An Art of Income Inequality

From Lauren Gohara’s Do You Think You Can Tell series

Reproductions of artworks and captions by Lauren Gohara

Commentary by Gayle Rodda Kurtz

Biographical information is from a written statement by Lauren Gohara in response to questions.

{Note: This is the second in Zeteo‘s Fall 2014 series of pieces related to borders, one of the borders here being between art and politics, or economics.}


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DYTYCT_011 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #11
Graphite, colored pencil, archival pigmented ink on paper
14 x 11 in
English elm seeds float through the space, barely touching the graph of the increase in the number of food stamps recipients in millions (blue bars) and the cost of the food-stamp program in billions (red line) from 1992-2011. Pale graphite dots float behind, heading toward an intersection with a Mondrian painting. Even paler particle-physics tracks rain down in the background.



When one approaches Lauren Gohara’s artwork first through her website, which is the way we experience much of art now, the impression, with her images lined up in a grid, is one of a lovely, gentle flow of brightly colored abstract designs, perhaps arranged by collage as one detects newspaper clippings among the objects. With a close look, musical notes are visible along with what appear to be charts, and delicate leaves and feathers. A click on each drawing to enlarge it and read the accompanying text, reveals a complex web of intersecting images and information delivered through statistical charts and graphs about current socio-economic facts. Only on seeing Gohara’s work in person does the real achievement of her artistry become apparent. The scale is small—most of the pieces are no larger than 8 5/8” x 6”, with a few 14” x 11”. In fact it is the size that overwhelms one with the delicacy and precision of Gohara’s drawings—the intense perfection of the drawn feathers and leaves is otherworldly. The newspaper clippings are the only collaged material and all report deaths from political violence. The title of the series, Do You Think You Can Tell, is from a Pink Floyd song and in some of the drawings the scattering of musical notes references the title of the drawings and its source.


DYTYCT_057 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality




Do You Think You Can Tell #57
Graphite, colored pencil, archival pigmented ink on paper
8-5/8 x 6 inches
A graph in two shades of blue shows the percentage share of income for the top 1 percent of earners in New York City (top line, light blue) has risen to about 39 percent as of 2012. In the US overall (bottom line, dark blue), the top 1 percent share of income has risen to about 22 percent. Below and behind the graph, a detail from the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of life (pig=ignorance, snake=aversion, rooster=attachment) bridges the lower boundary, and is brightly colored above the line, fading to black-and-white below it. The wheel itself is partly obscured by dots rendered in graphite. Particle-physics tracks streak through the background.



Gohara organizes each work against a background divided into three horizontal sections based on the size of the proportions for classical Chinese and Japanese hanging scroll paintings: 3:5:2: 3 units for the heavens above, 5 for the human activity in the middle, and 2—below the earth. Like a hand scroll, elements move randomly across the middle horizontal field, touching into fields above and below, as if in a continuous narrative that extends beyond the edges of the paper. This non-hierarchical organization is unlike the Western perspective grid that points to a controlling singular point of view and determines the proportions of figures and objects within a closed space. Gohara’s ghostly lines that divide the space are drawn with a light graphite pencil. Joined in the background in the same tone of palest gray are randomly arranged particle-physics tracks and scattered cosmic-like disks. For Gohara, this neutral ground, an attempt to construct a vision of reality with its arbitrary patterns, is analogous to concepts from Buddhism. Its essence is also arbitrary, with the value/meaning left open and to be assigned by the viewer from her or his own perspective.


DYTYCT_040 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #40
Graphite, colored pencil, archival pigmented ink on paper
8-1/2 x 5-3/4 inches
Brightly colored bar charts illustrate the average annual change in family mean income by quintile. Green = lowest 20 percent, purple = second 20 percent, yellow = third 20 percent, red = fourth 20 percent, and blue = top 20 percent. From left to right, the periods covered are 1969-79, 1979-89, 1989-99, 1999-07, and 2007-12. A lone feathers drifts off the right edge. Ghostly particle-physics tracks curl in the background.



