Firmament & Flora Are The New Black / The Brooklyn Rail

In 1961, icon of Modern Liberalism Robert F. Kennedy predicted a black man could become President of the United States. At the time, these words slapped up against the status quo and challenged inherited ideas that white privilege would forever prevail in oppressing equal rights to representation. Beyond the complex ways America’s visions for an equitable society have evolved and devolved since, no one could predict just how powerful a Black presidency would actually be—let alone the magnitude of the aftershocks it would provoke in its wake.

This month, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled two commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. This ceremony, like most involving the Obamas, marked a celebration of historical firsts—in addition to Mr. Obama being the first African American represented in the presidential portrait collection, Sherald and Wiley are the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to render these prestigious portraits. While much can be said about how the Obama era laid the groundwork for this art historical moment, these portraits tell us as much about the leaders depicted, as they do about the American public to whom they were unveiled. Michelle Obama herself recognized the Faustian gift she and Barack had placed in the hands of these two artists. As Sherald recounted, “Michelle was like, ‘I’m really sorry. We’re giving you an opportunity, and handing you to the wolves at the same time.” 1

Both Sherald and Wiley use color as a political and perceptual device to implode the tradition of presidential portraits as monosyllabic representations of power, persona, and poise. In its place, a new paradigm emerges in which contemporary art animates history by depicting its makers in their full magnetism, and contemporary artists assert themselves as empowered co-authors of history. Let’s recall the very mission upon which the National Portrait Gallery was established, only one year after Kennedy’s famous words: “to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it.” It is with this founding principle in mind that one can most fully grasp the gravity of this new chapter—not only are African Americans claiming and articulating our rightful place in the story of this country, but we too are inventing the visual language through which the story of American progress is written.

 Kehinde Wiley,  Barack Obama , 2018. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8 × 57 7/8 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8 × 57 7/8 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley has made a prolific career of subverting what he terms the “signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic, and the sublime.” Centering African-American subjects from all walks of life—in postures of power and within vibrant, culturally adorned canvases—Wiley uproots popular understandings of subjectivity and objectivity within traditions of portraiture. In this markedly metaphysical work, Wiley situates Obama on a chair enveloped by his ancestral flora, with fronds that both illuminate and obscure his figure. In this interplay between background and foreground, Wiley simultaneously anchors Obama to his Kenyan, Hawaiian and Chicagoan roots, and frees him of the numerous labels and stereotypes placed upon him, an act of equal parts affirmation and liberation. Multiple aspects of Obama’s identity merge in harmony—the fearless, the soft, the quirky, and the stern—dismantling the trope that presidential portraits need to reify hyper-masculinity and dilute the many other facets of identity. Most potent for me is the fact that, in isolation, Barack Obama’s portrait is just as gripping a representation of an individual as it is a remarkably stark contrast to many of the presidential portraits that precede it­.

 Amy Sherald,  Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama , 2018. Oil on linen, 72 1/8 × 60 1/8 × 2 3/4. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. Oil on linen, 72 1/8 × 60 1/8 × 2 3/4. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Amy Sherald puts forth her own distinct approach to portraiture that sheds photorealism and laws of similitude to cast her subjects in a bold new light—one that, in fact, emanates from within. She foregrounds the inner dynamism of her subjects by rendering them at a larger-than-life scale, armed with props that help to tell their story. In the case of Michelle Obama, the prop is the eclectic Milly gown, which, for the artist, is a narrative cue equally important as the expression on Obama’s face. Like all of Sherald’s works, this portrait demands time be spent with it, as details progressively emerge that beg further investigation—the grayscale of Obama’s skin, the patina of her eyes, the purple of her nails, and the many messages folded within the expanse of her dress. With time and thanks to the meditative space forged by the monochromatic, ethereal background, conceptual layers emerge atop the more tactile ones, such as the subtlety of Obama’s strength, and her comfort within her skin. Sherald elects to project an infinite vision of Obama that has yet to take shape in the public’s perception, a controversial choice that has confounded those expecting a “likeness” to popular media portrayals already in circulation. In my conversation with Sherald, she describes her decision to forgo a smiling portrait;

It’s really interesting to me that we still can't see ourselves without seeing race—we have a limited imagination of how we can express ourselves, and who we are. I feel as though [some people] really wanted a glamour shot of Michelle. And—even though she is beautiful and fancy—that's just not who she is! I don't see her as a frivolous personality. From our conversations, I knew that I wanted her to look relaxed, as if we caught her gaze in a contemplative moment. I wanted her grace to shine through, and the great sense of power and energy about her that you can literally feel.”

