There is a palpable disjunction between the experience of Howardena Pindell, Pindell’s stunning solo exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and its representation in the following words and photos. Beyond the ways in which photographs cannot capture the minute detail inseparable from the immense scale of Pindell’s work, the exhibition builds a complex understanding of a way to view her work that draws us in by asking us to look deeply and closely at and beneath its surface.
It is easy to overlook a grouping of six, small works, hanging in one corner of the gallery, washed by Pindell’s voice from Free, White and 21 and dwarfed by the large-scale paintings from the Autobiography series that dominate the space. These works speak with a sure voice and power of their own, and they compel and reward close looking. The regularity of the grids of Parabia Test #4 seem disrupted by the paper dots across and beneath the sheets of vellum, but the deliberate, drawn gestures across the tiny circles anchor them in their places and reinforce the depths plumbed beyond our sight. Untitled, 1975 explodes with and centers color. The layered, reversed, and obscured words of Text resist an easily read comprehension, making explicit the ways in which collage buries meanings, fracturing understandings we assume we know.
The intimate gesture – ink on paper, hole punched paper within paint, words spoken with deliberate calm, canvas ruptures sutured – is central to all of Pindell’s work in this exhibition. The staggering beauty and power of Pindell’s work has been built slowly and deliberately through these gestures, and those gestures demonstrate the futility of easy comprehension, the impossibility of walking away from the exhibition with a fixed understanding of Pindell and her work. We must match her accumulated, repeated gestures with multiple viewings, with re-seeings that slowly accrue and reveal meaning over time.
Ultimately, these words cannot do Pindell’s work justice. There will always be more to learn from Pindell’s work just as there will always be more to learn within this world. Pindell’s first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings was at Spelman College. Thankfully, in specifically re-presenting Pindell’s work here, this exhibition asks us to re-view that work and re-see that world. Fortunately, this exhibition reminds us that we will not find a just and equal world, but perhaps we can build one through small, intimate gestures.
I will continue living with Pindell’s work, the small gestures that built those works and the larger gestures of her career, and I will heed the call to re-see the world, to watch the news for what it does not say, to view the world through which I live as a series of negotiations of power, privilege, and inequity, to work to reveal and realign my place within that world.
Howardena Pindell is on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through December 5, 2015.
From white cubed commercial galleries to experimental project spaces, from closely packed artist studios to pop-up celebrations out in the dark, Nashville’s first Saturdays are bustling, vibrant, overbrimming with activity. Moving between openings at the beginning of October, I repeatedly heard the mock-lament that there was too much to do, too many places to be for any single night. The looming feeling of always-more fueled movement – walking and driving between galleries, negotiating crowded rooms, navigating shifting frames of mind and sight. Virginia Griswold’s pop-up exhibition Equal Parts at The Packing Plant, however, stopped me in my tracks.
The walls in the gallery were unfinished, construction frozen before sheetrock hung. The crowd gathered around the small sawhorse table, bending low over the ceramic and resin objects, slowed the momentum of entering from other exhibitions. Joining the circumnavigating stream, I slowly observed the objects on the table. The stasis of the room lengthened my gaze, extended my ability to consider the work.
As I moved, the textures, lines, and colors of the objects reflected around and across the table – an osage orange, mushroom gills, vessels containing one another – the visual equivalent of musical themes shifting, shimmering in different forms, reappearing across time and space. This echoing revealed the ways in Griswold views the “table as site for transformation.” The table had always been in motion. Its initial stasis was an illusion of my eyes used to the outside world. My time spent within the work transformed singular, static objects into relationship with one another, enlivened the location, proximity, and contact of objects into conversations.
Griswold’s objects are lived with, accruing meaning in the moments of making and across days and weeks of time spent living through the same spaces. On initial viewing, they carry a weight that we cannot feel. They ghost objects we cannot know, recall memories we cannot imagine. The table transforms these long-known objects for Griswold, and the table begins the transformation of just-seen objects for the viewers.
In the weeks since viewing it, I have lived with the exhibition, sorting and filing the images and echoes, the feeling of the resin, the reflections of the objects I see in my coming and going. The transformation is no longer just within the objects and their relationships; the transformations live within the way I have slowed to watch for the “questionable state” Griswold strives for in her objects and accomplishes in Equal Parts. Her work lives on in that state, neither movement nor stasis, embodying the complexity and reality of our daily lives. As with all living objects, her work enters our lives, transforming the futures we find as we rejoin the movement of the exterior world, the ever-rushing into the night.
