Blueprints in Black
By Diana McClure
In a deft act of deflection, the group exhibition How Did You Get This?: The Spaces We Inhabit turns an absurd question posed by strangers into a rhetorical one. When confronted with a destabilizing sense of cognitive dissonance, a result of an apparent union of Black humanity and well-being, a stranger, co-worker, guest and so on, may be so startled that they speak out of turn. Although this type of blunder forms the genesis of the exhibition, with all of its latent historical baggage—desire, judgement, envy, fear— the artists on view sidestep any direct response. Instead a complex set of nuanced retorts reveals glimpses of the diversity of black experience, effectively rendering the stranger’s invasive inquisition, a moot point.
Organized around the medium of photography, a collection of gazes—an insider’s gaze, a refracted gaze, an inner gaze, an obscured gaze, and a witty gaze— are employed by seven artists each with a unique relationship to the medium. The most widely recognized image on view is perhaps a photograph made by Deborah Willis of artist Carrie Mae Weems in a hair salon, Carrie at Euro Salon, Eatonville (2009–2010). The rhythmic lines that zig zag across the image move viewers through the foreground, middleground, and background. A conversation amongst an assortment of geometric objects—rectangular mirrors, angled countertops, vanity bulbs, and a vintage salon dryer chair—acts as a backdrop. Blocks of color, saturated mint green walls and cabinets, and black linear molding, add another layer of visual dialogue. Weems’ self-gazing into an asymmetrical black edged, handheld mirror, sits as a quiet focal point at the center of the frame. With her back to the viewer, her deep, satin coral blouse echoes a range of tonalities found in the color of the vintage salon chair, her own skin and that of two hairstylists, also present in the photograph, dressed in black.
Willis simultaneously amplifies and protects the regality of Weems through her mitigation of the photograph’s perspective. A point of view that also encompasses the broader context of the beauty parlor, barber shop or hair salon as a site of self-care, community care, economic achievement, and public discourse. The sociological context of the image is elegantly reinforced through the energized interplay of compositional elements within the frame, juxtaposed with the individual quietude of Weems. From an art historical perspective, Willis’ photograph creates a link to Weems’ iconic 1990 work, The Kitchen Table Series, speaking to an art historical space of Black excellence.
Two equally provocative images by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., also use composition and framing as tools to mediate the exchange of gazes between the image and the viewer. Employing ambiguity as a storytelling technique, Brown writes that his images become a prime space for curiosity and refusal; ostensibly disrupting any preconceived narratives inherently at the route of questions like, how did you get this? The compositional foregrounding of the protagonists in Brown’s images, in this case two black women, one with her back to the viewer and the other offering a relaxed direct gaze, provocatively situate black bodies in space. The cropping of each image symbolically suggests that the full personhood of each woman is too large for a photographic frame, and thus any definitive comprehension by a viewer. A delightfully rich dialogue of insider gaze’s is at work both conceptually and literally within the image, The tire grits its teeth along the gravel and brakes to silence - a pause for effect. / Have you ever siphoned rupture through a narrow opening? / (Do you know the control it takes to slingshot a sound?) (2018); while a nod to Roy DeCarava’s poetically exquisite use of dark and deep tonalities is present in the image, Syllables of joy and devastation (2) (2018).
Forays into refracted gazes and an inner gaze can be found in the work of Zalika Azim and Colette Veasey-Collars. In Azim’s text and photo based work-The tale of his arrival (2019) and Aqueduct (despite the bend) (2019) -narrative is once again employed yet obscured. Similar to Brown’s cropped protagonists, Azim writes brief tales and then impresses them through a printing press technique onto landscape photographs of South Carolina. While there are no visible bodies within the frame, figures emerge through Azim’s text. We meet Ol’ Man John, Dick and Garfield, albeit briefly, through colorful prose that paints a scene against photographs of tree tops glazed in dappled light or muddy waters reflecting the shade of a forest. The text, printed in gold, imbues the invisible tales, told through memory, with a sacred, spiritual light. The relationship between the words and the land within each photograph evokes a three dimensional vision, creating a feeling of space occupied by both Azim and a larger black diasporic experience, one housed within an otherworldly ether refracted through an intergenerational memoryscape.
