The Atlanta Contemporary currently has two exhibitions centered around regional identity. The group show It Can Howl, “takes a look at the numerous experiences of the American South.” The solo exhibition, The Dapper Comes to the Walkers collects Dapper Bruce LaFitte’s drawings of New Orleans marching bands and street scenes. The south is an enormous, sprawling region with shifting boundaries. It contains diverse peoples and places. It has long histories and complicated presents, evident in names and markers, statues and parades. It also has forgotten, hidden histories, absent from the stories we are told and we tell ourselves. These shows begin to expose the boundaries between what is seen and what we hide.
In It Can Howl, the garbage cans of Nancy Lupo’s Train immediately grab the viewer’s attention as they snake across the gallery spilling their cherries. The walls of the garbage cans seem to waver with the weight they carry, the objects embedded within them compromising their integrity. The blurring of real cherries and fake cherries, quail eggs and chocolate soccer balls gestures to and obscures the conspicuous emptiness of the garbage cans. The work fills the gallery with its overflow of materiality, yet it ultimately remains empty, a series of signifiers pointing to an absence hidden in front of us.
Chloe Seibert’s Welcome is gouged and eaten into the wall to create the text. It is a greeting that speaks of absence, peeling back the layers of paint on the wall and drywall to the studs and hidden infrastructure. The wall text lists drywall as the only material, yet it is its absence that we see. The absent drywall removed to the storage room, to the dumpster, to the landfill is as much the work as what is left behind in the gallery. The visible absence points to the built history of the gallery and infrastructure that hides our waste and disposes what we have abandoned. Its gesture of welcome rings hollow within the gallery, but its removal resonates far beyond.
Dapper Bruce LaFitte’s drawings in The Dapper Comes to the Walkers point to specific moments. They are specifically sited to post-Katrina New Orleans, explicitly linked to a history and present experience of black life. They attempt to catalogue loss and absence through exacting, precisely enumerated presence. They are an accounting of people marching, people watching. The exuberance of their playing and the joy of their listening are flattened, frozen in time. This precision coexists with the narratives of Hurricane Katrina, the injustices that surrounded it, and the ongoing changes it has wrought on New Orleans.
Lafitte is self-consciously aware of viewership and his presence within the art world. The text written across each of his drawing underscores the complicated presence of a gallery-represented, “outsider” artist within the institution. In writing “I love my/job/making art critics work/lol,” LaFitte is aware of his presence within the art world. The broken narrative he creates across his drawings attempts to connect the world from which he draws his experiences, love, and distress and the art world from which we view his drawings, yet our viewing environment remains a sterile white cube, however brightly painted in traditional Mardi Gras colors, forever divorced from the flattened drawings that contain so much life.
The works in It Can Howl and The Dapper Comes to the Walkers are rich. The exhibitions are paired well, and the works individually and together continue to unfold and make me think deeply about what is visibly present in the gallery and what remains hidden, the objects of the art world I know how to see and the architecture that props them up, hiding in plain sight. I am new to this place. I am learning how to understand the heat and humidity, the new species of trees and insects. I am still attempting to understand its history and present and my place within them. I am only beginning to see the surface. I know there is far more hidden before my eyes.
I recently visited the Adolph Gottlieb show at the Hunter Museum of American Art, A Painter’s Hand: The Works of Adolph Gottlieb. The show is composed largely of monotypes created in the last year of Gottlieb’s life. The monotypes are spare, and the entire show unfolds slowly, rewarding long, repeated looking.
The works demonstrate a dedication to questioning, to building an understanding through the process of making. Smaller, intimate, deliberate marks overtake grand gestures. The visual language that unfolds within the monotypes repeats itself. The shapes and lines subtly shift, providing a foreground for the materiality of the paper and precise colors to show their variety. The beauty and interconnectedness of the work accrue over time, mirroring Gottlieb’s process.
