Studio magazine, Fall/Winter 2012–13
The Studio Museum in Harlem
E.J. Hill is an MFA candidate in New Genres at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializing in performance. Hill is interested in questions of identity, territory and alienation. Using durational and interventionist strategies, he advances counter-narratives in which marginalized bodies are free to inhabit spaces of their choosing—physical, emotional, social or political.
Can it just be a body?
Hill moved to Chicago in 2007 to study at Columbia College, where he initially focused on painting and drawing. After watching a collection of videos by artist Chris Burden, known for his confrontational performance style which tested the limits of the human body, Hill initiated what he refers to as his first performance: a psycho-geographical duration exercise for which he crawled, à la William Pope.L, between the town center and a so-called “bad part of town” in Evanston, a suburb on the far north side of Chicago that is home to prestigious Northwestern University. Weighted down with a backpack filled with drywall from an abandoned house, Hill intended for this—as well as a later work, This Is an Imaginary Border (2009)—to open a dialogue about the economic (and occasional racial) segregation that remains a reality in cities such as Chicago.
“I had no idea I was ‘black’ until I moved to Chicago,” says Hill “I’m a first-generation American—my family is from Belize. They moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s. When I got to Chicago, my Belizean identity was taken out of conversation, unless I brought it up.” Hill is conscious, to the point of frustration, of how his body while performing will be viewed through the prism of race and gendered expression. “The kind of performance work I was initially acquainted with was done typically by straight, white men,” says Hill. “I began to wonder whether other artists like [Hannah] Wilke or [Fluxus artist] Shigeko Kubota could escape their gender or cultural baggage in the reading of the work.” Hill remains optimistic, however, that through a rigorous and diverse practice, the conversation can move beyond the personal and immediate to broader, universal ideas and relations.
Now back in Los Angeles, Hill is working closely with artist Andrea Fraser at UCLA, noted for her performance grounded in institutional critique. Hill is testing new work in drawing, video and photography to combat what he sees as “expectations” of his work. “A friend once said, ‘We choose who we bleed for. Most people don’t deserve to see you struggle [during a performance], or sweat or cry or bleed.’ It’s a strange psychology, [for a viewer] to come to a place hoping to see or experience something really intense,” Hill says. A recent performance, Drawn(2011), has Hill, dressed in a white button-down shirt and tie, licking the walls of a gallery until his tongue bled, leaving behind a faint trail of pink. When asked why he doesn’t do more performance for video in the controlled space of his studio, Hill says while there are problems with making performance in public, he views an audience’s presence as “silent encouragement” to “go where [his] mind didn’t think it could go”—beyond limits or inhibitions.
For Hill, performance is a complicated practice. His family has mixed emotions about his choice to be an artist. He refers to a recent suite of photographs as a “peace offering” to his family, so that he “has something to show” to them about what he does. Is performance, using the body as site and medium, more ideal for bridging the perceived divide between the “art world” and the “real world”? What about the added complexity of being an artist of color making less traditional work? Of this, Hill remarks, “I feel a certain responsibility to my family and neighbors in Englewood to bridge the gap… . The position we assume is not that of just being an artist, but an artist-educator, to express how we got to this point, and that there’s a legacy we’ve inherited as art workers.
Abigail DeVille: Into the Void
Fore (exhibition catalogue. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2012)
Abigail DeVille is concerned with narratives of displacement and marginalization, and through her sprawling installations and sculptures, she gives pronounced physical presence to “invisible people” within the privileged space of institutions. The notion of invisibility as a social condition has held much significance, particularly for black artists working after the release of Ralph Ellison’s seminal text Invisible Manin 1952. Ellison’s novel posits race, blackness in particular, as analogous to invisibility. Similarly, the writings of theorist Michele Faith Wallace, and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” engage the idea of erasure and conflicted identities. Abigail DeVille’s socially engaged practice speaks to Ellison’s original concept, and by extension interrogates poverty, disenfranchisement and homelessness, other means by which people and histories are marginalized and left unseen.