In the middle field where color and concrete information slide across in random fashion, Gohara arranges graphs and charts of sobering information. In the selections offered here the theme is income inequality. One graph (#57) indicates the rise in earnings of the 1 percent in New York City in shades of blue. This appears above a fragment of the Tibetan/Buddhist wheel of life with the three poisons—ignorance, aversion, and attachment—visible. The color blue connects the two images. In another piece (#40), five colored bar charts illustrate the change in family income from periods between 1969 up to 2012. The visual pattern of the bars reveals the period that would have been the most socially viable in which to live. In the first chart on the left, covering 1969-79, the bars are clustered together. The differences between the lowest income (in green) to highest incomes (in red and blue) are minimal. To move from green to blue does not appear an insurmountable climb and suggests a social environment that is engaged on various levels, and that could allow movement and social interaction between classes. By the last chart, covering 2007-12, the changes in incomes presented on the chart are, I think one can say, heartbreaking. The lowest green quintile has literally fallen off the chart into negative space. The hope to traverse the distance between the first quintile and the last has become as ephemeral as the delicately fluttering feather that floats off the page on the right. In drawing #59 the newspaper clippings of death hover menacingly over the black-and-white line graph that delineates the change, from 1913-2012, in the share of US income that goes to the top 1 percent.



DYTYCT_059 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #59
Graphite, archival pigmented ink, newspaper clippings with Gudy 870 adhesive on paper
8-5/8 x 5-7/8 inches
A black-and-white graph shows the change in the top 1 percent percentage share of US income from 1913 to 2012. A cluster of newspaper clippings report deaths from political violence. A few pale gray dots emerge at left, as particle-physics tracks race through behind.


In other drawings the images juxtaposed to the statistical charts with related colors are fragments of paintings by abstract artists: the Russian Kazimir Malevich, the Dutch Piet Mondrian, and the American Mark Rothko. Gohara’s work is in dialogue with the work of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, who were committed to revolutionary change in artistic conventions. By wiping the slate clean, so to speak, they hoped to invent a new kind of art that would engage the viewer directly with a transformational experience. Malevich and Mondrian belong to the first generation of avant-garde abstract artists who fervently advocated a new form of art that used a non-perspectival conception of space without reference to objects in the real world. Their utopian, idealistic practices broke with tradition and set up a dialogue about the meaning/non-meaning of art itself. By reducing his vocabulary to limited elements and rules (e.g. no symmetry and only primary colors besides black and white), Mondrian, in the 1920s, illustrated that within constricted parameters, the possible combinations were infinite. Though he refused to assign meaning to his work, his theories may be tied to his support for anarchism.


DYTYCT_036 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #36
Graphite, colored pencil, archival pigmented ink on paper
8-1/2 x 5-3/4 in
In bright colors, a bar chart illustrates the difference between (from left) desired, perceived, and actual share of wealth owned by quintiles of the US population, highlighting the actual degree of inequality as compared to the perception of it. The bright yellow corner of a reproduction of a Mondrian echoes the bright yellow of the top quintile. Fragments of musical notation are scattered through the space, as are dots sketched in graphite. Swelling spirals of ghostly particle-physics tracks lie in the background.



In one drawing (#36) Gohara has set up a contrast between the bottom left corner of a Mondrian painting that appears on the right, as if dropping from the space of heaven, with a yellow field marked by black lines, and, on the left, a bar chart of predominantly primary colors that echoes the geometry and divided space of the painting. The chart illustrates the difference between people’s perception of who shares the wealth and the actual stark reality. The suggested lyricism of the random musical notations makes for an uneasy juxtaposition. In another drawing (#12) the newspaper clippings with their endless stories of death are below a Malevich painting, a square divided into four alternating black and white squares. Malevich symbolically obliterated past references to religion with black and white paint for a new modern vision of infinity and transcendence. He called his movement Suprematism for the purity of his supreme (complete) transformation/destruction of traditions. His flat black/white squares referenced Byzantine icons and their perceived inherent spiritual power.


