Drawing a Line: “A Constellation” at the Studio Museum in Harlem
A Constellation at the Studio Museum in Harlem
November 12, 2015 to March 6, 2016
144 W 125th Street (at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard)
New York, 212 864 4500
“A Constellation,” which recently closed at the Studio Museum in Harlem, presented a series of works selected to juxtapose established artists’ work with newer work, disparate in media but engaged in similar themes. Differences between elements of the show reveal that opposing signs — rather than repeated signs — may be more effective in signifying an idea.
From Al Loving’s Variations on a Six Sided Object (1967), the eye bounces back to Cameron Rowland’s Pass-Thru (2013). The latter title conveys an idea of access or transfer of an object. Yet the plastic sculpture, a replica of mechanisms used at bodegas or liquor stores, seems more interested in refusing access. A transparent rectangular box sits on a Lazy Susan within a larger rectangular box. The nails used to construct each box visibly protrude and lend a sense of danger. More obviously, there is only one open side to the larger box, meaning there is no through. An object placed in the pass-thru would only go round and end up exiting the same side. This refusal of use value is reflected in Loving’s painting which, with its solid and dotted lines, is reminiscent of an origami pattern or instructions for constructing a cube. However, the distortion and extension of “sides” beyond the pictorial frame frustrate any attempt to imagine its construction. While Rowland is described as more explicitly interested in social relations, both artists negotiate the viewer’s access to space.
Moving into more specific sites than spaces, Sondra Perry and Nona Faustine ask where a black body has been/is now situated. This is an intentionally objectifying statement; Faustine’s photograph From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth (2013) explicitly places a body (the artist’s own) at an intersection in the financial district, standing naked on a wooden box with shackled wrists, on display. The viewer is conscious of their gaze. The choice of site does not immediately carry meaning, as the sign for a Tumi store and AT&T kiosk indicate that this is a relatively contemporary scene in New York’s Financial District. We learn from the text that this is the site of a former slave market, where countless bodies would have been examined, objectified, and evaluated as property that could be transplanted into the white space of a stranger’s home. The evident comparison of black bodies across time is eerie, and the fact that the viewer is still in a position of examination is troubling. This perhaps is why Faustine chose to reveal the significance of the site only in the text: the distinct experience of realizing its meaning is important. Perry reconstructs the white space Faustine problematizes (the space of a stranger or white master) as one of torment with Double, Quadruple, Etcetera, Etcetera I (2013). Photoshopped (objectified and deconstructed) dancers move desperately, emphatically within the confines of a corner in a blank room. Few architectural details reveal the nature of the space, yet it is clear that these bodies are supposed to disappear within it. Instead of arms, legs, and torsos, the viewer sees a grey blur occasionally interrupted by the misplaced line of floor meeting wall. (Architectural space is displaced onto the body just as the body experiences displacement in space.) Our only indication of the identity of the dancers is in the signification of their race — their hair — which in turn becomes the reason that they must disappear, the reason they must move so frantically through space. The trauma of their confinement in this space parallels Faustine’s refusal to belong in a slave market.
Specific to the site of the gallery itself is Torkwase Dyson’s 2015 wall painting, Strange Fruit (Dignity in Hand), which relates to the geometry of Loving and Rowland but seems more interested in conveying meaning. Representations of demographic statistics first come to mind when taking in Torkwase’s grid of painted dots. Again, the viewer only understands its meaning through the exhibition text. We learn that the painting on the wall commemorates “a fraction of the nearly 4,000 lynchings recorded in American history.” Structure communicates the presence of a narrative, but the narrative only unfolds through text.
Narrative is again constructed with ruby onyinyechi amanze’s that low hanging kind of sun… (2015), where the spacing of mixed media elements relates to the layers of that narrative. Here, not even the text reveals what the drawing must contain for the artist. The exquisitely rendered face of a woman kisses the masked face of another body melting into a mermaid’s tail. Three motorcycles drift into the web of a flock of birds nestling into the charcoal hair of another woman, drawn diagonally opposite from the first.
More explicit in creating a narrative, Talwst’s jewelry boxes encouraged the viewer to hold contemporary memories of racial violence close. The miniature scale of depiction should not be confused with scarcity of detail or meaning. In Por Qué? (2014), the killing of Eric Garner is recreated in front of a white American flag, reminiscent of flags by Jasper Johns. Within our culture of wealth and privilege, jewelry and commitments, what cases of cultural violence do we snap shut and hide away?
A literary mind could draw proximate parallels between titles: Jack Whitten’s Psychic Intersection becomes Billie Zangewa’s Divine Intervention (2015), or Andy Robert’s After Mass (2015) transmutes into the aftermath of Talwst’s Por Qué?, and from there into the math of Perry’s Double, Quadruple, Etcetera, Etcetera I. A visual mind may find representational rhymes: a wooden sculpture, Mother and Child (1993) by Elizabeth Catlett, stands in front of a silk tapestry of another mother and child by Billie Zangewa. The arrangement of elements in Troy Michie’s STRAND, CABLE, TWINE (2015) seems tied to the spatial arrangement of drawings in amanze’s work. Money transfers invoked by Pass-Thru relate to David Hammons’s piggy bank, Too Obvious (1996). Adrian Piper’s thought-bubble portrait painting hangs near Tony Lewis’ speech bubble Make His Mouth Bigger, Angrier (2015). Melvin Edwards’s Working Thought (1985) concretizes the slave shackles depicted in Faustine’s photograph.
This is not to say that these works are unproductive in and of themselves. A constellation is about the larger picture, but the curation of the show focused too narrowly on connecting dots based on narrative and representation.