Two of DeVille’s recent installations reference invisibility in their titles: Invisibility Blues, her ramshackle encampment in a Lower East Side hotel during the 2012 Dependent Art Fair, and Invisible Men: Beyond the Veil (2012), a project completed during a residency through Recess Activities in a Brooklyn warehouse. She uses an emotionally charged formal vocabulary with distinct roots in mid-twentieth-century art history to construct accumulative installations from recycled and inherited materials. As a visual strategy, accumulation has its origins in ritual activity. What emerged as a “black aesthetic” in the 1960s and 1970s criticized the perceived exclusionary practices of the art world, a symptom of broader discrimination and social disenfranchisement in the United States. Recalling “power structures,” installations and objects incorporating amassed materials of both personal and unknown provenance become charged with the energy of the artist, and the traditions and concerns of the community, giving those forces a veritable presence in the work.
DeVille has completed expansive installations in Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, cities with complex histories of civil unrest and economic disparity. For each site-specific project she undertakes, DeVille scours the surrounding area, collecting detritus inscribed with the history of the community to supplement her primary cache of materials—tarps, trash bags, drywall, broken records, cigarette butts, frames in disrepair. In these settings, her work resonates in a profound way, as the interests central to her research based practice tend to be reflected among the population. For her 2010 installation Gold Mountain, she collected burnt remains from the former site of a bar in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Most recently, DeVille worked in tandem with a creative reuse group to produce Hooverville Torqued Ellipse(2012), an arc structure built entirely from salvaged cardboard, inspired in part by sculptor Richard Serra’s (b. 1939) 1998–2003 “Torqued Ellipses” series. Both of these works by DeVille take as points of departure histories of oppression—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles” populating urban centers during the Great Depression— where people, subject to social and economic forces, were forced to live in the shadow of prosperity. Made specifically with Philadelphia and its social history in mind, Gold Mountain and Hooverville Torqued Ellipse allowed DeVille to visually represent the “invisible people” within American society whose stories and narratives have continually been overlooked. This intention is an ongoing thread throughout DeVille’s work; she looks at the entirety of a historical situation, its impact and the points at which history repeats.
On the eve of her installation at the Dependent, DeVille found herself displaced. Several months after the death of her grandmother, she was forced to leave the Bronx apartment that had been in her family’s possession for four generations. Grabbing what she could—worn linoleum tiles, framed photos, records, some of her grandmother’s personal effects—DeVille loaded up a truck and drove downtown to the site of the fair. The resultant work, Invisibility Blues, reflects DeVille’s way of working by repurposing what others have discarded or left behind, but introduced a deeply personal dimension—the installation was also an ad hoc memorial to her grandmother and the space they shared. The introduction of personal narrative is a gesture made by the artist to preserve those stories and histories and protect them from erasure. In addition to installation, DeVille makes sculptures she refers to as “portraits,” each object a stand-in for a known subject.8 A progression from an earlier body of two-dimensional collages, these individual objects lean casually against the wall, or crouch in corners, occupying physical space on a more intimate and human scale. Puzzling over the relationship between elements in DeVille’s work can also trigger associative moments, where a memory, connection or identification is inspired by something a viewer encounters within an installation, or through stumbling upon one of her sculptures in situ.
DeVille, who transitioned from painting to making sculpture and installation, states that the choice to do so seemed the most direct way to address her interest in dedicating space and material presence to the “invisible” and articulating what she refers to as “an absence of voice” for those living in the margins of society: “Indeed, the artistic installation is often viewed today as a form that allows the artist to democratize his or her art, to take public responsibility, to begin to act in the name of a certain community or even of society as a whole… This enclosed space seems to be transformed into a platform for public discussion, democratic practice, communication, networking, education, and so forth.”