DYTYCT_012 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #12
Graphite, colored pencil, ink, deacidified newsprint, Rhoplex on paper
14 x 11 in.
A bold Malevich hangs from the thin top boundary line. A rough circle gathering of pale graphite dots hovers to its right, overlaid by a few notes of music. Newspaper clippings of reports of deaths from political violence rise and fall back towards the bottom boundary line. Pale particle-physics tracks are barely discernible in the background.




DYTYCT_018 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #18
Graphite, colored pencil, ink, deacidified newsprint, Rhoplex on paper
12 x 9 in.
A silver maple helicopter seed rendered from life lilts in at left. A chart of the change in total US household debt (in trillions of dollars) from 1999-2011 echoes the colors of a Rothko painting. News clippings of reports of deaths from political violence intersect with the chart, but cover the tip of the Rothko. Pale graphite dots hover above, while particle-physics tracks streak down in the background.



A Mark Rothko painting tilts in from the right in drawing #18 and leans toward a bar chart of the same colors—yellow, red, blue, and green—that documents the change in household debt from 1999 to 2011. In the 1940s Rothko was a part of the original group of radical Abstract Expressionists. They insisted on the singularity of their individual styles but shared the common goal that the painted gesture on the canvas would directly translate into an emotional communication with the viewer without dependence on references to reality. But in Gohara’s work the chart and painting are connected by newspaper clippings of ever more political deaths. The reality of the real world is referenced not only by the clippings but also the gray, delicately drawn maple helicopter seed that wafts through the space from the left. Gohara repainted the Rothko painting with its dominant center square in a blinding yellow the brightness of the sun and suggests the possibility of the transcendence of matter.

Like abstract work of the past century, Gohara has created a new space in her drawings that also links her work to Buddhism with its open-ended possibilities of interpretation and meaning. She has been studying Asian religious philosophy since high school. While at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, she was introduced to Hindu teachings and then segued to Buddhism. The ground with its particle-physics tracks and floating cosmic-like disks also point to her study of science. Before she attended the Art Center, she was a biology student at the University of Hawaii for almost three years and became fascinated by biochemistry and the connections between inanimate molecules and the basic processes of life. After leaving the University of Hawaii and moving to Pasadena, Gohara worked at a hardware and software engineering consulting company run by former students and alumni from Caltech. The friends she met, “techers,” stimulated her continued interest in science. Simultaneously she was studying dance in the evenings, primarily ballet and jazz dance. After several years, the need to focus on doing creative work became compelling and she applied to the Art Center. During this period she also began to study the nature of reality from a spiritual side and the analogies between Asian religious philosophies and physics theories.


DYTYCT_038 - Lauren Gohara, Inequality


Do You Think You Can Tell #38
Graphite, colored pencil, archival pigmented ink, deacidified newsprint with Gudy870 adhesive on paper
8-1/2 x 5-3/4 in
A graph of income stagnation among different income classes from 1967 to 2012 shows that while the four groups depicted have seen no growth in income over the past decade, the incomes of those in the 50th percentile or lower have, over many more years, hardly changed. The found colors of the graph reflect those in a reproduction of a Mondrian painting that edges in from above. News clippings of reports of deaths from political violence echo the blocks of color in the geometric painting, though the content is far different.



Gohara’s turn to creative activity deeply resonates with her family history. Her grandmother constantly made things from complex quilts and crocheted afghans to sock monkeys and dolls. Her hands didn’t stop until arthritis set in. Cousins took up crafts seriously after retirement—from decoy carving to creating Japanese gardens. Her father sculpted and landscaped the grounds of the family house with long curving stonewalls that terraced a sloping lot.

Gohara’s work reflects her heritage with its insistence on exactitude and her devotion to the perfection of her craft. The broad range of her references also reflect her complex intellectual interests. Her modest-sized drawings belie a profound belief in the creative, life changing possibilities of artistic practice and an intense commitment to addressing social injustice.


Gayle Rodda Kurtz is Assistant Chair of the History of Art and Design Department at Pratt Institute.

All images copyright Lauren Gohara.

For more on Malevich, Mondrian, and Rothko, see Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900: 1900 to 1944 (Second Edition) (Vol. 1) (Thames & Hudson, 2011) and Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Vol. 2: 1945 to the Present) (Thames & Hudson, 2005).


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