The scale of Veasey-Collars photographs, the smallest in the exhibition at 8 x12 inches, acts as an effective tool to draw viewers into intimate communion with her work, which is focused on the intersection of thought, emotion and dream. To further emphasize this inward gazing, the composition of each photograph is predominantly black, except for a circle at the center, which reveals a staged domestic scene. The circle, functioning as a peephole, stimulates the sensation of a voyeur’s view into private space, despite the fact that Veasey-Collars is in control of what is seen/scene, what is shared, and what is not. Daring viewers to decipher them, a series of props appear as clues. In one image a black négligée hangs on a white wire hanger. Titled, Display (2019), the hanger, a bit warped, holds the faintly wrinkled satin of the garment at an angle, creating an effect of light and shadow in the undulating curves of the fabric. The singular simplicity of the piece of black lingerie expertly suggests both the voluptuous life of a woman, sensual and emotional, as well as contemplative solitude.
Also engaging interiority, is a performance work by Daonne Huff, Framing [Big White House], Stay in Touch for Mom and Dad (2020). Using a floor to ceiling mirror, an original element in the architecture of the gallery housed in a historic Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone, the reflective surface acts as a tool for self-inquiry. A metaphorical equivalent to the mirror inside a camera. Aligned with the other works on view, obfuscation occurs in Huff’s work as well. The smearing of cocoa butter on the mirror is a part of a performance that excavates Huff’s memories of growing up “as first generation solidly middle class Southern Blacks,” in a piece where Huff’s childhood home is personified through the spoken reframe of the phrase, “It Looked Like A Plantation House.”
Albeit in different ways than Huff, the work of Melvin Harper and Anders Jones moves beyond lens-based photographic practice as well. However, like Huff, Harper also engages a framework of self-reflection. Building on the history of portraiture, he upends ideas of visual likeness, furthering ideas of the absence of the body and the presence of objects as a marker of constructed identities. Through the lens of socio-economics as a rubric for self-portraiture, a pair of collages—Black and White 2 aka Pleasures (2018) and Black and White 3 aka the amazing Black man (2020)—uses the banal detritus of Harper’s personal consumption to reveal a two dimensional representation of what he posits to be a portrait that tells viewers more about who he is than a photograph could. Airport stickers from a flight to London, identity markers from a trip to the hospital, packing slips from online orders, graphic swag promotional stickers, price tags with barcodes, Ikea product labels and more, all in black and white, offer a non-linear map of the movement of Harper’s body and desires through space and time. In some senses, a quality of despair is intermingled with the self-actualizing power of a dada influenced punk and graffiti aesthetic. Street-art style graphic stickers interspersed throughout the work and an anarchic application of Harper’s recycled materials speak to his attempt to confront his role as an artist wrestling with a call toward a sustainable, ethical art practice in a collective human moment of environmental urgency.
Texture and dimensionality in terms of materials, as well as conceptual wit, can be found in the work of Jones. Exploring printing processes and the intersection of sculpture and photography, the works on view offer a layered critique of the strategic navigation employed by people of color to overcome structural obstacles to advancement. The piece Copasetic Cool (2020), offers a multidimensional comment on Black Power. A black gloss substrate forms the backdrop to a layered, swirling array of lightning bolts made of black matte ink that land at the epicenter of the three dimensional work: a black fedora with a splay of dapper feathers hanging on a coat hook. In the diptych, B.A.P. (Bait, Antidote, Poison) (2019), the game of table tennis is put to task as a metaphor for the stealth, quick-footed strategy required to circumvent systematic oppression. Again matte ink and a gloss substrate are used to suggest a layered response. Matte text in the colors red, black and green, offers a rhythmic phrasing of the words, “bait, antidote, poison,” on one panel of the diptych. The other features a large scale, re-rendering of a photograph of a ping pong paddle, printed in matte ink, and full of a weathered beauty all its own. Although the work of Jones seems to offer the most direct response to the question, How Did You Get This?, his story is reflective of a larger blueprint that maps a collective path to accomplishment, but grants each of his fellow travelers the space to be themselves.