Although the summer does not seem to end, the mornings have a barest scent of fallen leaves. The angle of light at mid-afternoon has changed. The responsibilities of work and school and life have returned. This last gasp of summer is its most painfully sweet moment. It concentrates long, drawn out summer months into shortening days; it overwhelms us with sweetness while acknowledging its own limits. These limits, these glimpses ahead at fall are reminders that the trees and houses that have stood hidden, robed in summer splendor persist underneath the green.
Last week, the Hunter Museum of American Art hosted Art Alive!, a night of conversation and performance inspired by Helen Frankenthaler’s Around the Clock with Red. The large painting was the backdrop for the evenings activities. Assistant Curator of Education Rachel White led conversation about the painting, placing the work and Frankenthaler into a larger historical context and the context of the museum and the other paintings in the gallery. Kayla Mae Anderson’s performance with four dancers and the conversation that followed extended the time spent with the painting and invited wide ranging interpretations from audience members.
I left the museum, filled with the discussion, the movement, thoughts of what type of attention I paid. The evening stayed with me as I moved through the week, eating lunch, looking again at Frankenthaler’s other paintings, checking the mail, and it followed me through the gallery walk last weekend, accompanying me through crowded receptions of small talk and open studios.
I visited Around the Clock with Red again a few days later, still holding the evening, the performance, the conversation, and, as I looked at the painting again, I realized that more than the evening, I had been living with the painting. It had not changed. Its paint was as static as ever. The textured reds still anchored my eyes while sending them towards the edges of the canvas. The large apricot swath across its middle was as raw and exposed as before, still making me feel as if the top of my head were taken off. The multitude of gestural languages Frankenthaler speaks were as compelling as the first time I saw them. The painting persists through the other layers built up around it. I saw the same painting with the same eyes, but the permanence of the painting, its lasting objectness stripped away the layers I had built around it.
The historic, economic, cultural, and other frameworks Around the Clock with Red and any painting have accrued over time are inescapable. We cannot separate it from the art market with its presence in a survey museum and the reminder of who the donors were. We cannot view it outside the structures of power and cultural domination inherent in a museum and the white male dominated art world that Frankenthaler knew and we still know. We cannot lift it from endless cultural consumption which thins our attention every direction we look.
Saying the painting still lives within those layers is obvious and facile, but, within that statement’s simplicity, we should not forget the power of an object to leave us breathless, to move us beyond words, to help us carry and share the weight of those frameworks. There is work to be done to identify and name the structures that support and enable our cultural and civic institutions and our personal lives. We must acknowledge that we continue to exist within a series of large and small, more and less noticeable frames. We are not erasing those frames by recognizing and celebrating the objects they contain. We revel in our bodies precisely because we carry our skeletons around with us wherever we go.
Entering whitespace gallery from the hazy, sweltering Atlanta noon, escaping the cascades of kudzu and endless advertisements of the coming millennials, I walked through a wall of cold air into the artist talks for Soft Eyes, a group exhibition curated by Pete Schulte. I was shocked into re-seeing by the spareness and order of the exhibition. The show, a translation of an online exhibition, realizes an austerity and distancing of the internet. The works resist easy entry, forefronting carefully crafted surfaces. Each artist works with a unique language that feels distantly related to others spoken around the gallery.
There are limitations to the digital world and distinct advantages to pulling these physical works together. Cracks and fissures form in the reserved surfaces, drawing in the viewer. The resonances arising from the juxtaposition of Julia Fish’s pieces slow the crossing of the threshold they span. The vibrancy of Andy Moon Wilson’s colors and dense patterns call from across the room. The friction Katy Fischer describes between the arrangement of her small paintings and objects and their highly-studied and finely crafted surfaces compels close viewing.
Soft Eyes rewards slowing down at these entrance points to extend our vision beyond the individual artworks. Each of the works in the show ultimately unveils a depth of care and time that results in their quiet, reserved surfaces. The time spent laboring over the work is evident in Leah Raintree’s finely detailed, topographic map-like drawings. Time invested generating an artistic practice blossoms in Amy Pleasant’s reinvestigations into moments of creation and life buried within her studio. Each of the artists has honed a language uniquely their own, singular in its application yet resonant with the other languages that fill the gallery. All of the works are deeply considered, and, as with the best translations, Schulte has allowed each work the space and time to breathe lives from the others that would otherwise remain unspoken.
