Dance Manifold: A Conversation with Tara Aisha Willis
An interview for Sixty Inches From Center
“…completely new yet familiar territory.” These words echoed after I revisited the accompanying publication for Relations, a performance that brought together pioneering artists Bebe Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Ralph Lemon on the MCA Stage in November 2018. In her introduction for the publication, curator Tara Aisha Willis offers a series of questions and propositions that draw from the historically-anchored yet generative tone set by Miller, Houston-Jones, and Lemon, while also honoring the shapeshifting and indefinable nature of Black dance and movement practices.
When considered in full, Willis, too, is the “new yet familiar” manifested in many ways. As a returning Chicago native whose dance career has developed largely outside of the city, there’s a fresh familiarity to her perspective. The new is also visible through her role as a curator of performance and when considering the artists and projects she is bringing to the MCA Stage. Then, an additional familiarity is present within her work due to an awareness of historical context, a body of knowledge that is harnessed, in part, through her work as a PhD candidate in the Performance Studies program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. While paying close attention to the foundations that many before her helped build, she is pushing these experimental legacies forward and charting new territory by demonstrating what it looks like to simultaneously embody and move fluidly between her roles as an artist, scholar, writer, administrator, and curator of dance.
During our conversation, Willis discusses significant moments on the path that led her back to Chicago in order to take a position as Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the deep and sometimes untethered relationship with dance, performance, and movement that carried her along the way.
Read the full interview here…
Photo Credits, top to bottom:
[1-2] Portraits of Tara Aisha Willis at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago by Kristie Kahns.
[3-4] Performance view, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller: Relations, MCA Chicago November 2-3, 2018 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
 Performance view, Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls: What Remains, MCA Chicago; December 5-9, 2018; Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Artists Gotta Eat and Other Things We Forget To Remember
An essay for Common Field’s 2019 Field Perspectives published on Sixty Inches From Center
When I entered this work over a decade ago, I did so with the recognition that curators, administrators, arts writers, and the organizations and institutions they work for wouldn’t have a purpose if not for the artists whose work they build their careers and missions around. It’s such a simple point and seems like common sense (as do many of the cases I’m making), but it all bears repeating.
Rather than preach to the choir of artists who navigate this unsustainable lifestyle on a regular basis, I’d much rather speak to those who design opportunities and urge them to create more equitable scenarios across all of their offerings to artists.
As an independent curator, freelance writer, co-founder of a small nonprofit, and a cultural worker who has concurrently held full-time, part-time and contract positions at city arts agencies, galleries at major universities, arts alliances, a foundation, and other kinds of arts organizations, I’ve experienced, facilitated, and been the creator of a range of artist opportunities. I’ve been screwed over, learned from my own mistakes, and sacrificed my own compensation for the sake of the artists I’ve worked with. Then, while channeling my experiences as a freelance and contract worker, I’ve sat at the brainstorming tables in large, well-resourced institutions and fought for larger stipends, separate material budgets, and additional funds that consider the hidden costs that reduce the payments artists are initially given. From these experiences, I’ve come up with a handful of things that institutional opportunity-makers should add to their list of considerations when working with artists.
Read the full essay here…
 Image of two bills of 500 pesos, one above the other and on a black surface with some hidden text between the bills. The top bill shows a portrait of artist Diego Rivera and the one below it shows a portrait of artist Frida Kahlo. Photo taken January 2016 by Tempestt Hazel.
 Common Field’s Field Perspectives image.
Let This Be A Lesson, or Caring for Historical Records
An essay for the Art AIDS America Chicago catalog by Alphawood Foundation.
Although we don’t always think of it this way, history is a mighty and ferocious tool. When done well, it has the ability to conjure up forces and galvanize coalitions of people who perhaps rarely or never had the privilege of fully knowing their lineage or their cultural, social, or geographic inheritance. An understanding and exertion of history can open our world in ways that were previously unimaginable and trigger a chain reaction that makes visible a hidden piece of human ancestry that we can no longer imagine living without access to. On the contrary, when it falls into neglectful, self-serving hands, the exploitation of history has the ability to cause the unraveling and erasure of entire cultures and truths.
But sometimes erasure is seemingly unintentional and history becomes a victim of circumstance. When history isn’t met with the resources and tools that allow for proper preservation--whether it be physical structures or the human history books who hold and transfer these knowledges--it runs the risk of being lost. Even in all of its ferociousness, history is one of the most vulnerable and susceptible tools we have. Elders pass away everyday. Entire archival and family collections end up destroyed because of deterioration over time or are discarded. The keepers and caretakers of history make editorial and aesthetic decisions that prioritize some histories over others, writing out stories that will continue to remain buried just below the surface. Then, the vulnerabilities of history are further intensified when you overlay them with the realities of the most abandoned, fettered, and violently targeted populations of our planet. It makes clear the urgency of care that needs to be given and the fact that the weight of what’s at stake is real.
When western art conventions are employed as the primary tool for storytelling, entire populations of people are left out automatically. Art is a parameter that is inherently broken because it comes with its own history of discrimination and calculated amnesia that mimics other historical narratives but comes with problems distinctly its own.
Order the catalogue here….
The Thrival Geographies of Shani Crowe, Andres L. Hernandez, and Amanda Williams
An interview for Sixty Inches From Center
Andres L. Hernandez and Amanda Williams are architects and longtime friends. They met over twenty years ago at the beginning of their careers while studying architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Since then, they have continued to stick by one another—turning to the other when they need a like-mind to think through new ideas, sharing information, and occasionally lamenting the dismal numbers of those like them in their field and its knock-on effects. And, every so often, there are magic moments when they’re able to collaborate.
In 2017 it was announced that they would both be joining the exhibition design team at the Obama Presidential Center, a crew led by Ralph Appelbaum Associates that includes Civic Projects LLC, Normal, and fellow artist and designer Norman Teague.
When that was announced they were almost a year into the joint commission A Way, Away (Listen While I Say) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, a project that questions and extends the life cycle of architectural structures and urban landscapes by stretching the perceived confines of a vacant lot and challenging the idea that demolition is the end of a building’s story.
Then, seven short months later, it was announced that they would represent the United States at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, which resulted in Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See A Line) (2018), a collaborative, inhabitable sculpture they created with artist and master braider Shani Crowe.
Thrival Geographies is one of many projects and collaborations that make one thing clear–Hernandez and Williams aren’t just architects. They are also transdisciplinary artists working across sculpture, sound, movement, painting, and installation and whose work is informed, too, by their roles as educators at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Hernandez) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (Williams). These are some of the reasons why it’s impossible to read their work solely through the lens of architecture.
Their sensibilities as artists bring their work to the edge of seemingly uncharted territory — especially when placed within an architecture context — which has its benefits and drawbacks. The overwhelmingly positive response to their projects, particularly Thrival Geographies, fuels the rising trajectory they’ve been on for quite a while. However, with new territory comes the possibility that the authors of history within these professional fields, art and architecture, haven’t found the language to describe or engage makers like them quite yet, which leaves the work lingering in a suspended state, waiting to be locked down by a versatile and adept scholar, curator, or other wordsmith who can hold their own within and speak wholly to the concepts that they are constructing. But the silver lining of it all — and a benefit from the perspective of the curators and art historians of the world — is that there is plenty of room to maneuver and experiment within these new waters.
Read the full interview here…
 The 2018 U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Bienniale. The image shows an exterior view of the U.S. Pavilion at dusk with light glowing from the windows of the gallery spaces. Photo © Tom Harris. Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
 Detail of Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line) by Amanda Williams + Andres L. Hernandez, in collaboration with Shani Crowe at the 2018 U.S. Pavilion. The image shows a further detail of the outer structure, focusing on two large braids falling along the exterior. Photo © Tom Harris. Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
 Andres, Amanda, and Shani in a studio at Bridgeport Art Center, 2018. The image shows Andres sitting on the ground, Amanda and Shani sitting in chairs near him and Amanda is speaking as the other two listen. Photo by Ally Almore.
 Three separate close-up portraits of Shani Crowe, Andres L. Hernandez, and Amanda Williams in a studio at Bridgeport Art Center. The three of them are standing and looking directly into the camera. Photo by Ally Almore.
Who Are Your Teachers?: After Richard Hunt at the Koehnline Museum of Art
A series of interviews on Sixty Inches From Center for Art Design Chicago
”…as an homage to this celebratory moment for Richard Hunt and his teachers, I asked a handful of my teachers–Sherry Hazel (my mother), Dawoud Bey, Barbara Koenen, Cecil McDonald Jr., Amy M. Mooney Ph.D., Madeline Murphy Rabb, and Angelique Power–to share their memories of the people who have been a transformative presence in their lives as they have been in mine. And, also, the lessons learned from those people which they continue to carry through their daily lives. And as a tribute to one of my beloved teachers, Sabina Ott, I’ve also included a reflection on the influence and impact she has had on me and countless others over the years.”
Read the full essay here…
 An installation view of the exhibition Sculpting A Chicago Artist: Richard Hunt and His Teachers Nellie Barr and Egon Weiner. The image shows a wall where a black and white photograph of Richard Hunt standing outside on a pile of building scraps and materials. In front of the photograph are several dark sculptures on high and low pedestals. Photo courtesy of Koehnline Museum of Art.
Not So Tight: Adjusting the Seams of Art + Fashion
An essay for Exhibitions on the Cusp (Tremaine Foundation)
Art is an arena that grapples with but wholly embraces the role of the body in how we understand visual culture, art history, and theory through performance art, lens-based work and other practices. With that in mind, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to fashion as not just an extension of that bodywork, but as an important piece of the puzzle that raises a fresh set of questions. Fashion makes us talk formally about construction, space, functionality, and the architecture of the body. But then, too, it begs us to discuss the body beyond the surface of the formal qualities by bringing in the realities of protection/safety, sexual expression, identity expression, dis/ability, touch, pleasure, pain and an autonomy over how much (or how little) we want to reveal—the somatic, emotional, spiritual, and psychological parts of ourselves, and not just the physical. As Frédéric Bonnet states in the short essay Desire—at Skin-Depth when talking about how conceptual understandings of fashion began to change in the late 1980s, “fashion saw a new liberation of the skin—the last barrier before the flesh—as an epicenter of sensations and a receptacle of desire. At last, fashion was coming closer to sensitivity1.”
And with a move like that, it’s impossible to keep it clean, clear, and confined.
