10.24.14 — Emerging as Material
Of the three artists in “Material Histories,” through October 26, one has words as her materials, while another soaks, stains, and coats his materials to the point of burying their history. The third piles her materials on plainly enough, as if rescuing them from their past.
But then art is like that, they might argue, where ideas and things can take on new lives and new histories. And African American art is like that, with the added burden of recovering lives and a history. Piling on materials is also the nature of way too much trashy art and way too many oversized installations. Still, this year’s artists in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem seem to know when to shock and when to hold back.
One expects new voices to bring something new, but all three work reasonably familiar territory. Bethany Collins effaces, rewrites, and reproduces found text. Jenny Holzer might have produced her Colorblind Dictionary, with all references to color obscured in a real dictionary, and Glenn Ligon her scarred and blown up definition of “ravel” or “skin.” Charles Gaines has erased single letters, and Allen Ruppersberg has blocked out whole passages, as in her copies of Southern Review.
Kevin Beasley comes at a time of rediscovery of craft in the form of everyday fabric, as with Sheila Hicks, and his stains and folds recall black artists from Al Loving to Shinique Smith. And Abigail DeVille enters a line of junk dealers like Isa Genzken too long to count.
Yet each also brings personal materials and personal histories. Collins wields a mean but delicate knife in cutting through paper, and she knows that skin can stand for either a covering or a painful stripping away. She also leaves implicit its role as a marker of race while rendering it in white. Beasley scavenges simple materials associated with creature comforts, like a pillow or a dressing gown. Then he adds a grisly reminder of the body, not unlike David Altmejd, by caking them in polyurethane and colored dust, while leaving their human scale intact. A pillowcase floats against a wall like an angel.
DeVille claims the deepest history, with titles like Gone Forever and Ever Present. She describes her assemblages as “detritus” of the Great Migration, or African American journey north, and as “embedded histories” of entire communities. At the same time, they look quite at home on 125th Street. A black column rises, with a woman’s leg showing off and peeking out. More mannequins and shopping carts, plus box springs, tumble off a gallery wall. If one has any doubt that they suggest drudgery or homelessness in the present, she also creates a Harlem Flag of fabric and sharp colors layered over slashed sheetrock. A coil of barbed wire resembles a crown of thorns.
Not everyone can say something new, assuming that, after Modernism, anyone can. The Studio Museum may even have something of a house style by now for its studio program, with objects as records of historical consciousness and urban unrest. One can see it in the titles of residencies for past years like “Evidence of Accumulation,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Usable Pasts,” and “Scratch.” They seem to call for a more restrained and focused version of art’s bloated installations. I could do with a bit less of all that, but the program still has its purpose. It actually reduces the pressure to pounce on the new.
Big shows of emerging artists can try to assuage that pressure, and the museum has its own. Two of these artists appeared in “Fore” in 2013, one in “The Ungovernables” at the New Museum, and one also in “Starfall,” a recent show at the Studio Museum on the theme of southern history. Yet a year’s residency allows them a space apart from the latest thing. Beasley’s dressing gown has the outline of a leaf as well as a person, and both seem both fallen and alive. When Collins turns to painting in He’s Trying to Fuck His Way Out, letters cluster and scatter like dandelion puffs in the wind. The artists can decide for themselves how much to outgrow text art and material histories.