And it's true—as one of the most photographed women in history—the cameras have only managed to capture the most visible and lovable sides of Obama. However, this portrait evokes more than what meets the eye alone, and is delivered by Sherald with the same compassionate intellect that Obama herself is known for.

These phenomenal portraits of Michelle and Barack strive for, and achieve, a great deal: they insert intersectionality into the practice of institutionalized portrait painting; they uphold the qualities of a masterful work of art by capturing the essence and aura of these remarkable individuals; they revive American cultural traditions to be more reflective and inclusive of all America; and they irrevocably embed “color” within the White House and the white cube. Yet, propelled by this moment in history, they also move beyond the creative act of rendering visible the invisible on an individual level. They speak to a collective dream held by people of color to see ourselves—in all our complexity, power, and particularity—reflected in our institutions. And the pride, emotion, confusion, shock, conversation, fear and hope they evoke in their viewers is nothing short of a slap to the canon of the art historical portrait itself. 

Notes

  1. Conversation with the artist, Thursday, February 22nd, 2018. She also said, “I’m not really sure what I was expecting I was just surprised at the vitriol…And everyone who likes the painting feels like they need to let me know where they stand politically before they pay me the compliment—they can't just say, ‘I really like that painting.’”

That Which Sings and Contemplates in You / The Studio Museum in Harlem 2013-14 Artists-in-residence exhibition catalogue

 Abigail DeVille, Negation: Dusk to Dust, 2013

Abigail DeVille, Negation: Dusk to Dust, 2013

Building upon the Big Bang theory as a cosmological model for the origins of the universe, Abigail DeVille further explores the interconnectivity of matter and the spatiotemporal confines that limit our understandings of the physical world. DeVille straddles the fertile expanse between archeology and futurology, excavating the ephemera of pasts buried or forgotten to resituate them within new contexts. DeVille’s site-specific works recycle the histories inscribed on our sociocultural detritus to discuss the human condition and the future of modern society. Her immersive, bricolage installations are all at once Gibran’s streams and banks, sites of progressive movement and respites for meditation.

DeVille’s unique aesthetic visualizes elements of Afrofuturism and gives shape to contemporary discourse surrounding notions of race, space and place. Channeling the poetic curiosity that drives Octavia Butler’s literary observations of society and culture, and the soul animating the musical riffs of George Clinton and Sun Ra, DeVille’s itinerant works sing as much as they contemplate. Works like Harlem Flag (2014) —pieced together from discarded clothing, collected debris, and local heirlooms—deconstruct issues affecting people of color, historically and today right here in Harlem. DeVille uses rubbings of local streets to create the rich texture of the flag’s fabric, and mines Harlem’s collective memory to unearth the relics of shared importance that adorn it.

By staging familiar objects in new settings, DeVille forces us to confront the stereotypes, behaviors, and memories we attach to concrete forms. Furthermore, she stages this confrontation within a greater unraveling of mainstream aesthetics, inviting beauty to shine through in the sheer essence of materials, scavenged from dusty attics, trash heaps and wastelands. DeVille’s Street Work (2014)  is a series of public sculptures assembled from discarded materials that evolve in reaction to the community’s engagement with them, embodying the transmutation that some theorists assert occurs through sheer observation of the material world. Deville agrees, saying, “Everything is connected. In Quantum Mechanics, the observation of a subatomic particle changes it. You can never really be sure if it even existed before you looked at it. Since you looked, you actually interfered with whatever was before. We affect everything around us just by how we see it or what we believe. In drawing, cutting and smashing materials to an altered state, I hope to talk to a larger question of time, the time we live in and reoccurring societal problems, all the way back to the beginning of everything.”  Through characterizing the spatial and temporal links that bind subjects and objects in eternal rotation, DeVille’s works investigate how human attention and behavior can change the universe on a spectrum of scales.

Through shifting perspectives and positioning viewers as co-authors to her own observations of the physical world, DeVille paves the way for a new genre of storytelling and model for engaging the collective imagination. Science Fiction writer David Wyatt asserts, “Speculative fiction is a term which includes all literature that takes place in a universe slightly different from our own. In all its forms, it gives authors the ability to ask relevant questions about one’s own society in a way that would prove provocative in more mainstream forms…it is a literature of freedom, freedom for the author to lose the chains of conventional thought, and freedom for the reader to lose themselves in discovery.”  Speculative fiction challenges the status quo and democratizes access to free thinking, opening up inquisitive space in which cultural critics such as DeVille can investigate the social responsibilities that parallel this autonomy. In said space, DeVille challenges the legitimacy of the histories we’ve been taught and asserts that all facts are fiction and the only truth lies in the lifecycles of objects.