In a museum setting, installation creates a new space to consider what an art institution represents within a culture—a space symbolic of economic and intellectual privilege or a potential site for resistance through visual production. Artists who have been directly influential to DeVille’s practice, such as Edward Kienholz (1927–1994) and Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933), and those with whom her work has formal resonance, such as Arman (1928–2005) and Thomas Hirschhorn (b. 1957), have employed installation as a form of institutional critique. For DeVille, installation becomes a vehicle to move outside museum walls and discuss matters of personal significance—her own narrative and those narratives that have become casualties of circumstance. At times, she has referred to the framework of her installations as “black holes … containers laden with forgotten information —the absence of light, power, knowledge, and the harbinger of historical inaccuracies.” Further, this point of reference speaks to the challenges of her identity as a female artist of color: “What most people see of the black woman is the void, because to many, the dark contents mean no content whatsoever. The outsider sees black feminist creativity as a dark hole from which nothing worthwhile can emerge, and in which everything is forced to assume zero volume of nothingness that results from the intense pressure of being the wrong race, the wrong class, and the wrong sex—hence our invisibility.”
In this sense, DeVille’s installations are direct and deeply layered analogue of her personal narrative and the social forces she chooses to work against in her practice. By assertively filling the visual field with personal effects and the materials she incorporates often—tarps that sag and billow, trash bags that hang or drape forlornly, vodka bottles, vinyl record shards and ripped-up linoleum tile covering the floors — she effectively cancels the invisibility to which she alludes.
Coupled with their subject matter, DeVille’s installations and sculptures present an uncomfortable blend of intrigue and commentary that proves inescapable once a viewer has entered one of her spaces. The works DeVille creates are sublime generally massive in scale and challenging in their chaotic, tenebrous composition. They are not, in a traditional sense, beautiful, even though there are moments of delicacy throughout. The viewer, as is the case with installation, becomes a part of the conversation among the artist, her concerns, the objects chosen for display and the space created. The accumulation of materials collected and appropriated by DeVille—the junk of years gone by, the “power materials” not intended for beauty or display, but to harness and transfer energy—embody the spirit of her convictions, those memories living on through objects. They locate, in a complicated space, those invisible and silent populations drifting in and out of public consciousness. ______________________________________________________
1 Abigail DeVille, interview with the author, August 3, 2012. 2 See Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues (London: Verso, 1990), 219–45 and W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Robbinsdale, MN: Fawcett, 1970). 3 Noah Purifoy (1917–2004), Betye Saar (b. 1926) and David Hammons (b. 1943) are noted as early adopters of these techniques. See Kellie Jones, Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 (New York: Prestel Publishing, 2011), 18–20 (exhibition catalogue). 4 Arnold Rubin, “Accumulation: Power and Display in African Sculpture” in Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Selected Readings (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 4–21. 5 Ibid., 20. “Power structures” are traditionally understood as fetish objects used in sacrificial rites or dedicated to someone’s memory. 6 Abigail DeVille, e-mail message to author, October 15, 2012. 7 DeVille, August 3, 2012. 8 Ibid. 9 DeVille, August 3, 2012; October 15, 2012. 10 Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux 2 (January 2009): 4. 11 Erika Suderburg, “On Installation and Site Specificity,” in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, 2000), 1 22, and Claire Bishop, Installation Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 17–20. 12 DeVille, October 15, 2012. 13 Wallace, 219. 14 Rubin, 11–14.
Studio Visit with Daniel Rios Rodriguez
Studio magazine, Spring/Summer 2012
Daniel Rios Rodriguez (b. 1978) is a painter based in Brooklyn who trained at Yale University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rodriguez spent much of his childhood living on various military bases in Germany, among other places. After a stint in the Air Force, he enrolled at a local college in Texas, where his painting career began. Twelve years, a wife and two kids later, Rodriguez is making major moves—he was the subject of a solo exhibition at White Columns in 2011, and recently participated in a three-person show (with Ella Kruglyanskaya and Joshua Abelow) at Chelsea gallerist C. Sean Horton’s Berlin location. I sat down with Rodriguez in his East Williamsburg studio on April 8, 2012. We talked about the resurgence of abstraction in Bushwick, taking our families to museums, and how a studio visit with a certain artist shook up his game.
Give us a sense of your background. How did you arrive at painting?