But still, clearly expressing the distinction between the two worlds was an important premise on which Skin Tight was able to stand, and a way to explain the motivations of each featured designer. This contrast between art and fashion—which both have their own variety of historical evolutions—made the separate paths of influence and examples of disruption, expansion, and necessary experimentation much easier to discern. Within the context of the exhibition, these lines allow us to better understand the social and environmental influences of the designers in the show—for instance, how the activist spirit of the duo BOUDICCA showed up in their collections starting in 1998 and what made that different from things we’ve seen in recent fashion trends.
But here we are, fourteen years after Skin Tight was first exhibited within the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. We are now in a position where we can further consider how the conversation has changed while also reflecting on ways that the premise of Skin Tight can be expanded upon.
Read the full essay here…
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 “Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh,” 2004, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo courtesy Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.
 Jae Jarrell examining her work at the Brooklyn Museum. By Heathart [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.
 Sky Cubacub, Rebirth Garments. Photo by Ireashia Monét for Sixty Inches From Center.
 Rational Dress Society. Photo by Lara Kastner.
Justice on View: Struggle, Liberation, and Protest Within the Exhibition Space
An essay for Exhibitions on the Cusp (Tremaine Foundation)
"As museum spaces attempt to reach more black, brown, queer, and youth populations, they must contend with the challenge that museum workers and curators themselves are not always the experts. They must seek out knowledge and learn to be mindful of the nuances that come with displaying struggle and the hardships of people who don’t look like them, and find strategies for shaking off the problematic, Western, white lens through which these histories are often framed. They must ask themselves, “who is this for?” and be willing to confront the honest answer. They must examine whether or not they are willing to disrupt how they operate. And they must start with a sweeping internal overhaul rather than easier, external, outward-facing optics—like exhibition-making.
On the flip side, I also have questions for the justice workers, cultural workers, and artists—myself included—who decide to place themselves and their work in conventional exhibition spaces. Are we seeking the acceptance of the museum and/or the opportunity, resources, and clout that come with placing our work within their contexts? What is lost or gained in that process and how is power negotiated, shared, or demanded by the people who are asked to come in and help them remain relevant? What factors help us to determine which places hold us well and acknowledge our value and worth, and which ones are actually vampiric and should be avoided at all costs? And do we understand exactly what’s at stake when we make moves toward these spaces?
Creating a significant cultural shift in art exhibition and institutional practices, as in justice work, requires endurance. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a lifelong effort and an ongoing conversation. There’s no perfect answer. In fact, the answer might be that it all needs to be completely dismantled—physically and conceptually.
While I stepped into this field because I trust and believe in art’s potential to be a tool for justice and I believe in artists’ ability to be articulators of struggle, restoration, and survival, complementing the work of freedom fighters, the people, and movements, I also recognize and constantly interrogate the limitations of traditional art spaces and their inability to hold and do right by the power, self-definition, and burn-it-all-down radical spirit of the people they’ve largely excluded."
Read the full essay here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 Cauleen Smith, “Conduct your Blooming,” Black Love Procession in Chicago, July 2015. Photo by Kahlil Nommo.
 Heather Smith at Alphawood Gallery during the Protest Banner Lending Library Workshop. Photo courtesy of the Field Foundation.
 Entrance to “Black Radical Women, 1965-85,” California African American Museum, 2017. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 “Do Not Resist?” at Hairpin Arts Center, February 2018. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 “Our Duty to Fight” at Gallery 400, June 2016. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
A Case, Cosign, and Roll Call for Women of Color in the Arts
An essay for Sixty Inches From Center.
“We’re the only ones we can rely on to liberate ourselves…and articulate the specifics of our lives…”
– Kimberlé Crenshaw at the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2017 Annual Conference: 40 Years after Combahee: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives
“…my overall concern is with black feminist creativity in general and with the manner in which, in fields like popular music, opera, and modeling, media visibility may be allowed to substitute for black female economic and political power, whereas in more politically articulate fields such as film, theatre, and TV news commentary, black feminist creativity is routinely gagged and ‘disappeared.’”
– Michele Wallace, Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity
When I read the words of these women I’m reminded that I’m not alone in my thinking. The uneasiness or invisibility that I feel for myself and other Black women in different situations isn’t unwarranted or an emotional overreaction. It’s not my imagination playing tricks on me. Within cultural, political, and social spaces, the lack of care, commitment, and consideration for Women of Color (WoC) is often palpable, taking the form of a sticky web of presence and absence that drapes heavily over situations and conversations constantly.
When I argue for WoC to take the lead in the arts, people are compelled to start naming names. They ask, “What about [insert name of a highly visible WoC in the arts here]?” Yes, there are some–several, in fact. When listed (as I start to do later in this piece), the presence of WoC feels significant and undeniable. But as Michele Wallace argues in her essay, visibility does not equal power and it does not protect us from disappearing into the buried alcoves of history. Depending on whose hands are dealing the cards, these examples of visibility can be superficial and sometimes lack the depth to make them feel like a convincing example of our experiences and existence, or hold any sign of authenticity.
Visibility is significant, no doubt, but it’s basic. It’s the low hanging fruit and the easiest thing to do. Sometimes it’s simply tokenism for the sake of ‘good’ optics and diversity initiatives running wild and unchallenged. For example, when choosing an image for a website homepage, newsletter, or institutional Instagram feed, make sure it’s got some PoC in there as evidence that you’re inclusive. Every once in a while, put some extra marketing dollars behind that event inviting important PoC and WoC voices to the mic and the stage (and be sure to snap some photos of that beautiful Black and Brown audience that shows up for them). This is shaky evidence–too shaky to be taken as true care and inclusion.
If that’s the least that can be done, then what is the most–or at least more? More looks like the people behind cultural organizations and platforms being WoC. It can also look like WoC pushing for, making space in, and claiming leading positions at these organizations. It looks like having access to resources and opportunities to build our own organizations, institutions, and platforms from the ground up, if that’s what some WoC desire. The most looks like me no longer needing to write these words and make this case because the examples are clear and abundant, constantly growing and not discounted.
Read the full essay here...
Photo Credits, top to bottom:
 Photo is takin inside of the original location of DuSable Museum on South Michigan Avenue, circa 1961. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Defender.
 Installation view of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960 – 1985 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 Installation view of We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965 – 1985 at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs, Faces A La Picasso, linoleum block print, circa 1968.
On Art + Music's Enduring Love Affair and the Practice of Solange
A Reflection for Artslant.
"This more recent example is one of many that demonstrates how musicians have been claiming space and strolling into the physical and intellectual spaces of Visual Art, usually through their everyday relationships with and proximity to visual artists, filmmakers, and performance artists. And artists sometimes do the same—lending their ideas and aesthetics to musicians through the visuals that surround the sound. Even the language becomes shared between them. We can describe a visual artist’s process by waxing poetic around how they create rhythm through improvisation, how the colors they use cause a visual vibration, or the ways in which artists sample and remix from the great wells of history and visual culture. We can talk about a song as a complex collage with gritty texture, and then interrogate the alignment with or divergence from current or classic approaches to composition.
In many ways, fluid maneuvering around distinguishing lines contradicts how we’re taught to define, sort, and categorize ideas for the sake of communication and education. Once we begin to move outside of the classroom or other spaces that are in the business of organizing thought and information, it becomes clear that the world doesn’t operate so neatly. The dividing lines and boxes are permeable and they dissolve, suggesting that they may have always been unstable or an illusion. As the lines disappear we are asked to unlearn our self-imposed limitations and confines.
Solange is of this tribe—one that demands and promotes an expanded understanding of art’s definitions and refuses to follow any rules that interrupt the frequency she’s operating on. Although she may not have planned it this way, art has taken permanent residence in her practice; the cover of the album True was created with artist Mickalene Thomas, her hair has been styled by photographer and masterful hair braider Shani Crowe, and the videos that she and her husband directed were infused with the cinematographic eye of Arthur Jafa. The past year has taken her from the stages of Pitchfork, Afropunk, Essence Festival, Panorama, Saturday Night Live, the Kennedy Center, and Radio City Music Hall to the galleries and auditoria of the Pérez Art Museum, Menil Collection, Guggenheim Museum, Tate Modern, and soon the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, which was founded by artist Donald Judd."
Read the complete essay here...
Photo Credits, top to bottom:
Stage view, MCA Talk: Solange Knowles, MCA Chicago, September 13, 2017, Photo: Alice Feldt, © MCA Chicago.
All other photos from Solange performances and videos, courtesy of the artist's Instagram.
Adorning the Lost & Found
Foreword for the book In The Company of Black by Cecil McDonald, Jr.
Published by Candor Arts
About the book:
In the Company of Black is a book of photographs by multi-disciplinary artist Cecil McDonald Jr. For the past seven years, McDonald has developed a body of work focused on what he describes as “extraordinarily ordinary” people: educators, artists, administrators, business owners, teachers, and students. “I’m bringing together images of Black people who represent everyday folks.” Complemented with an essay by Tempestt Hazel and poems by avery r. young, McDonald’s In the Company of Black addresses and responds to the vast inaccuracies of Black humanity depicted within American society.
“When it comes to Black people, America is fascinated with extreme poles: either showing victims of violence, pain, and poverty (Black misery) or famous athletes and entertainers, and icons of popular culture (Black exceptionalism). This false dichotomy denies Black people the individuality and full spectrum of humanity that is so readily offered to the white population in this country. The photographs that I’ve been making ask the question: where are the people who make up the space in between? Here they are, they are important, they must be seen!” — Cecil McDonald, Jr. on In the Company of Black.
Published by Candor Arts in a handmade artist book edition of 100 copies, In the Company of Black will be released on April 28th at Filter Photo; a larger softcover edition is scheduled to release in the Fall of 2017. Books will be available for purchase and signing. The artist will share a few words on the project and there will be a reading of some texts from the book.
Learn more about the book at Candor Arts' website...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
[1-3] All photos courtesy of Candor Arts.
When The End Is The Beginning: Art AIDS America
Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
In the final minutes of Viral Representation: On AIDS and Art, a day-long conference held at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center that presented research on artistic responses to AIDS as part of the exhibition Art AIDS America, I found the nerve to raise my hand and pose a question to the roundtable that included all twelve speakers who presented or spoke that day.
“Where are the women?”
Tangled up with many other unnecessary words, the question slipped out of my mouth clumsily as words do when they’ve been stuck in my throat for a while. There was a heavy silence that followed as the speakers, only two of which were women, looked at one another to see who would offer a response.
Joshua Chambers-Letson, an assistant professor of performance studies at Northwestern, cut the silence by refining my question—“…women of color.”