The white cube of the gallery is a stark contrast to the vibrant, sunny, blossoming world outside. Exiting the spring profusion into the contemplative space of Gottlieb’s works makes me think of the context of his work – the turmoil and unrest of the early 1970s, a life that had experienced both World Wars and the Great Depression, a stroke that had limited his mobility. I think about what Gottlieb wrote in 1947:
Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.
In a moment of fractured aspirations, of irreconcilable ideas of directions forward, what, then, is the realism of our time? It is abstraction of a different kind – the abstraction of promises made from the campaign trail and the debate stage – the abstraction of eighteen months of announcements, debates, and endless news coverage – the abstraction of hundreds of millions of dollars flooding into television ads, internet banners, and targeted emails focus grouped to find us all – the abstraction of decades of historical and political maneuvering that has left us feeling small and powerless in the face of what we are told is inevitable.
We live in a world that is unrecognizable in the rhetoric and grand gestures of the election cycle. Sweeping pronouncements about what should have been done during the financial crisis do not change the fact that we have to wake up to take care of children and go to work. Promises about economic growth and schools and healthcare do not help us find more time to learn about the world around us and connect with our neighbors. Our world is dramatically shaped by politicians, the policies and laws they create, and the long-term impacts of their decisions, but the visual language through which we are able to view them attempts to erase the differences between them.
The stage (for debates, concession speeches, victory parties, displays of branded steaks), the giant wall of screens, scrolling red-white-blue corporate logos, and glowing podiums repeat from city to city. Ideas and thoughts are not spoken; speeches are directed at hundreds of audience members and beamed to millions of viewers. It is the aesthetic of stated import, a visual language that is meant to convey gravity and authority without offering specificity. That faceless aesthetic belies the tremendous effect and power these people have and will continue to have over the shape of our daily lives and the seriousness with which we should treat their words. We must recognize the entire political apparatus, from the endless news cycle to the aesthetic of the next debate as a creation of a false normalcy, a stage from which to broadcast widely not connect deeply.
Gottlieb’s abstraction reflected what he saw as the realism of his time. It is time for us to shine the reality of our time onto the abstraction that surrounds us. If we can bridge the gap between the real and the abstract, if we can recognize that the past is as flawed as the present, if we can transform politicians and voters into humans, perhaps we can discover ways to invigorate and enliven the political process into something more than an empty aesthetic, something that reflects the people it serves.
Amy Elkins’s exhibition Black is the Day, Black is the Night, at the Cress Gallery at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, explores her relationship with five men who have spent decades in maximum security prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Through photography, video, sound, and objects, Elkins creates a world of the imprisoned men with whom she corresponds. Their words, drawings, and letters are surrounded by portraits of the men and recreations of their visual and aural memories that obscure and layer their experiences. The works unpack memory, the multiplicity of its roots and permutations as its holders are forcibly removed from those places, people, times, through enforced solitude.
In the large piece, Parting Words, she re-anchors that created world within the world outside of prison. The 531 portraits of the prisoners executed in Texas since 1976 are created with their last recorded words. As those words slowly breathe into life the obscured photographs, they push us back into the world outside of the imagined worlds of memory. The words are communications to those who remain in prison and those of us outside. They are an explicit grounding in the consequences of the prison system in the lives of those people within it and their family, friends, and loved ones, the deadly toll it extracts from our communities.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes, “‘We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we also know the silences that were institutionally created and guaranteed along with it.’ Nowhere is that observation more relevant in American society today than in an analysis of the culture of mass incarceration” (quoting Gerald Sider). Alexander is writing of the silence of individual prisoners while in prison, the ways they are kept outside of economic, housing, political, and social opportunities after their release, and of the silent systems of legislation, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that uphold and enforce the criminal justice system.