I grew up in a military family and the expectation with most kids from this background is that they’ll join the military too, so I enlisted in the Air Force. It’s a long story, but I got out after a year. Once out, I started at a community college, where I enrolled in my first art class and met my wife. After two months we were engaged, and then married and moved to Chicago in February 2001. I transferred to University of Illinois at Chicago, and during my junior year I got into the Yale Norfolk Program, a two-month summer residency in Connecticut. It gave me the time to commit to my painting like I hadn’t before. It had a huge impact on my work! Then I applied to grad school and was accepted at Yale, and it goes on from there. I had always been interested in art as a kid, but didn’t realize until I was in the military that I could try to make a living at it. When I graduated from Yale, my dad did this really sweet thing, he put my diploma in a massive frame with a little door on its back. He put one of my old paintings, from when I was fifteen or sixteen, inside the frame behind the diploma. He used to make drawings for me when I was little, that’s probably where it all started.
How much of your work would you say is identity-focused or autobiographical?
It’s always been autobiographical. As an undergrad I developed a system of symbols that represented me, my wife and my parents. A lot of my work at the time was about my parents. I never officially did self-portraits or worked with direct representation until I was in grad school. I was trying to figure out what it meant being Hispanic and arriving at an Ivy League school and making paintings. I never did figure it out! But it didn’t really make sense to me. I wasn’t really interested too deeply in talking about issues relating to identity. There was no way for me to situate those ideas neatly in an art-making mode.
Why situate it neatly?
Coming from a military family, I grew up in communities that allowed for some cultural fluidity. Every few years I moved to a different place, so there were a lot of different influences—that was the nature of my upbringing, and thus the nature of my work. There was a greater range of things my parents wanted us to experience, not because they shied away from our culture, but because they wanted other influences to be in our lives. So in terms of looking at work about identity, or making work about being Latino, it didn’t work with me.
Have you experienced overdetermination of your work by those reading it through the lens of identity?
Yeah, it’s happened to me plenty, just in terms of people coming in and out of the studio, especially in graduate school. I’d occasionally get people who immediately brought up Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros, but, then again, why shouldn’t they? It used to annoy me, but I’ve come to terms with it. They’re just as relevant as any European painter and who’s to say the reference isn’t attributed to the work and not just my last name? [laughter]
I had a studio visit with Trenton Doyle Hancock during my first two months at Yale. We didn’t talk about the work. We talked about music instead, which was cool. Part of his lack of interest in my work, I thought, was because I was making work about identity. To me, it kind of made sense. It was a sign that, “you weren’t ever comfortable in doing this, and this is just not for you.” I don’t want it to be perceived as if I’m trying to escape anything, or that I’m anti-identity, but the truth is, I came from a community where I represented just a sliver of the diversity.
As your work is so personal, are you concerned that it may be alienating to an audience?
I mean, yeah, unless I was able to invite every viewer over to my house for pancakes. Alex Katz makes paintings about his wife. Picasso made dozens of paintings about his kids. I was making my work about my family before anyone ever saw it. It’s just what I’m intensely interested in. For me, it’s just about painting, that’s what’s relatable: If you like paintings, colors, reading about the history of painting or just looking at something for a little while, then you might be into it. You don’t have to know who it’s about.
How do you go about starting a painting? Walk us through a little bit of your process.
My paintings mostly start out monochromatically, and from there it’s about figuring out whether I need to do anything else. I’ve been working a lot with yellow lately—there’s a painting on my website called All Right, All Ready  that’s almost entirely yellow, outside of the bits of rain falling down and the T-shirt collage. Some work well in just black and white, or yellow, or green. In those paintings, it has more to do with subtractive scratch drawing than painting, and I don’t feel the need to add any additional layers or colors. I never want to get too comfortable working any particular way—I don’t want to bore myself. If I feel like I have somehow found a rhythm to working, I want to introduce something else to disrupt that rhythm or harmony.
What happens when a painting is less successful?
There’s a freshness or vitality that you want a painting to have, even after it’s dry. Now I try to slow down a little, and actually live with the paintings for a while longer than I used to. I’d say that most of my paintings are established within the first few hours of working on them. After that, it’s seeing if their initial freshness sticks, and trying to keep it as open as possible while I’m closing in on completion. I don’t like the idea of making corrections within paintings, because it’s no fun. It’s like grading papers—I can’t think of any teacher who enjoys grading papers. I think my best paintings come from a willingness to [expletive] it all up and say, “Ok, this isn’t working for a whole lot of reasons.” And rather than sacrifice an entire painting to save one part, I just start from scratch.