It is in DeVille’s handling of her own personal history that this suspension of disbelief materializes and we are able to witness the interconnectivity of all matter in human terms. She recalls, “In 2009, I discovered through Google and interlibrary loan that my maternal grandfather, Francisco Antonio Cruz, had written multiple books of poetry before his death. In translating his poetry, I found that he was writing about the infinite and the cosmos, a discovery that happened after I had already begun thinking about the structure of my work in relation to supernovae and black holes. When I was a child, my parents said that I drew pictures with my finger in the air and I never told them what I was drawing. I was drawing my grandfather’s face, invisible pictures of a man deeply concerned with the infinite. I was animating an unspoken history of my own.”  What resonates here is the presence of forces beyond human cognition, memory and language that bind us to the otherworldly; DeVille’s shared theology with a man she’d barely met and could only describe through gesture, is only comprehensible in a world where all matter is finite and the lifecycle of this matter is dynamic and limitless.

Inspired greatly by her grandmother—a dynamic fixture of her Bronx neighborhood known for collecting and transforming neighbors’ discarded belongings—DeVille translates the act of collecting into not only a tool of sociocultural archiving, but also one of self discovery and explorations of otherness. Traveling through the dark wormholes forged in DeVille’s works, we are first introduced to the versions of our past selves we know all too well and called to atone for the attitudes and behaviors that have come to define us as a society. Once we’ve come to terms with our incalculable position along the vast timeline between creation and extinction, we are drawn deeper still, past the familiar, to a light on the other side that reflects the future selves we have yet to meet. — Nico Wheadon

Published in The 2013-14 Artists-in-Residence Exhibition Catalogue, Summer 2014 Issue

Material Histories exhibition on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 17 July – 26 October, 2014

Find the digital issue here

"Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch it’s flowing. Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, and knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream. And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space." — Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Siah Armajani, An Ingenious World : Parasol Unit for Contemporary Art / Distorted Magazine

As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure. – John Dewey

  Siah Armajani:   NOAA Bridge, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Seattle , 1982. Painted wood, wood, 23.5 x 30.5 x 87 cm. Courtesy of Rudolf Zwirner

Siah Armajani: NOAA Bridge, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Seattle, 1982. Painted wood, wood, 23.5 x 30.5 x 87 cm. Courtesy of Rudolf Zwirner

Siah Armajani—who immigrated to America from a politically volatile Iran in 1960—is a celebrated, conceptual sculptor best known for his public works that highlight democracy’s role in bridging our shared, lived experience. For Armajani, all art is public art—or for the people—and his works refuse complacency in addressing the physical and philosophical divides that weaken modern society. Describing himself as an artist whose medium is equal parts, wood, metal, philosophy and poetry, Armajani’s architecturally-scaled sculptures resist reduction within the field of modern art or architecture, and tackle social and cultural concerns as wide-reaching as the materials he employs. Driven particularly by his own Persian heritage, his ever-expanding knowledge of philosophy and his life-long appreciation of poetry and literature, Armajani is fearless in his want to foreground the gaps between our mediated existence in the physical world and our cultural, social and emotional needs.

Parasol unit —where Armajani currently exhibits a survey of works including models, sculptures, early drawings and a site-specific reading room—has achieved no small feat in presenting the gallery-sized works of an artist whose signature ingredient is civic context. What emerges from this dichotomy is the philanthropic impulse driving Armajani, and the exhibition excels in communicating the cerebral dexterity of this thought-provoking cultural leader who has pioneered a visual way of thinking that extends far beyond the walls of the institution. Armajani cites his literary hero John Dewey in discussing the critical context of his works: “Culture is detectable geographically and the idea of region should be understood as a term of value.” Armajani also believes that an artist’s work has an autonomous force of location and that public art is the logical extension of human movement and is thus predisposed to politics.