Elkins’s exhibition attempts to break the first silence, re-centering five mens’ voices and words, using their experience to develop the works through which she manifests the changes she observes in the men as they spend years in solitary confinement. The repetition of final words recreates hundreds of faces, magnifying a moment into lifetime. In the middle of the exhibition, Elkins has recreated a full-size solitary confinement cell. It is only revealed in the context of the larger constellation of works, not as origin or culmination. By rooting it within the context of the surrounding work, she prioritizes her correspondents’ experiences, memories, poems, and drawings. For the viewer, their complex, human lives are primary over their status as prisoners.
I do not believe Elkins must be an activist to work with prisoners or the prison-industrial complex. She frames the exhibition as the aesthetic expression of personal relationships she has developed with five prisoners, and it is successful as such. As an aesthetic experience, Elkins has created a compelling exploration of what it means for us to live with the effects of and tacitly support the carceral state.
She also “hopes that these projects brings some light to topics and issues about capital punishment and juvenile incarceration, the inequity that bears upon their application from state to state, and the legal and social debate about race and economic level that surrounds this discussion today.” It certainly sheds light on those topics, but it does not push the viewer to action as other prison- and prisoner-related work by artists (Tamms Year Ten, Prisoners’ Inventions) or work towards other criminal justice reform and prison abolition efforts happening around the country and the world.
There is great need for awareness of the ravages of the criminal justice system on individuals and poor, non-white communities, of the abuse of solitary confinement, of the enormous profits being made at the expense of these communities and the theft of their lives. It is vital that a wider public sees and understands the impacts of the prison system. There must be action beyond that awareness, however. We must recognize the role we have played in the creation and maintenance of those systems and work to change or abandon them. There is a role for art and artists at every point along that journey.
I went to a holiday market over the weekend. I had a wonderful time, talking with friends, seeing their new work, purchasing a few items, but the market itself has stuck with me, has left me feeling uncomfortable, cold, and alone instead of gathered with a community of makers, together in a world we shape.
It is easy to think of the art market as a painting that sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, blue chip galleries, and the spread of art fairs. The reality for most people in the creative economy is, of course, far more mundane and precarious. The objects we see and buy at markets are supplemented by the work in and out of the creative economy that most artists must do – teaching, curating, arts administration, waiting tables. The proliferation of markets – seasonal markets, local business Saturday, the internet – has increased our ability to support artists and live with the unique items they produce. I love being able to buy beautiful objects from the people who have made them, yet this readiness, this instantaneous access to the local, unique object is exactly where my uneasiness lies.
The hand-made, bespoke, curated life has, not surprisingly, been turned into marketing opportunities for corporations who can sell them back to us conveniently, at the tip of our fingers. They show us a world full of just the right lamp or rug or coaster or pitcher or plant arrangement; they shape the visual culture we cannot escape in subway ads, internet banners, and instagram feeds; they give us a world full of things to be consumed. The unique, curated life masks middle class consumption, an artistic patina that coats the same marketplace that has driven us to extract oil from the ground at ever-expanding rates, lay now-abandoned railroad tracks across the globe, and develop ships and exploitative supply chains that make it easier to manufacture a shoe halfway around the world from its wearer.
By no means am I suggesting we should not support local artists, artists we know and whose work we love. We should buy their plates and prints and sweaters. We should attend their performances and readings. We must also recognize that buying one of their works is not enough to sustain them and may in fact perpetuate a cycle of subsistence. We all know artists who make a living, but how many artists do we know who are thriving? The solution must go beyond shopping locally. Capitalism’s tools cannot dismantle the house it has so successfully and seamlessly built.
How can we support all of the artists, farmers, and dancers we know beyond giving them money for goods and services? How can we shape a world more fully equal and just? We can begin by acknowledging and honoring the many types of support we all need – a friend holding our baby, a neighbor lending us a tool, a ride to the grocery store. We can recognize that, although we live within it, capitalism does not shape or underlie all of the many types of support we give and receive. We may already have the tools to rebuild an entirely new way of seeing and living in the world. We may not yet be able to topple the stalls in the market, but perhaps we can fashion a raft in the sea of consumption that threatens to drown us all.
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.