Where are the women of color? Or the women? Or the people of color? Or youth? And others largely omitted from these conversations and this research? Where is the information buried? These questions—which have been raised by others such as Kia Labeija and Sur Rodney (Sur)— have been on my mind since I first went to see the show at the Alphawood Foundation’s newly adapted exhibition space in Lincoln Park. These questions seemed like obvious ones. They were the loudest silences in the building during my walkthrough of the exhibition with curator Jonathan Katz back in December. While not completely absent from the exhibition, the low presence of these voices within this art-world context doesn’t quite reflect the scale of the nation-wide impact that AIDS was having (and continues to have) on these communities within the US during the 80s and 90s. If one were to rely solely on what the gallery walls tell us, a viewer might be led to believe that the artistic response to AIDS began as a mostly white American undertaking that revolved around gay men.
That narrative begins to expand once you start to dig into the other parts of the exhibition. The catalog, packed with essays, additional points of reference, and beautiful plates for each work, offers more information for those who are curious, though it only goes so far as to include works from the original exhibition and not the artists who were added to customize the show based on each new location as it traveled starting with a preview version in Los Angeles to full versions in Tacoma, Atlanta, and the Bronx before settling in Chicago. (Chicago’s iteration had the largest addition to the exhibition roster with several relevant local artists incorporated into the checklist.)
Then, Chicago showed up as only this city can through an ambitious lineup of programspresented by Alphawood Foundation, QUEER, ILL + OKAY, and a long list of partners in many corners of the city. The exhibition was pulled further into a present-day context through performances, talks, symposia, screenings, AIDS education events, tours, readings, and sister exhibitions—all of which helped to address the blindspots and blanks left exposed in the voids between works on gallery walls. It was in the programming where women, people of color, the Ls, the Bs, the Ts, the Qs and many others who are obscured from view were given microphones.
Although we are often told to consider programming, publications, and the objects on display all as separate components that together make the whole, the truth is that these parts aren’t circulated and moved forward in history in the same way. Some parts stick while others evaporate or become fragments, remembered in the minds of individuals, photos on a hard drive, a buried Facebook post, or a video in the abyss of Youtube. These events reminded the curator in me of the inherent limitations of static exhibitions and why programming is so important. Then, it reminded the historian in me of how often programming is ephemeral and doesn’t reach as wide an audience as an exhibition does while a catalog, often created leading up to an exhibition, fails to document the important dialogues and art generated once artists, writers, scholars, advocates, and the public encounter it. All parts of an exhibition are not treated equally by history and our collective memory. Chances are the work that comes after Art AIDS America will be built primarily from what was easily commodified—in this case, the catalog and maybe websites and reviews, along with some printed programs and other collateral. But this work is far too important to let its elements slip away.
It took me over three months to write about this because I needed to watch how it all unfolded. Also, for me, the conversation around Art AIDS America being presented in Chicago wasn’t simply about creating press around this opening moment. Nor was it about the giant and generous gesture of the Alphawood Foundation to make space for this exhibition when other major institutions decided not to. More than anything, Art AIDS America provides an historical backdrop to the complexities of these three A’s—art, AIDS, and our country. It is a physical, mental, cultural, and extremely personal site for shaking out the nuances. As silly as it would be to claim that exhibition-making is easy, the truth is that doing the research, collecting the work, developing didactic materials, and mounting it in a space is the easy part of this project when compared to the work that comes next, which is to address the big questions that remain: Why are people of color largely absent from the mainstream understanding of the early impact of AIDS in the United States, and even more so in conversations about the artwork that was made in its immediate wake? With so many people of color, particularly African Americans, affected by HIV and AIDS making up such a small piece of the most widely circulated foundational narratives, what is the curator’s role in derailing those fractured histories? How do we measure due diligence in scholarship and curatorial practice? Then, what conversations need to be had about the privilege and the freedom to fight and struggle in public versus having to pick and choose your battles because deciding between fighting for the survival of a wider community impacted by AIDS and fighting for your own individual survival as someone who is othered within the othered (positive, queer, woman, of color) can all be considered a matter of life and death?
I say this not as a negative critique of Art AIDS America, but more as a critique of the fragmenting nature of exhibition-making, and as a call to those building on this history. I challenge those of us who work to fill in the gaps and pull these stories forward to see this as a point of departure into further and fuller research. I challenge us to find additional ways to capture what happened here, seek out the voices that are missing, and thoughtfully pursue a variety of ways to make this information easily accessible five, ten, or fifty years from now.
I have to say it again. Creating an historic exhibition that is anchored in the early years of AIDS and tracks its cultural and social impact in the US is by no means an easy task. The work presented and uncovered is nothing short of admirable and incredible. But the shaky responses to the question I posed at the Logan Center makes clear that there is still quite a bit of work to be done. And here we are in the final week of the show. It is from this position of looking back while standing at what could be seen as a new starting line that I share my conversation with curator Jonathan Katz that happened in December.
Read the interview with Jonathan Katz here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 Installation view. (Foreground) Trojan Boxes by Adam Rolston; (Background, left to right)Joey Terrill, Kia Labeija, Frank Moore, and Dean Sameshima. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation View. (Left) Barbara Kruger, Jack Pierson. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 (Right) Derek Jackson, Perfect Kiss, slideshow, 2007. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation view. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation view. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Ann P. Meredith, Until That Last Breath! San Francisco, Ca, 1987. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 (Left) Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers, Oil on wood, 2010. (Right) Whitfield Lovell. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
Versatility and Storytelling in the work of AJ McClenon
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center.
My first experience with AJ McClenon's work happens to be my most memorable. It wasn't as part of an exhibition or screening, but while quietly seated in public solitude, headphones on and computer screen inches from my face. The first time I watched the collage video Things to do like breathing it set the tone for how I now prefer to view the videos and audio tracks--by bringing it in close, almost inescapable, sensory proximity. At that all-consuming distance, partially immersed but still aware of my surroundings, is where the core of the work presents itself--at least to me. It was there where my own anxieties found something familiar.
McClenon's layering of sound and image, and use of repetition creates a hypnotic agitation that is a signature of the work, particularly the time-based pieces. The form of the videos thickly coats the content, providing them a lens that works to help us as viewers to understand how things like the struggle with mental health, a shifting sense of belonging, and the jurisdiction we have over our bodies and lives impact how our stories can be told. It's artistry that requires us to look and listen closely for not only the obvious or more covert narratives, but also how they're being delivered. It can be easy to miss the message by reading it all as purely personal. Sound, image, and autobiography aren't the only things being stratified. Scratch the surface and underneath you'll find archives of McClenon that expand beyond a singular voice and into something that bridges a distinct east coast/third coast understanding and a historically-informed, contemporarily-centered but deeply personal exploration of the nuances of Blackness across spectrums of age, gender, wellness, and other ways of being.
As McClenon continues to build a presence across the city, we took some time to discuss how the current practice has evolved from focusing primarily on sculpture and painting to video and sound, the ways in which health can impact life and art-making, the ongoing efforts to collapse hierarchies, and the variety of narratives and storytelling techniques stretched across these different bodies of work.
Read the interview with AJ here...
Photo Credits, top to bottom:
Portrait of AJ McClenon at Beauty Breaks. Photo by Ally Almore.
Still from Busing, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Stills from Traveling, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.
Beauty Breaks, Session 1 at F4F. Photo by Ally Almore.
Between Chapters: An Exit Interview with Hamza Walker
Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
Of the countless exhibitions, essays, programs, and projects that are dotted throughout Chicago’s art history and the world because of Hamza Walker, there’s one that sits at the forefront of my mind. The show was Suicide Narcissus, an exhibition he organized at The Renaissance Society in 2013. I visited the exhibition multiple times for the sole purpose of seeing the piece Leviathan Edge (2009), a 30-foot long suspended skeleton of a sperm whale by Lucy Skaer, which was enclosed by a series of walls, making it mostly hidden in plain sight within the gallery space. Though it was largely closed off, there were small gaps in the walls, occasionally revealing series of vertebrae or the massive skull, bringing me closer to a whale than I had ever been. There was something I enjoyed about my access, visual and physical, being restricted, not getting the satisfaction of being able to see everything easily, and having to fill in the blanks of what I was seeing. Looking back, I realize that I was attracted to that piece because of my appreciation for mystery and the charge given by the artist to complete the fragments for myself if I chose to.
I bring this up because Leviathan Edge serves as a kind of metaphor for how Walker has operated during his thirty-two year chapter in Chicago–a steady voice with a hint of stealth, whose presence whispers at times and becomes emphatic and booming at others. Since the ’80s, he has worked behind the scenes and alongside many to support Gallery 37, Urban Gateways, Randolph Street Gallery, and the art collections at Chicago Public Libraries. He has taught classes, visited many artist studios, voiced his thoughts on panels, and sat in on endless crits, nurturing a generation of artists, writers, and curators. He has built his jazz chops with Southend Music Works and under the moniker Mandrake for WHPK, and given shape through words and exhibition-making to the Renaissance Society and the artists it shows from around the globe. He made the original 53rd Street Hyde Park Art Center into a semi-secret indoor haven for skaters before the skate parks well-known today started being built around the city. Then, marked with the scratches and tracks of Chicago skaters, it has been exported to Germany and San Francisco, with a final landing place in Los Angeles. The list is long and endless.
I say this all to say that we think we know the full mark that Walker has made over the last three decades, but the truth is we may never get a full view. Even as a transplant, it’s impossible to truly see roots that have reached the depths that his have. For now, we will hold and appreciate the slices, vertebrae, jawbones, and fragments that make up this chapter and lead into the work that he will go on to do in the next.
Nevertheless, I wanted to collect as many fragments as I could before he made his exit to Los Angeles as the new Director of LAXART. So, at a small coffee shop in Pilsen, Walker spun a web of memories, many sparked by gold-marked tangents, leading to the cast of characters, spaces, and experiences that he’s collected since landing in Chicago from the east coast in 1984.
Read the interview with Hamza here...
Portrait of Hamza, Installation view of Several Silences, Leviathan Edge in Suicide Narcissus, and Installation view of Spec. All images courtesy of the Renaissance Society.
Library Excavations and the Love of Print with Marc Fischer
Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a lover of libraries, archives, and printed matter more devoted than Marc Fischer. He’s known for a long practice of discovering, creating, and distributing books and ephemera, making him a regular at libraries and post offices throughout the city. It’s practices like Fischer’s, which pays close attention to how, why, and what libraries, museums and archives collect, that have served as inspiration for the work that we at Sixty do, as well as our focus and approach. In 2007, he founded Public Collectors, a project that uses publishing and exhibitions to give glimpses into people’s personal collections–ones that usually go unseen. Prior to that, he and Brett Bloom founded Temporary Services, a project started in 1998 which also holds under its umbrella Half Letter Press, whose publications I’ve come across in Los Angeles, New York, London, and many bookstores in between.
