m trying to build, and having my studio and apartment here in downtown. Not being able to leave the very whiteness of the space made me need something to have something that didn’t make me depressed all the time.

Phantom became this form of therapy for me, to use it as a way to have some sort of control living in the Midwest.

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Q: How do you see gender and sexuality at play in your work with Phantom, as in your lecture on campus you focused on your work that displayed a lot of hyper-masculinity?

Katelansky: For my first show here that I did using Phantom, I wanted to play off how media plays it and that we usually focus on black males when it comes to this movement, and then also black death. The thing is, it’s not only black males. Black women, trans women; they get murdered as well, and it’s important to be focused on that too. Especially as a queer woman of color, I don’t want the focus to be just on black masculinity. For that specific show, it felt very appropriate for it to be that way.

In the future, I’m hoping to shift the idea of Phantom as a being to also thinking of Phantom as an object, also not focusing on them solely as masculine-based but as non-binary. I want to make Phantom ambiguous so it’s hard to pin down.

Her most recent exhibit was at the Chazen Museum of Art in April 2016, titled “Hoodwinked.” Check out some more of Katelansky’s work below and find more work by her here:

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Images courtesy of the artist, Facebook.

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