Arts

Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Hunting witches, searching for justice

An installation shot of “Rachel Stern: More Weight.”
Image courtesy of the Kniznick Gallery, Brandeis
An installation shot of “Rachel Stern: More Weight.”

WALTHAM — “Witch hunt” has lately become a popular bit of rhetoric. Artist Rachel Stern takes the Salem witch trials as a starting point to consider the judicial process. 

In Salem, Giles Corey would not lie to confess to witchcraft and save his own life. During his execution by pressure from stones, he righteously cried out, “More weight.” That’s what Stern calls her installation at Kniznick Gallery, at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

Papering the walls with prints of lush curtains, she examines how we conceive of justice, what we hope from it, and how it operates as theater. Gloved hands emerge, pointing in accusation, shaking in agreement, and holding gavels. The hands surround nearly 30 photographs. Several simply depict a juror with a single ear painted, to highlight that responsibility. 

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A pageant of larger images explores — and sometimes sharply twists — familiar tropes, the stories and values we build justice upon: Adam with an apple and Eve with a snake, the Eye of Providence — the eyed pyramid on a dollar bill, symbolizing an all-seeing divinity. Allegorical pictures of kinship, benevolence, and more suggest a system with rectitude in its DNA. 

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But does it always work? The photo “Justice in Repose” turns the familiar blindfolded figure into a chic, Ivanka-style blonde. A gloved hand fills her cup. On her scales, jewelry outweighs a candle’s light. 

Stern gets even more pointed with a sumptuous plinth covered with file folders, recalling then President-elect Trump’s January 2017 press conference, at which he displayed stacks of files he said contained documents transferring his business empire to his sons. It was perhaps more stagecraft than evidence, and in a court of public opinion, not law.

Public opinion caused justice to come down, wrongly and weightily, on Giles Corey. In “More Weight,” Stern considers how celebrity, money, and storytelling put thumbs on the scales. We could add race to that list. But she honors what the system strives for. After all, it is only as perfect as we are.

RACHEL STERN: MORE WEIGHT

At Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham, through Oct. 26. 781-736-8102, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/arts 

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.