But his commitment to printed matter in a time of digital dominance isn’t exactly what makes these projects get the notice that they have over the years. It’s the strength of the content and Fischer’s ability to shine a light on things we often don’t pay much attention to, never knew existed, or often take for granted.
This is certainly the case with Public Collectors’ latest publications, Library Excavations, which is an ongoing series of booklets created from content found on the shelves, in the stacks, or in the archives of the Chicago Public Libraries. The first four forefront topics that lie just below the surface of things that confront and concern us everyday–incarceration, the music industry, racial biases and profiling–but presented in a way that minimizes a heavy-handed or swayed contextualization, allowing for the content to speak, pretty loudly, for itself. Even with these four publications that alone have so much to say, Fischer took some time to explain his process for selecting the content of each book and why he finds such value in libraries and repositories.
Read the full interview with Marc here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
[1-4] All images from the Library Excavations series of publications by Marc Fischer. Courtesy of Half Letter Press.
The Ars Poetica and Origin Story of Krista Franklin
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
At twenty-one, I stood at the crossroad of Hell
& Here, evil peering at me behind a blue-red eye. I armed myself
with the memories of Pentecostal tent revivals, apple orchards, the
strawberry fields I roamed with my mother & aunts in the summer,
& the sightings of UFO lights blinking in the black of an Ohio
nightsky. I am a weapon.
–Krista Franklin, from Manifesto, or Ars Poetica #2
I describe Krista Franklin as a poet and an artist only for the sake of offering an entry point into her work. It’s true–she is a fierce wordsmith and maker who moves naturally, yet distinctly, between words and paper. Those of you who know her work may be equally as familiar with the rhythm of her prose as you are with the beguiling tactility of her collages and handmade papers. You may know it at first sight or sound. But the initial encounter one may have with her work is simply an enchantment, a quick and captivating tool that forces a pause. Once you stop to stand still and sit between the lines or underneath the layers, there are pasts, presents, futures, and other worlds being agitated and conjured. With fluency, Franklin makes visible places and intelligences that are accessed by anointed scribes who have taken on the responsibility of translating the cultural and social detritus of humans, androids, and ancestors into a language that we can begin to understand.
Franklin is a storyteller and a vessel for well-known histories, things unwritten, and realities that have yet to be, which is why defining her as only an artist or a poet is inaccurate. Her work demands that those titles be interchangeable with historian, educator, caretaker, life scholar, ethnographer, anthropologist, and receiver.
Her flow between roles is mimicked in the work that she makes. In poems and on paper, Franklin reveals herself as a master sampler who builds bridges between a vast range of elements and references within a profound sea of influences and experiences. Each work comes with its own laundry list of liner notes and citations. To describe her work I could as easily cite the poetry of Fred Moten and Amiri Baraka, writings of Ishmael Reed, or the worlds of Octavia Butler as I could the collages of Hannah Höch and Romare Bearden, or the chameleon-like characteristics of Grace Jones or Prince Rogers Nelson. I could use the lyrics of Bad Brains, the album covers of Parliament/Funkadelic, the music videos of Outkast, or the echoing sound of voices that linger above 47th street in Chicago on any given day to bring it back into a place of Black sonic culture. Then, within the same breath, I could speak about the recurring lyrical and visual motifs that show reverence for the grace of Black women, youth, and street scholars while channeling the supernaturalness of veves, afro picks, cowry shells, and global Black memorabilia.
Then there’s how she lays plain the underbelly of these mondes, expressing truths often thought but rarely said, as messy and monstrous as they may be. She does not discriminate between the celebrated and condemned strata of the landscapes she traverses. Unflinchingly, she approaches them with an unconditional love and discerning eye whereas most people would be left stunned, shook, and fleeting.
By sharing her origin story, Franklin offers traces, not a blueprint. She is one of those artists whose style and technique is often imitated but never can it be duplicated because her radial disposition is organically constructed through insatiable curiosity, instinct, and learning through living, making her process and approach distinctly her own. The Krista Franklin blueprint can and will never be written down. Instead, she will leave you with shapeshifting breadcrumbs so mighty and nourishing that you’ll feel full while eventually realizing what you actually got were hors d’oeuvres. In our conversation she offers some insight into the seeds of her life’s work by starting from the beginning.
Read the interview with Krista here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 Portrait of Krista Franklin taken during a visit with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Teen Lab, November 2016. Photo by RJ Eldridge.
 Ophelia, photograph and mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist.
 …voyage whose chartings are unlove (Detail), altered book and mixed media in aquarium, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist
The Waxing and Waning of A-lan Holt's Moonwork
A Response for Sixty Inches From Center
After reading the book and attending the release of the 28-edition hardcover version, I wrote a response to Moonwork, a book of poetry by Bay Area writer A-lan Holt. Read it here...
Purchase the book from Candor Arts here.
All photos courtesy of Candor Arts.
The Archeology of Viktor lé. Givens
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
Viktor lé. Givens‘ work, which is primarily performance, sound, and installation, exists in a continuum of making that is inhabited by writers and storytellers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. The vocabulary used to categorize their style has trouble fully holding them, so what’s required is a new category. One that resembles a recipe kept alive not with precise measurement, but through muscle memory, making, and an awareness of hidden ingredients. Their work is called fiction and speculative, but I resist the limits of those labels. Describing it only as imagination and conjecture doesn’t recognize the knowledge, truth, and undefinable substance that is embedded within it.
In one of my favorite Toni Morrison speeches, The Site of Memory, she pulls the words of Zora Neale Hurston who said, “Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.” In other words, there is truth and knowledge to be found in the marrow of our bones. It is a crucial part of how we retrieve and construct our lost and fragmented stories, traditions, and legacies. It is not fiction in the way you may understand it.
Morrison goes on to say:
If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic. I suppose I could dispense with the last four if I were not so deadly serious about fidelity to the milieu out of which I write and in which my ancestors actually lived. Infidelity to that milieu – the absence of the interior life, the deliberate excising of it from the records […] – is precisely the problem in the discourse that proceeded without us. How I gain access to that interior life is what […] distinguishes my fiction from autobiographical strategies and which also embraces certain autobiographical strategies. It’s a kind of literary archeology: On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork, you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply. What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the […] remains – in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of a truth.
Though the form is different, I believe that lé. Givens’ work is a continuation and adaptation of the methods used by storytellers like Hurston and Morrison who find truth in their bodies and use the whispers of archeological sites (mental and physical) to piece together Black pasts. His most recent exhibition at Rootwork Gallery is an example of this. The In Between Space: Black Magic. Black Manhood. Black Matter is the final chapter of lé. Givens’ series of archeological installations dedicated to Black men with supernatural abilities–the “sight seeing, dream catching, street prophesying alchemists.” It opened at Rootwork Gallery under the curatorial eye of the gallery’s founder, Tracie Hall.
Just as the show was being installed, lé. Givens and I discussed his Texas roots, the often overlooked magic of Black men, and why deep personal excavation became such an important part of his practice.
Read the interview with Viktor here...
Portrait of Viktor lé. Givens in front of Rootwork Gallery prior to the opening of The In Between Space, September 9, 2016. Photo by Janelle Vaughn Dowell.
Everlasting Harlem: A Conversation with Dawoud Bey
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
Dawoud Bey’s presence in Chicago makes it easy to forget that he was not born and raised here. Although Chicago has been his home since 1998, his signature approach to portraiture traces back to his days growing up in New York, living with his family in Queens and refining his eye on the streets of Harlem. This is the place where his work always comes back to. In everything from his Polaroid Portraits to the Class Pictures and The Birmingham Project, there is evidence of the same subject sensitivity that was first brought to his Harlem, USA photographs, which were taken between 1975 and 1978, and exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.
For Harlem Redux at Stephen Daiter Gallery, Bey has coupled Harlem, USA with a new series of photographs that capture recent physical and demographic shifts of the neighborhood. To make the nuances and tensions of change visible, he takes a step back from making people the dominant focus and instead forefronts the landscape. Blurred streets, hard dividing lines, and a recurring motif of temporary, grid-like fences, tarps, scaffolding and other common signifiers of gentrification serve as symbols of erasure, looming displacement, and the detachment that makes it all possible.
The simple act of dovetailing these photographs for Harlem Redux provokes a set of questions that are harder to access through each series separately. Apart, they speak volumes–primarily to each of their respective moments in time. Harlem, USA freezes an expansive, manifold richness of Black life during a complex golden era. Then, the newer photos transport us to the present moment and make visible the changes and traces that have ebbed and flowed in the area for years, and have now reached an unsettling peak. Together, these two bodies of work bookend a forty-year transformation and rouse curiosity about the time in between. To Chicagoans, these photos may feel like a familiar and painful paradigm.
Just before Harlem Redux opened earlier this September, I had an exchange with Bey about his formative years in New York, what made him relocate to Chicago, and his take on the remaking of Harlem.
Photo Credits (top to bottom):
West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, archival pigment print, 2016. © Dawoud Bey.
Former Renaissance Ballroom Site, archival pigment print, 2015. © Dawoud Bey.
At a Tent Revival Meeting, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” 1977. © Dawoud Bey.
A Girl at Number 100, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” 1975. © Dawoud Bey.
A Man on the Corner of Lenox Avenue & 125th Street, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” c. 1976. © Dawoud Bey.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
An Interview with Jovencio de la Paz
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
For those who aren’t convinced of the complexities that abstraction can hold, I offer the work of Jovencio de la Paz to persuade you. Once you get past the boldness of his large fabric or felted surfaces and move through the elegance of overlapping shapes lingering in space, you’ll find something symbolic, celestial, ancestral, and deeply political. The way he approaches form and materials evidences a careful consideration of the heavy repercussions of colonialism and trade, art history, and contemporary life. He takes these anchors and combines them with a personal yet widely relevant symbology that embraces the range of his cultural inheritance. He employs all of it and then some from his perspective as an immigrant to the United States from Singapore, as an artist harnessing the tools of queer aesthetics, and as a maker using materials and processes that have countless generations of makers behind them. The result is a synthesis and translation of a highly personal and global visual language.