In conclusion, who are some of your influences? Who are you looking at or thinking about?
Elizabeth Murray, Carroll Dunham, Philip Guston, James Endor, Matisse, Picasso, Conrad Marca-Relli, Cindy Sherman—I hadn’t fully realized her importance to me until I saw the MoMA retrospective. Kerry James Marshall, ever since I went to Chicago and realized he was teaching at University of Illinois at Chicago. The scope of his work is huge—he just does so many different things, and does them so well. That’s what’s been important to me—I want to be able to do many things. The comics in The New Yorker inspire me. My friend Ella Kruglyanskaya has taught me quite a bit about painting with oils. I wasn’t trained as an oil painter and I think I’m just getting the hang of it. There are artists that never have moments where they fail in my eyes, and there’s always something relevant to study. With those artists, there’s always going to be something that I find important or fascinating. Even the worst drawings by Picasso are still pretty good!
Studio Visit with Crystal Z. Campbell
Studio magazine, Winter/Spring 2012
The Studio Museum in Harlem
If memory is “produced through objects, images, and representations,” the practice of multidisciplinary artist Crystal Z. Campbell (b. 1980) complicates an already murky relationship by privileging sound and abstraction over representational imagery. Recently on view at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross Galleries in the exhibition Mass Distractions and Cultural Decay (2011), curated by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier), her video Witness (2010) picks up where Vito Acconci’s Claim Excerpts (1971) or Chris Burden’s TV Hijack (1972) leave off, using confrontation and anticipation of violence to disturbing effect. I sat down with Campbell, a recent graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program, to discuss her interest in the act of witnessing and how this position forces simultaneous negotiations of the imaginary and the real, past and present, personal and cultural.
Central to Witness is audio taken from a 2003 police recording of a “suicide by cop” confrontation between Deandre Brunston, a 24-year-old Compton resident, and Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies that ended in gunfire. Campbell uses the audio recording, a widely circulated example of excessive police force, against an abstracted, unintelligible image inspired in part by filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1999 film Blue, in which a static image is scored by a feature film’s worth of background sound. Brunston, it was later found, was unarmed, posturing with a flip-flop hidden in the side of his T-shirt. “I found [the recording] so disturbing…, I felt I had to do something with the video to purge the [act of] violence, but it was difficult, because you have to replay it, you have to relive it each time,” says Campbell, who received the video three years ago from a friend. The incident is a footnote in an unfortunate history of police interventions gone awry, with law enforcement asserting privilege over how their identities are constructed—as heroic in a time of perceived crisis—and the alleged criminal not having the luxury of fair representation after death.
The act of witnessing an event becomes what Michel Foucault called a “subjugated knowledge”—that is, what is considered fact becomes shadowy terrain, subjective perception, and hence can be seen as an unreliable source of information and can subsequently be read back into the margins of history or, worse, forgotten alongside countless other news stories. Campbell states that “memory and visuality are linked in such a way that sound becomes secondary.” Long before the post-9/11 24-hour news cycle and social networking, or television coverage of major national events such as the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the Columbine shootings, or the Oklahoma City Bombing, people received a fair amount of news by radio. Campbell’s work asks a viewer to relate to events in a similar way.
Remembering becomes a substitute or surrogate, another theme Campbell explores, for participation or presence. In the video A Dark Love Story for Clowns (2011) (and in her site-specific installation for Project Row Houses in Houston), the act of memorializing takes on symbolic form. Inspired partly by William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and the Yoruban practice of ere ibeji, Clowns uses an abstraction of audio and visual information to underscore the narration of a personal account by a recently widowed woman. On screen, a female clown attempts to resuscitate or revive her partner by engaging the surrogate body in daily rituals. While working on her installation Passing: The Evidence of Things Not Seen (2010) for Project Row Houses in Houston, Campbell attended funerals for both her grandmother and uncle in the span of a week. She incorporated materials inherited from both relatives—mismatched jewelry, a six-foot set of wind chimes fabricated from metal shower curtain rods—into the work, creating a space of remembrance and grief that suggests corporeality through objecthood, a nod to the practice of conceptual artist Felix Gonzales-Torres.