In closing the artist talk, Hamlet Dobbins talked of art being a river of time — teacher to student, artwork to artwork — each arising from and forming the river. This analogy, reflected in the multi-generational, multi-relational show, is comforting, as summer heat continues with no end in sight. I need reminders of time’s continuing presence and slow passage — tardier sunrises, grey hairs that suddenly appear, the rise and fall of a dog’s breath as we sleep and wake to slow accretions of a life built together.
I continue to live with Soft Eyes, exploring the depths and truths contained within its layers, and I have begun to modify the analogy to think of art as an oceanic current, flowing through the dynamic ecosystems of the world, pushing and pulling bits of plastic and phytoplankton into and out of its flow, one part of a water cycle so vast and far reaching into our past and future we no longer know if we are clouds or raindrops or ocean water shaping the course of the world around us.
Soft Eyes is on view at whitespace until September 12.
I have been distracted in exhibitions recently. My eyes are drawn from the work on the walls to the wall color, the arrangement of work, the lighting, the electrical outlets near the floor, the shadows and conversations of other viewers. I start by looking at the work, earnestly engaging with it. I slowly notice my gaze drifting to the frame around the painting, print, photograph, and, once I notice the frame, my eyes do not return.
This distraction came to a head at a painting show, full of people gathered to see the handful of big-name painters, neglecting the rooms full of excellent but lesser known works. I wandered the rooms almost alone enjoying the large and small canvases, the studies and prints, and, as I turned into the crowded rooms, the frames around the paintings shifted register from relatively simple, muted wood frames to filigreed, gold-leafed extensions of the paintings that domineered more than simply framed them.
Frames protect, augment, enhance, overshadow, and fundamentally alter artwork. The extra-artwork environment is a series of frames, more and less explicit — traveling to the exhibition, entering the gallery, negotiating the others in the room, moving along a particular path from one work to the next. Entering each frame primes our mind and our bodies for the experience we are about to have. Some frames are explicit (the frame, the matte, the wall color); some frames we control (how much coffee we have had, whether we brought a sweater to guard against the air conditioning); others are too hidden to register as present, minimized by the more visible, convenient frames we have learned to see. We cannot and do not need to control all of the frames we enter, nor should we necessarily be concerned at the fact that they are too numerous and subtle for us to understand.
The problem with frames is that the obvious frames, the gold-leafed, filigreed painting border and the white cubes that contain them, can lull us into believing that we are fully aware of the multiple frames that surround us, that we are objectively observing and seeing a truth beyond all frames. Observing the painting border does not mean that we recognize the institutional framework that guides the artists shown and the artists never selected. Noticing that lively street corners and good restaurants make for places we want to spend time does not mean we know the history of urban planning, revitalization, and gentrification. Acknowledging the explicit racism of individuals does not mean we understand or can dismantle the structures of white supremacy that surround us that are designed to operate without conscious and explicit approval.
In a brand new book, I found the first page of the third chapter dogeared, placed back in position but creased, the surrounding pages mirroring its folded imprint. This book is, of course, not brand new; it did not arrive in my hands straight from the press, the bindery, the guillotine. I imagine the lives it has known, the many people in whose hands those pages have breathed to life, the minds who call it into being — the packer, lounging on a smoke break with the book half-hidden from supervisors, the bookstore clerk, sneaking it below the register. Everyone finding solace and freedom, a way out of their mutable existence into the ever-constant life of the book. This human touch, this reminder that I am not alone in this vast world, helps me step back from the books’ frames, to connect through time and space, to reach out through the interconnected, interwoven frames that buffer us, isolate us from others navigating their own frames, to touch another life, not through exceptional effort or awareness of those frames, but rather through the very act of accruing our lives one moment at a time.
Recognizing the frame, acknowledging its presence as an integral context and portion of artworks and our lives is simply the beginning. Art does not live outside of context, outside of our experience(s) of observing, absorbing, consuming, and participating in it. We must use the moment of observing the frame as a way to move through and past it, placing it within the larger context of the world through which we move every day.
This morning, I lay under a scanner at the doctor’s office, a robot arm buzzing and whirring above me, a technician explaining the mathematical models they use to interpret the results. I stared at the mass produced, calm-inducing pastel print hung before me in the dimly lit room, and all I could see were the frames surrounding it — the white matte and thin silver frame, the bibles and golf magazines on the waiting room tables, this long and short life we have, its present moments ever-elusive, ever-escaping our notice as we peer into the all too clear past and the darkening future. The frames surround us; we are never outside of them, yet we are not held prisoner.