After receiving his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, de la Paz moved to Chicago and continued to investigate fibers and performance through an active studio practice and co-founding the Craft Mystery Cult, a collaborative that seeks to, in short, “remind each body of its own agency”. Somewhat recently, he relocated from Chicago to Eugene, Oregon–a move that has only continued to help him define and refine his craft. He now teaches in and heads the fibers program in the Department of Art at the University of Oregon. Most recently, his show Skin Broken by Prisms closed as the final exhibition for Carl & Sloan Contemporary in Portland.
Just before the opening of his exhibition, we had a conversation about movement and migration, the role of artists and abstraction in revolution, and the poetics embedded in batik’s lost wax process.
All photos courtesy of the artists, except the last screen shot of our Skype conversation.
Radioactive: An Interview with Maria Gaspar
An Interview for ArtSlant.
I spoke with artist Maria Gaspar about her upcoming project RADIOACTIVE: Stories from Beyond the Wall on the Fourth of July. We talked about mass incarceration, a central subject of Gaspar’s work, on a day that asks people in the US to reflect on freedom. Days after Gaspar shared her thoughts on art and disruption, names like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile started to break open the stitches of old and new wounds and raise questions about freedom. I couldn’t ignore the timing.
In The Face of Human Rights, Carlos Fuentes writes, “perhaps those who lack freedom understand its value better than anyone. Those who take it for granted are those who risk losing it. And those who fight for it must be aware of the dangers implicit in the struggle to obtain it.”
History and the unrest of the present make painfully clear the ways in which police violence, the unjustifiable revoking of freedom, and mass incarceration are inextricably linked. If you need proof, you can look to the efforts in Chicago of organizations like Project NIA, Enlace Chicago, BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, Stop Chicago, We Charge Genocide, and others who continually work at their intersections. If it’s not calling out to you loud enough from the streets and digital space, you can find the evidence in exhibitions like our duty to fight at Gallery 400. Organized by Black Lives Matter Chicago and many of its allies, the show featured a collection of ephemera, documentation, artistic responses, and family collaborations around these concerns. It was all contextualized in a powerful statement and a list of harrowing statistics that outline many of the symptoms of each cause.
With these injustices and the attention they need—and even with many of the aforementioned organizations counting artists among their members—the question of what art can do comes up time and time again. But how does amplifying these issues happen now through artistic moves?
I landed on an essay in journalist and music critic Jeff Chang’s book Who We Be: The Colorization of America. In it he talks about how art, music, and writing have the ability to help us understand one another’s pain and joy. He uses the words of musician Vijay Iyer to consider how sound in particular can melt away the visual obstacles that keep some people from experiencing empathy for others, specifically those who look different or have experiences different than their own. Sound, he suggests, can dissolve the visual biases of color (or gender) that prevent people from connecting or achieving understanding on a basic human level.
Alongside these ideas and efforts is the work of Maria Gaspar and The 96 Acres Project. 96 Acres is a project she started in 2012 that uses a range of artistic and pedagogical approaches to talk about mass incarceration at Cook County Jail (the site of which is 96 acres) and how it impacts Black and Brown communities in Chicago. Along with artists, educators, and stakeholders within the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the jail, Gaspar is growing an archive of audio testimonials, artistic projects, and curricula that tell a different story about mass incarceration.
Recently, the Rauschenberg Foundation named Gaspar one of the 2016 Artist as Activist Fellows in Racial Justice + Mass Incarceration. Through this fellowship, she and the team will work with people inside the jail to produce a new series of projects that build on the work that has already happened outside of and on its walls.
With RADIOACTIVE: Stories from Beyond the Wall, a series of audio recordings and projections on the jail that Gaspar will produce during her fellowship, she is continuing to work with those most impacted by Cook County Jail. This includes thinking about what sound, the disembodied voice, and other art forms can uniquely communicate and what disruptions they can cause. Gaspar is thinking about these things at a time when recording is seen as a radical act, a necessary attempt to protect ourselves, an effort to maintain power over our stories, and a tool for exposing the blindspots of American freedom.
On Independence Day, I spoke to Gaspar about RADIOACTIVE, how it relates to her overall practice, and the work that has happened through 96 Acres.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
Meditations on the Poetics of Revolution: A Letter to Kerry James Marshall
A Letter to Kerry James Marshall
Artslant asked me to write a review about Mastry, the survey of work by Kerry James Marshall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. This essay was written as part of To You, From Me, an ongoing series of epistolary writings to artists and curators who have significantly impacted my thinking over the years.
In April 2019 Artslant ceased operations as a publication. You can read the PDF of the essay here…
All photos courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Installation photos: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Good Cities Project: To Chicago, With Love
A letter-writing collaboration with Good Magazine about my complicated love of Chicago.
My love of Chicago is nothing like yours.
It doesn’t come from knowledge and a perspective of someone who was born and raised here. I come from Peoria, Illinois, which has a love story of its own. This love, the one I speak of, comes from someone who chooses to now call this place home. This place, with all of its beauty and its faults. Embracing all of its messes that I willingly inherit. I love this city with a kind of love that is unexpected, constantly nurtured, frequently tested, and feverishly cultivated. One that embraces the complicated, unapologetic, stubborn, and enduring tangle of it.
My love for this place challenges me to look back while pushing forward. It’s deeply rooted in the nostalgic, pliable, and ephemeral, yet it works tirelessly to acknowledge and find footing in the present and permanent. This love finds purpose in struggle—standing firm on my beliefs, testing comfort zones, and embracing a perspective that evolves through the daily lessons my unconventional, hybrid family teaches me.
I cling to the things I love and try to recognize and see beyond the things I don’t, in hopes that I won’t make a thoughtless decision or say something I can never take back.
I’ll admit that I’ve thought about leaving many times, usually in the wake of...
Augmenting Our Cultural Garden: A Conversation with Faheem Majeed
An interview with Faheem Majeed for Sixty Inches From Center. A version of this was also published in the book Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series.
If you were to dig into the corners of your closets, mine the contents of sealed boxes and locate the residual objects of your existence then pull them all together, what story would it tell about you? This was the process of artist Faheem Majeed as he began to create his most recent installation Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden for the Hairy Blob exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center. Instead of simply using his own history as source material for his work, Faheem combined his experience as the former Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center and artifacts created, used and set aside throughout its rich seventy year history to re-imagine its past, more clearly understand its present and visualize its future. Before we witness the activation of his piece through invitational performances in the coming weeks, I asked Faheem to tell us more about his relationship with the South Side Community Art Center, where the title of the installation stems from and the path that took him from being a traditional sculptor to an artist who could more effectively articulate his thoughts by not settling for a single medium.
Testing Thresholds: An Interview with Jan Tichy
An interview with Jan Tichy for Sixty Inches From Center
“What they put on view says a lot about a museum, but what’s in storage tells you even more…” - Fred Wilson at The Sackler Conference for Art Education, 2010
When anyone brings up the idea of an artist occupying a museum and mining the collection my thoughts almost instantly go to artist Fred Wilson. His 1992 project Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society is often cited as a catalyst for the turn of a critical eye to cultural institutions and how they relate ethically to their staff, their collections and the public they seek to educate or connect with. Now, twenty years later, the invitation to artists from institutions has far from expired. Some, like Wilson, have used it as a chance to offer a form of institutional critique. Others, like Maria Pinto, use it as a chance to place their work within completely new and unexpected contexts. Somewhere between those two intentions lies the work of Jan Tichy. His recent collection-mining exhibition 1979:1 – 2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection calls into question the true meaning of accessibility for a museum collection while at the same time using his own work to push the boundaries of authorship. Blurring the lines between his work and that of contemporary masters, Tichy has reimagined the MoCP’s collection from the position of artist, curator and viewer simultaneously. Just before the exhibition closed this past December, Tichy took some time to look back on the year he has spent becoming familiar with the collection and how the exhibition came together in the end.
Read the interview with Jan Tichy...
Installation view of East Gallery. Jan Tichy, Installation no. 15 (Siskind), 2012. 3-channel HD video installation, 11min. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Larry Williams, Rural Saturday Night, 1973. Gelatin silver print (Left, 1979:1). Zacharias Abubeker, Obelisk, 2011. Screenprint. (Right, 2012:21). Image courtesy of the artist.
Installation view of West Gallery, collection pairings. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Arresting Views of The Arrested: An Interview with Marcelo Grosman
An interview with Marcelo Grosman for Sixty Inches From Center
It is not everyday that we are confronted by work that stops us in our tracks, works at our psyche and leaves us wanting more. When I first laid eyes on the work of Argentinian-born artist Marcelo Grosman, I couldn’t help but wonder who the artist was and who were the people in these spellbinding and unsettling images. Guilty!, the most recent show of Grosman’s work at The Mission Projects, brought together Chicago-specific works that used the open image source provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections Inmate Database to create a show that was not only visually arresting, but act as a window into the disturbing truths that weave themselves into our local and global systems of control. During his visit to Chicago in late September for Expo Chicago, I got the chance to speak with Marcelo and The Mission Projects director, Natalia Ferreyra, about his constantly evolving relationship with photography, process and purity in portraiture, and his desire to reinsert the aura back into the duplicated image.
Read the full interview with Marcelo Grosman...
Photo credit: Images courtesy of The Mission Projects.
Life Work // I'm Not Asking You, I'm Telling You
Written for the monograph of EJ Hill in April 2013
This writing is part of "To You, From Me," an ongoing, lifelong series of epistolary writings to artists and curators who have made a significant impact on my life and my understanding of art. These writings are an ongoing, personal interpretation of particular artists' and curators' work that weaves together fragments of memories, the receiver's public and online presences, and contextualizes them within different art histories and practices, including my own. These letters are meant for an audience of one—the artist they are written to. All other readers are just eavesdroppers on the conversation.
This series was started in 2013 and recently selected for further development through a residency at the Ragdale Foundation (Lake Forest, IL) and the Banff Centre (Alberta, Canada).
I remember the day you left Chicago for Los Angeles. It was the last day of July and I was at my job. I stepped out of the office to call you before you headed off to the airport. I sat on the north staircase between the first and second floors, phone pressed to ear, trying not to sound too sad when I asked you how you were doing. I didn’t want you to leave. It was hard to see you go, but harder for you, I imagine, since you were closing one chapter and opening another. There, on the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center, I said a bittersweet goodbye and prepared myself for an EJ-less Chicago.