“A certain kind of community comes out of grief,” she says, and the desire to preserve and mobilize this community to actively remember events and those no longer with us becomes apparent in Campbell’s body of work thus far. Using sound as a point of entry, she challenges viewers to recalibrate their participation when vision fails. Campbell insists that the act of bearing witness has the potential to be active, even when the information arrives through questionable channels or manifests in unpredictable ways. Evidence left behind by things not seen—the sounds, suggestions of presence, marks and traces suspended in time—relocates absent bodies in an ongoing dialogue on personal and cultural tragedy, encouraging us to actively confront the ease and lure of forgetting when met with distress.
Material Issue and Other Matters
Canada: 55 Chrystie St., New York
9 September-10 October, 2010
“De-emphasis on material aspects”, particularly “attractiveness”, cited in critic Lucy Lippard’s definitive text on dematerialization,6 Years, was a response, in part, to the commercial appeal of much postwar art. The familiarity of materials used in Material Issue and Other Matters at Canada, the appearance of being “humble and forlorn”, though trending towards monotony, does not breed contempt here. The choices made by the participants seem to be less a matter of irony or purposeful reduction, and more a symptom of our “trying times”.
Something like Suzanne Goldenberg’s Korsakov’s Skirt spurs much confusion. Skirt, a shredded, inverted printer ink box with Sharpie markings, with a granola box-top handle, is visually unremarkable. There is no perceptible charge or deception inherent in this piece; devoid of distractions and humor (save for the audacity of its asking price), it’s the piece that best sells curators (and CANADA artists) Michael Mahalchick and Wallace Whitney’s contention that the exhibition is a drama of materials. Goldenberg’s Belle du Jour is more complex in its composition, its scale dwarfed by its placement on the floor adjacent to Leif Ritchey’s wall piece. An L-shaped wall bracket, and a sundae cup lid form a pedestal from which everything else dangles: errant jewelry, a bramble of cardboard, magazine clippings, and squares of construction paper. References to Tuttle and Rauschenberg are obvious, but the latter artist’s oft-stated approach—using what is at hand, be it in the studio or found out in the world—is relevant here, even though one can be hard-pressed, at first glance, to definitively call what Goldenberg shows sculpture. It defies medium in its humble form, its viewing complicated though the object itself is not—another nod to the transformative power of context.
Lauren Luloff and Jess Fuller’s contributions are more straightforward in their references. Luloff’s two pieces are largely indebted to the practice of painting—the presence of rabbit skin glue, stretcher bars, usage of paint. But in choosing to have the work free-standing on triangulated supports, with a 360° view, the work collapses the primary distinction between painting and sculpture—the ability of the viewer to walk around it, their perceptions shifting with every step. For Pale Parachute, Luloff employs rabbit skin glue, used to prime canvases for oil painting, to appliqué fabrics to the substrate. On one side, presumably the rear, things are flat, shellacked down with the glue, lending a plasticky translucence to the bed sheets, windbreaker nylon, and a few inches of lace trim. The front shows Luloff using the rabbit skin glue as a sculpting medium to shape bulging hemispheres. She also paints, but sparingly; streaks, splatters, watercolor-like staining, the paint less tentative in some areas. There is an airbrushed effect on the stretchers, and especially on the supports holding the frame—moving the painting, and attending conversation, beyond the canvas.
Decidedly more understated, Jesse Fuller’s two wall hangings are comprised of large swatches of canvas, ombréd with washes of gold, purple, peach and various shades of gray. Fuller slices into the canvas a few inches from its bottom, carefully pulling down the frayed threads so they hang like a series of gray necklaces. The top of Lunar Episode mirrors the bottom edge, the weight of more severe fraying causing the top to sag, distending the shape.
Lippard’s writings on de-materialization detail a fracturing within “traditional” media. Given the cyclical nature of all histories, something was bound to happen again. Then, it was a response to the market; now, we have work that given the timing addresses similar anxieties, whether intentional or not. These objects unstable and not beautiful in a traditional sense, beg continued contemplation as they elicit considerable confusion, analogous in some respects to questions of materiality (and thus validity) about online/virtual art-making. One wonders how a work can successfully and harmoniously exist in context if what it is, not necessarily its content, cannot be easily characterized or discerned.