This personal philosophy and emphasis on site and passage as dynamic political concepts are most evident in Armajani’s bridges. In 1988, he was commissioned by Walker Art Center, his local museum in Minnesota, to design the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge that literally bridges the anonymity of downtown life with Loring Park, an inclusive site of social, cultural and political gathering. In the project, Armajani not only fuses multiple aspects of American design within a single structure, but he too fuses historical references with their influence on modern concerns, evident here in the color scheme which echoes the infamous home of founding father Thomas Jefferson. And amidst all the structural glory and ingenuity of the bridge lies the literary subtext that is present in all of his works, a poem.

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.
- John Ashbery

Parasol unit curator Ziba Ardalan does not force a chronology upon Armajani’s life and output as a maker, and rather gives visitors insight into how diverse his influences as a thinker are and how these influences effect his artistic process. The top floor of the exhibition showcases nearly 80 of the artist’s own models, constructed from base materials such as wood, metal, copper and straw, which pay homage to the poets and writers who have inspired him greatly. What is interesting here is that—unlike his large-scale, public works, constructed by the bureaucratic union of engineers, architects and city departments—the models bear his own fingerprint and are reduced in form so that the purity of concept is able to shine through. 

Armajani’s model for Exile Dreaming of Adorno (2010) draws parallels between his own experience with the political and emotional condition of living in exile and that of German philosopher Theodor Adorno who famously said, “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Fallujah (2004)—which in its final form was a large-scale, two-story structure perched on its edge encasing relics from a life turned upside down by war—is presented here as a palm-sized model in plastic, wood, metal and paint. Amazingly, despite its scale, the model holds no less conceptual weight in confronting the atrocious pitfalls of democracy that happened in the city of Fallujah during the Iraq war.

All of Armajani’s works—from models to bridges to philosophical reading rooms to the 1996 Olympic Torch—resist ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake and instead gather their visual and representational identity from the socializations that necessitate their use. The exhibition’s title, An Ingenious World, articulates Armajani’s emphasis on social utility and his desire to bring people together to witness and discuss our ever-changing world. 

Published in Distorted, November 2013 Issue

Exhibition on view at Parasol unit, foundation for contemporary art, 18 September – 15 December 2013

Alternative Guide to the Universe : Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre / Distorted Magazine

  Lee Godie ,  Lee and Cameo on a chair…  (early to mid 1970s), © the artist, Courtesy Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection

Lee GodieLee and Cameo on a chair… (early to mid 1970s), © the artist, Courtesy Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection

Calling on makers whose practice straddles institutionalism and the art historical canon, Alternative Guide to the Universe is an inquisitive group exhibition that surveys the many nuances that bind the human experience. Showcasing multimedia works by fringe artists, scientists, architects, inventors and engineers, the Hayward Gallery has amalgamated a bold constellation of representations, wherein the paranormal is foregrounded, demystified and celebrated through a language all its own.


What propels these outsider works into critical discussion is the tenacity of their makers in translating the enigmatic into something uniquely tangible and life affirming, in spite of all odds. Having overcome numerous personal obstacles—such as mental and physical illness, institutional rejection, homelessness, illiteracy, World Wars, mental breakdowns and delayed self-discovery—this group is fearless in offering not only visions but also utopian blueprints for what the world we inhabit could look like. Add to this the fact that these substantial works have been created by those with little to no formal training or background in the arts, and it becomes clear that the magic at work here is rooted in a freedom of expression afforded by living, working and dreaming in tangent to the mainstream. 

From Alfred Jensen's immense apocalyptic number paintings in the first hall to Lee Godie's charmingly intimate self-portraits of alter egos in the last, the exhibition drives itself forward through an unspoken energy that visibly resonates within each visitor to the space. Perhaps it is partly the playful nature of the works themselves, rendered most compellingly in Bodys Isek Kingelez's brightly coloured architectural models for future buildings made from Lipton tea bags, cans of Beck's and other salvaged recyclables. Or maybe it is the sense of complete submersion and submission that occurs when enveloped by Marcel Storr’s soaring, post-nuclear Parisian cathedrals, whose inherent luminosity and verticality propel the viewer into a meditation that leaves worldly concerns exactly where Storr has left them, as tiny dots at the bottom of the bigger picture. Whatever it is, each work in this exhibition resonates an authenticity, vitality and spirituality that can only come from a maker living his work. The sense of curiosity and possibility that these works evoke becomes a contagion that lingers in visitors long after departing this alternative universe and stepping back onto solid ground. --Nico Wheadon

Published in Distorted, June 2013 Issue

Exhibition on view at Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, 11 June – 26 August 2013