I never expected your leaving to have the effect it did. While distance from your physical presence was hard, this space brought me to a deeper understanding of the work that you do. Over the past two years, so much of your work has been relayed to me in fragments—photos, writings, conversations. These pieces and parts have been my sole frame of reference. This has forced me to take a new look at my intellectual and emotional reactions to your work, as well as how my relationship with you influences and enhances my interpretations. That has been eye-opening, to say the least.
Attempting to write about you and the work that you make while trying to maintain some level of objectivity is laughable. To not pull from every moment that has shaped my experience of your work would be a disservice to you, your lifework and our friendship. So, I’m pulling from it all-- your Tumblr feeds, our 4am phone calls, and our conversations over food and drinks during brief cross-country visits. I’m pulling from my version of what has been said in our hugs and shared moments of silence. And what I hope to create is an honest homage to some of your pieces and how they have impacted my thoughts. This is my attempt to articulate what has felt like an extension of my own struggle over the past two years through the generous work that you do.
Your lifework is about the love. Exposing the flaws. Refusal. Acceptance. Learning through doing. Learning through mistakes. The hideous beauty of failure. Our collective alienation. The things hidden in plain view. The things we refuse to talk about. What words can’t express. The things we ignore. The things we acknowledge. The absurdity of our situation. The therapy we find in one another. The therapy we muster from what we do and how the same thing that offers solace and clarity simultaneously generates anxiety and confusion for ourselves and for others. It is about the spaces and conversations we choose, refuse and unwillingly contribute to. It is about not speaking in definites. It is about uncertainty. It is about testing the quality and credibility of accepted sources of knowledge. It is about confidence in ourselves and our experiences as powerful sources of knowledge.
It is about survival. Resistance.
It is not about being polite, pretty or packaged for convenient consumption.
It's about learning through living.
I. Power // Position, Dynamic, Shift // Unveiling the Thing
Better Than Flowers, November 2011
“...interestingly enough, in a very rare and beautiful moment, the power dynamics that have existed for hundreds of years between artists and the wealthy had been reversed. The performance lasted only a few hours, but during those few hours, from a seemingly degraded position, I silently dictated an entire conversation.”
- Better Than Flowers, October 20, 2011.
Just weeks after starting at UCLA, you participated in that gala--you know the one. I can’t begin to describe what came to mind when I imagined you, head poked through a hole in a dinner table as you slowly and silently rotated your body and your gaze from person to person. Even more arresting than my mental image of that scene was Better Than Flowers, a reflection on your experience of the event. I clearly remember the controversial conversations that people were having around Marina Abramovic’s vision for the fundraiser and the discussions we had before and following it all. I remember the argument that art is work, and artists should be given the same amount of courtesy and respect that any other worker gets on the job. Artists should demand it.
In hindsight it is clear that your decision to participate, while conflicted, conjured up some unsettling and lasting questions. This becomes apparent in your writing and in several of the works that followed. Rather than seeing yourself as a tool to be used by the powerful few, you saw this as an opportunity to come face to face with a facet of the art world that is so often a bit mysterious to the ones who make the work off of which the whole system is built. You saw it as a way to confront it. To understand it by looking it squarely in the eyes. A jolting and admirable quiet victory. I was floored by the courage it took to not only face the thing, but to put yourself in a tense situation with no way of knowing the outcome.
Arguably, you taking a place as the centerpiece of this odd, congratulatory table of wealthy museum patrons led to a shift in your understanding of the artist’s position in this field’s social framework, and how one’s individual actions participate in a much larger conversation. You were digging deeper into something universally relevant, filtered through the lens of personal experience--a quality that is threaded within your work and also a key to realizing its impact. While some were rightfully arguing against participation in the name of self-preservation and a call for change, you came face to face with the ones pulling the strings, in order to make your mind up for yourself.
I see this as one of several experiences that led you down the path of artist as activist. Though when used recklessly that term can cause me to cringe, it is true. You claimed and owned a sense of agency that reached far outside of yourself and wasn’t always explicitly present before. You got closer to equipping yourself with the critical questions that would ultimately pave the way for unforgettable and challenging performances. Your part in this piece was playing into a much larger question. One that brings underlying issues to the table--the value of cultural production, what role the art/artist plays in power dynamics, and the mental, emotional and physical strain put on any artist willing to challenge these topics. You were uncovering the thing.
II. Personal Peace/Piece
Drawn, December 2011 UCLA Graduate Open Studios
“My position is that you cannot work towards peace being peaceful. If the peace is to be one where everybody’s quiet and doesn’t open up … share what’s unspeakable … offer unsolicited criticism … defend others’ rights to speak and encourage discourse, that peace is worth nothing. It reminds me of the kind of peace that was secured in my old country under the Communist regime. That is the death of democracy. That might have consequences as bad as war—bloody war and conflict. So, to prevent the world from bloody conflict, we must sustain a certain kind of adversarial life in which we are struggling with our problems in public.” — Krzysztof Wodiczko; Oct. 18, 2011
In the kind of work that we do I’m afraid there may be no endgame. It is likely that we will always be working towards reconciliation through struggle. Shedding some blood and getting bruised. And it is your struggle that shapes you.
For me, Drawn was the first in several performances that stepped into the territory of activism in an atypical form by being extremely confrontational and by challenging the very nature of the thing--the thing being the system that we as art makers have chosen to participate in, the thing that holds us but doesn’t quite understand us, the thing that we love and hate, the thing we invest our whole selves in. It’s romantic suicide. It squirms at our request for flexibility in thinking and form. To change, it will require blood.
I remember in December 2011 when UCLA’s Graduate Open Studio event happened and you made Drawn. I saw the photos. Dressed in a white button-up shirt, black slacks and black tie (which has become somewhat signature attire for your performances), you dragged your tongue over every surface of the exhibition space within the graduate studio building, around and between the work of your fellow MFA candidates. You know--you were there.
I’ve always seen open studio events like this one as being directly linked to the pressure to produce something and show evidence of work done while in the program up to that point. To show progress. This is easy for artists whose practice and process directly results in the production of an object. Something obvious. Easily consumed. Evidence.
But what to make of an artist like you whose practice and process result in things that are often intangible or disjointed when separated from the artist? And how do these traditional (maybe outdated) but seemingly necessary situations accommodate work like yours? They often don’t. Your studio extends far beyond the walls of UCLA. And though your work has often been seen within the contexts of formal or alternative exhibition spaces, the full extent of your work cannot be captured by these familiar cultural settings. Seeing the progression of images documenting Drawn, and the faint trail of blood that started to follow you around the space, I couldn’t help but wonder why we bleed for this thing that has no intention of bleeding for us, but would rather package, export and benefit from our struggles, and manipulatively coax us into conforming?
But I don’t think that you were bleeding for the thing. You were bleeding as a way to understand and question the thing--for yourself and others like you.
I remember talking to you within days following the performance. Faculty at UCLA required that you repaint the walls of the exhibition space, erasing the kind of evidence that the event demanded in the first place.
The structure of the academic institutional setting and the etiquette it demands is sometimes in direct conflict with the morale of the artists who enter and emerge from it. This conflict can make work like yours seem idealistic and futile if taken at face value. If that’s where someone stops, they are missing the point. The strength in works like Drawn lie only in part by experiencing the act itself--the memories and feelings that those who attended the event left with. The mix of unsettled emotions or empathy that comes with watching you bleed for them, for the thing. The strength is largely in the residual (the blood) and the aftermath (masking the mess). The seeds that are planted. The thoughts that are nurtured. A sense of unrest. The work that comes next.
Frameworks, at the UCLA MFA 2013 Preview Exhibition; November 1, 2012
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” - Martha Graham, October 29, 2012
Your work is a consistent reminder that it is not about the object. It is about the experience. The empty frames that were exhibited in Frameworks reiterated that as they stood in as the outer layer of the performance, just scratching the surface of it all. And again, if that is where someone stops, they are missing the point. For me they were all at once a cunning peace offering after Drawn, a signifier of potential and a nod to the shortcomings of documenting performance.
So, then why even do that--poke and placate after Drawn? I think “Why?” may be the shortest and hardest question that has ever existed. Sometimes I cannot stand it. How do you even begin to answer it? “Why?”--“Because it needs to be done.” “Why?”--“Because I have no other choice.” “Why?”—“Because there is no other way.” “Why?”--“Because I want to.” “Why?”--“Because I’m curious.”
I imagine you got that question from several people as you positioned yourself and braced your body at the door of the gallery for the performance component of Frameworks. You were not making yourself into the gatekeeper but becoming the gate. It’s interesting, the idea of a gatekeeper and the permission-grantor. It has always been a bit of a mystery to me that it is usually presented as a necessity. Someone standing at the gate, peeking out from inside of a locked door at everyone outside. A mediator of quality, the best, the essential. A keeper of an understood and established order of things.
My biggest qualm with art history as it was taught to me largely stemmed from this idea. Who are these people who decide what is written and what goes in the books, curriculum and archives? What did it take for them to gain that position? And who gave them that authority? Why can’t we decide for ourselves and posterity? How does one stand in the middle of an established system and question it in a way that really complicates complacency and doesn’t simply seem trivial and hopeless?
Maybe it takes stepping up to the gate and challenging the keeper’s authority--whether they realize what is happening in a way that sparks reevaluation or affirmation. Or maybe it takes realizing that something just needs to be done. Let’s not float through what always was, as if that is how it always has to be, as if that is all it can be. Occasionally it takes us saying, “Fuck it,” and risking it all. Your time at UCLA has come with a thread of stern talking-tos and resistance. But time and time again you’ve taken the risk. Some might ask who in their right mind would put this education, this promising trajectory, all of this in jeopardy? But on the contrary, I ask how any of us are expected to maintain a right mind when stifling this life force that Martha Graham is speaking of. The energy that whether acted upon or oppressed puts you at risk.
Just one year prior to this you were looking on from a completely different place and position. To the world outside of you, you were the spectacle at that gala. But from your eyes, you were in a position of power within that dynamic. You were commanding the conversation. This time, though you made yourself the line between two ‘sides’ rather than on either side of it, the watchers became the watched for as long as time permitted. And then no one was safe from agitation. I often go back to what Geoff Tuck wrote in Notes On Looking’s lengthy account of that night:
“...I talked myself closer and closer to and inexorably smack into the recognition that what really bugged me about EJ’s performance might be, probably is, that after 7:00 he made me feel like one of the people on the inside. My commonality with them was as one inconvenienced. I became crabby about my loss of agency. I begin to understand really that the focus of EJ’s performance was the border itself, and not the people on either side of it; therefore continuing his performance was necessary, his actions did not judge the border, they drew attention to it.”