The works in Material Issue successfully occupy the shadowy space around form, material, and value. If nothing else, we recognize that in some way, they are culled from reality. A plastic bag’s silhouette, a woven rug, bed sheets, duct tape—each object co-opted here was apart of the everyday material world before entering into and becoming forever abstracted by the art world.
Ramis Barquet: 532 W. 24th Street
22 October-25 November, 2009
He had me at Soul II Soul.
In February, I attended the premiere of Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions at The Kitchen. The performance, comprised of 20 women of color, arranged into vocal sections, conducted, live tracked and manipulated by Newsome (with a Wii controller), with video accompaniment, was unlike anything I had theretofore experienced. After it dawned on me what “shade” in the performance’s title referred to—the art of giving attitude, as detailed in Jenny Livingstone’s 1987 documentary Paris is Burning—I was completely consumed. The sounds and gestures that I had come to recognize, and on occasion use, had been successfully elevated from the finger wagging and head swiveling warm-up to any girl on girl fight to a thoroughly brilliant performative moment.
Artists across disciplines have mined the sights, sounds, and drama of black popular culture. From graffiti pioneer Rammelzee’s sculpture and writings from a position of extreme, almost alien, otherness, to Kehinde Wiley and Fahama Pecou’s portraiture, rap and hip hop in particular are sources not yet exhausted. What is interesting about Newsome, like Kalup Linzy, with whom he shared the Kitchen program, is his engagement of queer and female subjectivities—with Shade Compositions and Untitled (Banji Cunt), his video and photo series featuring Vogueing extraordinaire Shayne Oliver, he sets himself apart from his contemporaries whose work resonates with pointed masculinity (i.e. early Rashid Johnson, some Hank Willis Thomas).
In Standards, his first solo exhibition at Ramis Barquet, urban signifiers become urbane. Status Symbols, a series of works abstracting images from black music and fashion magazine, Newsome furthers collage as a manner of critique; ostentatious symbols of gross materialism and product lust mingle with luscious bodies and “Dragon Lady” acrylic nails. Newsome here is referencing Heraldry, or coats of arms, updating the pre-Modern practice with 20th/21st century visual ephemera. What Newsome uses as “representative social, economic, and warrior related symbols” in his collages brings to bear the disparities between astronomically wealthy rappers and their listeners who buy into the romanticizing of street life. Newsome handily transmutes the hardness and inherent violence of status driven, “C.R.E.A.M.”* psychology into graceful cut forms.
Separating the front gallery from the projection room and anterior room are two exquisitely carved gates, outfitted with thick necklaces and chrome rims. The two featured videos, Fortuna Imperatix Mundi (“Fortune—Empress of the World”): O Fortuna and Fortuna Plango Vulnera are the first in a six part video installation aptly titled The Conductor, as Newsome is primarily known for his experimentations with sound and composition. The videos are montages edited from various hip hop music video footage (“5000 individual frames…enlarged and repositioned”, according to Newsome’s statement for the show), focusing on the hand gesturing of the performers. The score is a composite of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1935), comprised of five sections based on a collection of medieval poems chronicling the travails of secular life, mashed with samples of selections from New York hip hop radio. The scenes not tightly framed on hand gestures are ubiquitous—a parade of parties, rappers reclining showing off their bounty of expensive liquor and jewelry, gyrating video girls, luxury cars cruising—illustrating with contemporary visuals the source text’s frank discussion of morality and sin.
The audio and visuals are seamless; Newsome, like Christian Marclay (Video Quartet comes to mind) or D.J. Spooky, is sampling, cutting and mixing visual information, interchanging contexts high and low. The body of work in Standards explores an all-encompassing cultural force with a criticality that has been approached by talking heads and theorists since its inception; the difference here is Newsome’s capacity to synthesize recognizable forms, retain their universality and mass appeal, and bring them to street level with a concise visual language.
*a reference to “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)”, the 1993 single from Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)