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Opening the Gates.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Walk into "Shades of White," a new exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, and you'll see a series of overlapping, rectangular steel frames suspended from the ceiling, the fronts open and backs covered by a thin film of colored silk.

Walk out, and artist Geraldine Ondrizek hopes you will have a greater understanding of your own views toward race and ethnicity, as defined by skin color.

Ondrizek, who has been a professor of art at Reed College for 20 years, created "Shades of White" as a critique of the "scientific" method used in the United States for decades to assign a racial identity to newborns in institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.

The results of the tests were used to establish the children's adoptability.

The method also was used for additional nefarious reasons, such as racial discrimination and forcible sterilizations that were commonly imposed on citizens for reasons of mental illness, incarceration or race.

It wasn't until 12 years ago, during John Kitzhaber's first stint as governor of Oregon, that the state made a formal apology to all those who had been subjected to these practices.

"In 1957, a man named R. Ruggles Gates created a skin-color chart made up of nine boxes, with colors ranging from white to black," Ondrizek said. "That chart was used widely into the 1960s for assigning race for a variety of purposes."

Even more disturbing to Ondrizek, the Gates Skin Color Chart was based on one developed in Germany in 1905.

The Gates test had three dozen color gradations and was used by that country's German Society for Racial Hygiene to determine who should be allowed to bear children and who should be sterilized to prevent it.

The process was a precursor to the cultural cleansing carried out under Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and during the Holocaust.

Blurring the lines

Astonished by this information and always interested in the interface between art and science, Ondrizek decided to make her own study of skin color.

"I thought, 'Can you believe this chart has carried such weight in making these serious decisions?' " she said. "So I began studying the chemistry of skin color, and it turns out that there is no true black or white skin color."

As Ondrizek explains it, skin color is the result of a substance called melanin. It's the combination of yellow, red and blue pigmentation called pheomelanin and black to brown pigmentation called eumelanin that gives mammals and birds their skin color.

From there, she got the idea of reproducing the skin tones identified by the Gates Skin Color Chart and showing how they look when they're blended together, blurring the lines between distinct cultural groups.

Hence the suspended boxes with their silk backings, which allow viewers of the exhibit to walk among them, looking through one toward another and seeing how combinations of color blend into each other.

"I wanted to use natural materials, so I chose pure silk, which is an organic fabric, colored with all organic dyes," Ondrizek said. "Every type of silk turned a different shade of color from the same dye."

As you look through all the layers of the boxes, she said, "It's building up different layers of pigmentation to create the many possibilities of skin color created by combinations of melanin, depending on every individual's genes and the effect of the natural environment where their ancestors lived."

Ondrizek chose the steel boxes "to convey that this is very serious," Ondrizek said.

"I also wanted to emphasize the importance of the Silk Road and the Industrial Revolution together in their effect on the world economy and the exposure of people all over the world to each other."

There's really just one message she wants to convey through the "Shades of White" exhibit:

"Just as no two silks come out of the dye the same, so there are no two human beings who are exactly the same," Ondrizek said.

"Combining the genes of two people is never predictable, but it is always unique."

Reach Randi Bjornstad at 541-338-2321, email or follow Randi on Twitter @BjornstadRandi.

Exhibit Preview

Shades of White

What: The science, pseudo-science and sociology of skin color in the 20th century

When: Opening reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; the exhibit ends Dec. 14

Where: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, 1430 Johnson Lane

Special event: Lecture by the artist, 2 p.m. Nov. 8

Regular hours: From noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; open until 8 p.m. Wednesday

Information: 541-346-3027
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Title Annotation:Visual Arts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 4, 2014
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