And that is such a beautiful place to be. That’s atypical activism--one that forces both sides to relate to one another in a completely unexpected way. You found a way to not take sides in that critical moment. Dissolving the ‘us’ and ‘them’ to become the ‘we’ or flipping the ‘us’ to be the ‘them’ and using a very basic understanding of illusionary personal power as the tool.
IV. Survival + Silence.
Tell; April 1 - May 3, 2013
“You can’t touch silence. You can’t see it. But what does a representation of silence look like? What is the container of silence? I’m thinking of silence almost as a potential energy. The moment right before sound. Something just waiting to happen. The calm before the storm… Just like the filling of the balloon. Potential. But at a certain point, the balloon will only hold so much. Its walls, its boundaries will give way and violently release the very thing that it was made to contain. How tragic.” - EJ Hill; April 5, 2013
Each individual’s relationship to silence is different. In the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about your relationship to it as I’ve been around to witness it, and more importantly your relationship to nonverbal communication. Months ago I became much more conscious of how you use it as a tool to reveal what is at the core of how people relate to one another when face to face. In Tell, silence becomes a test of our ability to connect and a meditation on the limits and holes embedded in spoken language. I remember during a dinner at The Perch we said our hellos, you made a joke, I laughed, you responded to my strange random thoughts, we laughed with others--and you never spoke a word. It took me quite a bit of time to realize that we were having a fulfilling conversation through gestures, facial expressions, prolonged eye contact, posture and shifting stances. It takes a certain kind of knowing in order to do that successfully. It also presents a challenge. You became the spark that silently and astutely forced everyone you ‘spoke’ with to reevaluate their communication and ‘listening’ skills--their ability to say something and not receive the instant gratification of a comparable response through spoken language. For some of us it becomes a dance at the edge of our comfort zones.
When you took your vow of silence as your final thesis piece, I was reminded of that night. I started to question spoken and written language and how it is deceivingly associated with clarity between people. Silence can be a vehicle for clarity--personal and interpersonal. Some things are beyond words. Our voices can be misleading. In some ways, relying on our body in the absence of speech in order to express ourselves creates a new kind of understanding that has become somewhat unfamiliar in the world we live in now. In life nonverbal cues are a piercing way to express ourselves to one another. Not to say that people don’t do it now, but so much of our daily lives are centered around words and images that are detached from our bodies, fragmented, abbreviated, edited and delivered through technology. So much more can be said through a hug than through words, a photograph, drawing, painting, sculpture or any other object.
And that is exactly it. That is why the art that you make should not be called artwork. That word implies something which your work is not--an object standing in as a representation of something else, an object meant to communicate through a filter and at a distance. Lifework, what your work is at this moment, doesn’t allow for distance. It is immersive. It stares us directly in the eye. We can feel its breath on our faces--a breath that has pushed towards us from the other side of a video screen until you fall exhausted on your studio floor. A breath that has provided a disarming breeze for the wine glasses of the wealthy. A breath that has kept you going as you have pulled yourself across fields, streets and gallery floors. A breath that has helped feed oxygen to your muscles as you have wrestled this thing. The breath that fills the balloon.
My deep appreciation of your work doesn’t simply stem from our friendship, a bias that could potentially make my reading of your work dismissible. It comes from a certain indebtedness that I feel to you for getting me closer to clarifying my own muddled understanding and acceptance of this thing through the questions and conversations that arise out of the work that you do. As you wrote eight days into your vow of silence, “I am not making the work, I am living it.” That is felt. Your work exudes sincerity and authenticity. I am grateful for who you are and have always been. And what you will continue to be and evolve into being. Whether silent, bruised, bleeding, clinging, questioning, screaming, recharging, or asking for more, I feel fortunate for being able to travel with you.
All quotes were taken from the Tumblr page of EJ Hill on the indicated date, with the exception of Geoff Tuck, whose quote was taken from the interview “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or ‘I only paid for it!’, thoughts on a recent performance”, published on the blog Notes On Looking on November 12, 2012.
Photos by Matt Austin.
An interview for Area Chicago.
The exhibit Recess, curated by Tempestt Hazel, was at the South Side Community Art Center(SSCAC) at 3831 S. Michigan Ave., from October 11 through November 9, 2013. It included the work of contemporary artists as well as artists from the permanent collection of the SSCAC. AREA Chicago had an extended email discussion with Tempestt Hazel about the show. The excerpts included here describe how Tempestt’s response to paintings from the SSCAC permanent collection depicting childhood from earlier generations led to a rethinking of the importance of play and imagination for African-American art today.
The idea for Recess originally sparked from my familiarity with the South Side Community Art Center, its history, and the fact that it has a permanent collection . . . a collection that is housed in and a testament to the cultural history of the neighborhood that has been my only home since I moved to Chicago. For months I combed through every single piece in the collection. Honestly, I reached a bit of a block after a while. The collection can be electrifying, debilitating and poignant all at the same time. Then when you consider the larger social and art historical context that it was created alongside, the gravity of it all becomes pretty intense. I started pulling the pieces I responded the most to, which were often the pieces that I found to be unexpected. The first ones I pulled were “Ghetto Boy” by Ben Bey and “Cat’s Cradle” by Al Price. With both of these paintings there was something unsettling, imaginative and nostalgic about them and that strange mix of feelings stuck with me. There was something that transported me back to my own childhood and imagined childhoods of family, friends and strangers that I could never really know. I think the sense of nostalgia that I felt when looking at pieces was triggered by different relationships I’ve had with histories—my relationship with my parents and the history that I’ve learned through their stories and photographs, also my relationship to history and popular culture that comes by way of the kind of work that I do, primarily with contemporary artists, archives and ephemera. And then my own experience has filled in the gaps.
That was the seed and the show grew from that point. When I made it to a dozen or so pieces and started getting an idea of the other artists I wanted to bring in, I started to realize that the show isn’t simply about play and imagination. It’s also about allowing ourselves the space and permission for that youthful, limitless spirit. When I say ourselves, I don’t just mean people, I also mean institutions—particularly culturally specific spaces. Recess started to become a show that asked us to re-imagine what exhibitions at a Black art center could be. Must they always have the weight of struggle and strife, which is only part of our history? Or can they offer us a way to expand on what tends to be a one-dimensional and diluted view of the Black experience? Play and imagination served as the entry points into a larger conversation about the limitations we put on ourselves as individuals and in the cultural work that we do.
Just to clarify, I don’t think that we should ever forget the struggle or ignore history. Histories and legacies are undeniably important to keep in mind with everything we do as artists, organizers, scholars, etc. But what I am suggesting is that despite how ubiquitous struggle seems to be in Black communities and history, it is not the only story that we have. Instead of our cultural production always being a very didactic lesson in the struggles and obstacles of a people, we must take the time to tell other stories.
This way we have examples that illustrate our full humanity. Yes, we have struggled. But we have also loved. We have also forgiven. We have also played. We also imagine and fantasize. We daydream. We build. We shape shift. And our institutions should allow space to illustrate those things in addition to the strife we’ve had to overcome. One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is, “I am what time, circumstance, and history have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.” I think this perfectly articulates my point.
What I was thinking about when I came up with the title Recess was several different things. First, I wanted this to be an opportunity for an exhibition at a historically Black institution to not be about a limited, often seen view of Blackness. I was hoping it would be a momentary break from that. I wanted it to be a space that offers the things you don’t usually see portrayed when going to an exhibition at a historically African-American space like the South Side Community Art Center. I wanted it to be a bit of relief from that. Also, in all honesty, it was partially a response to the exhibition that was up before Recess. It was incredible, but extremely heavy.
Then, I was thinking about imagination and unlocking that, which calls for a dig into the depths of our mind. The recesses. Expectations or pressures are often what keep me from being able to tap into that. To release limitations. Get weird, get crazy and get strange. Ultimately the title was me thinking to myself, “Let’s have recess so that we can tap into our recesses . . .” It’s kind of silly, but I think I/we all need that from time to time. Re-imagine, rethink and shake off the things that are keeping us from moving forward and experimenting.My intentions with Recess were to say something about how locking ourselves into a one-dimensional understanding of what artists make, where they make it and what it speaks to is oppressive—not only for the artist but also for the viewer. Playfulness, imagination, the ability to daydream—these are activities that promote mental freedom.
Black To The Future Series
Introduction to an article series on Sixty Inches From Center
What is Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism? The art historian in me finds it exciting to be in the middle of a rapidly advancing movement that is all at once undefined but unmistakable in presence, expanding and unfolding, and setting the tone for new waves in art, music, fashion and cultural production at all levels. The chapters of most art history textbooks I’ve come across have made it clear: our understanding of art and how it fits into a historical context is often shaped by historian-identified movements that are pinpointed late in the game or in hindsight. With these things in mind, I have borrowed the title of cultural critic Mark Dery’s essay to create the Black To The Future Series–a series of interviews that pose questions to several artists who have identified their work as Afrofuturist and/or Afrosurreal with the hopes of allowing the practitioners to be at the center of determining what it is.
Though the philosophies behind these movements have been around for quite some time and at the heart of some circles for nearly a century, Afrofuturism and the Afrosurreal have increasingly gained momentum in the last decade or so. They seem to have found new nourishment through artists who have stepped forward to add fresh stems and leaves to the roots established by legends such as Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra and countless other foremothers and forefathers. This has resulted in the conceptually abysmal and beautifully rendered work landing on radar of larger institutions, being the subject of exploration by some noted art theorists, and being woven into the fabric of major exhibitions.
But the truth of any artistic movement and what makes this moment one to be savored, in my opinion, is an age-old one. Movements don’t start on the walls of museums. They begin on the ground with electrifying dialogue in intimate spaces, on the walls of homes, studios and off-the-radar galleries, and during the of off-the-cusp performances by those pushing new limits, exploring new territories and attempting to capture the transcendental at the edge of comprehension. Chicago is rich in this right now if you know where to look.
Read the interviews from the series...
Krista Franklin, "See Line Woman" Collage on book, 2011.
D. Denenge Akpem, Installation for Extreme Studio, June 24 - July 21, 2010. (Image Credit: A+D Gallery.)
Avery R. Young, reconstructed blk; waka flaka flame blk!, letter press sheet music, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Krista Franklin, "Do Androids Dream of How People Are Sheep" (Detail), Mixed medium collage on watercolor paper, 2011.
Cauleen Smith, A Star Is A Seed, Installation, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2012. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)
A Necessary Shift: A Glimpse Into The Work of Helen Maurene Cooper
Written as the exhibition essay for Nailed, an exhibition of Helen Maurene Cooper's work at the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower
The subculture of nail art has made its way from the salon and city streets and into trailblazing art spaces through varying degrees of familiarity. It has become a tool used by artists and curators that offers a way for an art audience outside of this subculture to newly engage in something that was previously a regular practice of certain segments of society. As it is dropped within this new context, it can become diluted and lose the roots of its traditions. What separates Maurene Cooper’s take on nail art from that of other artists is her attempt to assemble a more holistic view. Unlike her counterparts who have re-contextualized nail art in a way that caters to flash fad consumers, Cooper reverts our attention back to the root by highlighting the imagination in the craft and the long-term, ever-present patrons of this art. Through Nailed, Cooper has made a place for this art form to exist within a contemporary art dialogue without excluding the people and culture that are at its foundation.
In the early iterations of this work, Cooper pushes the limits of photography by approaching the work like a painting or collage. The imagery is thick and impenetrable. The color vibrates. The textures are tactile and luscious. The photos are a playful reference to the density often found in abstract painting or the careful composition of a still life. The objects in the photographs build upon themselves with a strategic overlapping often used in collage. What makes them captivating, along with this alluring mix of elements, is the rhythm achieved throughout. This rhythm leaves our eyes in a state of unrest as they move back and forth from one depth to another, weaving in and out of focus. At this point the pieces don’t simply act as photographs. They become all of these mediums at once, causing us to occasionally forget their true flatness. The images more or less blur the lines between the nails and the background materials. We’re inclined to get lost in a sea of unexpected yet familiar objects—objects that could easily be a source of inspiration for the design or become incorporated into the nails themselves. Just as the artist's photographs mimic the approach used by painters and collage artists, the layering of color, the building of texture and the creation of depth imitate the techniques of nail technicians. Like her photographs, the nails are a hybrid of materials and styles achieved through elaborate brush strokes, metallic pieces and what is referred to as “junk”—the three dimensional objects built into the design of the nails.
As we move into the more recent portrait work, Cooper takes a step back from the nails and their world of inspiration. The people who create or carry these tiny works in their daily lives become the focal point. By doing this, she makes it clear that the creator and the wearer of the nails are an essential part of the dialogue. At this point the work stops being an investigation into and a stretching of the medium. It now becomes a chance to put a face to the hands. Nevertheless, it is still in conversation with the elasticity of her medium. Only now it is speaking to portraiture’s ability (or lack of ability) to depict personality or a constructed identity.
This identity begins to further take shape via a negotiation between Cooper and the women she is photographing. At times you can see much more of Cooper's direction in the composition as the gestures subtly reference poses that have become motifs in portraiture. On other occasions we can see that it is slightly more loose, collaborative and impulsive.
Rather than simply capturing or facilitating the consumption of nail art by an art audience, Cooper has chosen to fully immerse herself in the culture by incorporating it into her own identity. From early on in the series she has worn nails in the style of the ones she photographs. As a result, her hands have become a key for access into the world she is documenting. The technicians and regulars at Jazzy Nails, the salon that sets the scene for many of her photos, who once looked at her suspiciously, now see her as family. It is arguable that the level of comfort with her subjects and the ease of collaboration were a direct result of this display of commitment. Though the details of Cooper’s personal style decisions aren’t explicitly present in the photographs, it lends itself greatly to her process and becomes apparent in her most magnetic portraits. The success of the series has come to depend on this simple action.
The title Nailed suggests that the nails are at the center of the exhibition. But as is often the case with portraits, whispered side notes and quiet details begin to compete with the expressions of the subjects. This conflict can easily be seen as problematic and damaging to the clarity and conciseness of the series. But instead, consider how Cooper’s shift in approach may be her cunning way of redirecting your thoughts away from the superficial and pulling you closer to what is deeply rooted at the core of this work. The color, composition and the eyes of her sitters draw you in. But the questions that the photographs raise are what keep you there. Who are these women? How do they relate to one another? How do they relate to the photographer? What is the intention and motivation behind placing this subject within an art context, which is oftentimes uninviting to the very people it is documenting? Can nails be indicators of class and social status? And how does that change when the setting they're created in is different? When does this work become exploitative? What happens when the fad fades? By putting aesthetics aside and focusing on Cooper’s conceptual devices we can begin to see how Nailed reaches beyond the realm of abstract photography and portraiture. It serves as a stepping stone into discourse about subcultures being launched into widespread popularity for better or for worse, the politics of access, and how nail art can play a role in acceptance or exclusivity.
Within the context of the recent fad of artists and curators who use nail art as a device for engaging audiences, Nailed offers a refreshingly nuanced and comprehensive look. By turning a lens onto the alluring and unexpected visual components of this craft as well as the people behind it, Maurene Cooper proves that nail art can be much more than a form of adornment and fashion. In her work, nail art is a way to push the boundaries of photography and call into question the exploitative tendencies in popular culture and art. It is a magnifying glass on the underpinnings of our social interactions. And for her, it has become a way to establish and connect with a new extended family. Through Cooper, nail art ceases to be singular. The nails are beautiful and biting. They are alluring and provocative. They serve as the springboard for Cooper to investigate her medium, but also bring to light the social discourse that is inextricable from her process.
Published for the exhibition Nailed: Handwork at City Gallery, a gallery of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in Chicago, IL.
Dice, streamers and swirls, archival pigment print, 40" x 26", 2011Rocker, archival pigment print. 20" x 24", 2013.
Attempts, Impulses and Talking With Fear, Revisited: An Interview with Matt Austin
An interview with Matt Austin for The Coat Check at David Weinberg Photography
Forward motion is inevitable. It is something that most of us accept as a part of life. Art-minded individuals tend to be particularly sensitive to this intrinsic vanward impulse, which makes the occasional chance to stop and reflect something to be appreciated. Almost two years after our initial interview about the series Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow, Matt Austin and I once again found ourselves in conversation about the photographic fragments of his travels several summers ago. Only this time around a selection of photos have been pulled from the series and placed within the context of Everyday Always Trying, the inaugural exhibition of The Coat Check at David Weinberg Photography. Revisiting the past isn’t always easy or even desired, but we tried it anyway–perhaps channeling the ideas at the heart of the exhibition. Over drinks on a warm fall evening, I got the opportunity to ask Matt about the different definitions of impulsive, the value in our attempts and who to call if you’re looking for a good time in Fargo.
Read the interview with Matt Austin...
From the series "Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow", (Images courtesy of the artist)
Beautiful Tension: A Conversation with Natalie Krick
An interview with Natalie Krick for The Coat Check at David Weinberg Photography
Natalie Krick‘s photographs are messy. Though visually striking and impeccably executed, her photographs evoke the clashing of belief systems and the disruption of accepted norms, and that often comes with contention and messiness. Her ongoing series Natural Deceptions blends Krick’s identity with that of her mother’s and uses the styling and staging that is often found in the pages of fashion magazines as an apparatus to question femininity, sexuality, age and our own skewed views of beauty. In light of her upcoming solo show at The Coat Check on July 12th, I sat down for coffee with Krick to discuss the complexity of her work, what it is like to create intimate portraits of her mother and her fascination with the deception at the core of photography.
Read the interview...
Mom Laying In The Front Yard, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist)
Freedom In The Fragment
Written for G.R. N'namdi Gallery's (Chicago) College Collector Magazine in May 2010
Richard J. Powell is an artist-turned-professor of African American and African art at Duke University. Powell is an authority on Black visual culture and has produced several important books, essays, texts, and exhibitions on the subject—many of which have acted as study materials or references to be cited in my own investigation into this genre of art. His body of work falls in line with a list of today’s significant historians such as David Driskell, Deborah Willis, Kellie Jones, Sharon Patton, Lisa Farrington and so many others that would make the late James A. Porter proud. It’s safe to say that Powell is at least partially responsible for my own commitment to art history and documentation of artists of color working in all mediums of the visual arts. Therefore, when Dr. Amy Mooney, a professor at Columbia College Chicago, extended to me the invitation to attend a seminar with Dr. Powell, I jumped at the opportunity.
Traditionally, during this kind of seminar, attendees are asked to read a selection of essays, articles or chapters from a book that would be discussed later during a scheduled roundtable session. We were asked to read two articles. The first was the chapter The Aesthetics of the Fragment from Sappho is Burning, a book by Page duBois, a scholar of Greek, Feminist Theory, Psychoanalysis and Cultural Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The second was the chapter Luna Obscura from Powell’s latest book Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture.
When first reading the texts, I couldn’t make a solid connection and entered the seminar curious as to why Dr. Powell chose them. duBois’s text explored the writings of Sappho, an Ancient Greek poet whose fragmented work is thoroughly studied and analyzed in this chapter. By doing this, duBois asks us not to make attempts to create a whole out of the parts we are given, but to look more thoughtfully at these fragments and our relationship to them. She suggests that “rather than focusing on the restoration of lost wholes, or even on the tragic impossibility of the reconstitution, rather than looking exclusively at the real, the past to which we must always have a fleeting and receding relationship, perhaps we should look also at our own desires, our investments in these lost objects, these shattered fragments of the past.”
This effort to construct a whole and pursue a complete narrative is the underlying and exhausting task that comes with the title of art historian—at least that was my understanding going into the seminar. As duBois pointed out, and Powell strongly agreed, as art historians it can be more productive and even groundbreaking to investigate what we do have as if it is a whole–at least all of the whole we are going to get on this day, at this moment. As historians and investigators of material culture, past and present, Powell and duBois suggested that we acknowledge and accept that we will never know it all. We will never have a whole. I unknowingly let out a mental sigh of relief at this thought. It was a liberation of sorts for me as a future art historian. The attempt to construct a whole in relation to any kind of art is an impossibility that weighs heavily. Powell even spoke of his attempt to find every available bit of information he could possibly find on supermodel Donyale Luna (1946-1979) as he was putting together Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. In this seminar setting, sitting across from such a major figure in Black diasporic art history, I got to hear Powell tell of his “A-ha!” moment when he realized that finding out and writing on every detail about the magnificent and statuesque Donyale Luna was not the most important part of his investigation. Like duBois expresses in her reading, when writing on Luna, Powell made the decision to “attempt a reading that accepts some very broken lines…as they stand.” In other words, he released himself (and consequently released me) from the daunting task of constructing an illusionary whole view in favor of a an exploration that works with the bits that remain through his research into a profound figure in the history of Black portraiture.
Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, cover image.
Donyale Luna, Photo by Bddy Brofferio. Paris Vogue, December 1966.