Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont, curators of Set It Off, in front of Kennedy Yanko’s Landscape I at the Parrish Art Museum.
If the Parrish Art Museum’s current loan exhibition, Set It Off, is not openly connected to the region, it might be time to re-evaluate what these parameters mean for our regional museums and why they may no longer serve us as good as we’ve assumed they’ve been for so many years.
According to Susan Galardi, a spokeswoman for the museum, “As much as the museum has long invested in showcasing the work of artists related to the region, it is also committed to connecting with the communities of this region – Latinx, Native American communities , LGBTQ and black people.” She added that the museum’s leadership believes that “an artist doesn’t have to be local to be relevant to the region”.
In this case, the museum invited two external curators, Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, also known as Deux Femmes Noires, to show a mosaic of the wide variety of black female voices currently working inside and outside the international art world. At the same time, both were mindful of the architecture of the Parrish’s Water Mill building and wanted artists who could respond to the interior and exterior spaces.
Ms. Thomas’ work is as diverse as the artists she has chosen for this exhibition, but focuses on the depiction of black women and themes such as race, sexualization, ideals of beauty and a male-dominated art history. Her collages consist of her own photography, painting and appropriated images.
Ms. Chevremont is an art consultant and curator for television shows and films, as well as gallery exhibitions.
The six women whose works can be seen deal with different topics in different media. The curators said they were chosen for “their unique artistic language, because they forge their own path and create work that transcends traditional formal and art historical structures.”
Speaking of multiple media, a good place to start is with Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s installation in the double gallery. Taking up an entire wall, Primitive Hypertext II uses Xerox, acrylic paint, pen, acetate and single-channel video to create a piece that demands engagement from the audience as it follows the footnotes in the snippets of text on the wall to correspond visually Elements.
These elements, incorporating themes from throughout her work, are investigations into the role of poetics or language formation, politics and enjoyment of “Black knowledge production, information technologies, [un]Learning and faith-building.” The messages it conveys may not be entirely clear, but the overriding sense seeps in as viewer becomes participant.
In the same room in similar tones of black, white and gray are Torkwase Dyson’s acrylics on canvas. These paintings are strictly structured, with white lines delimiting the compositions, which often feature rectangular shapes in walls, diagrams, or schematics for building plans. In other cases, they appear completely irrelevant, but have an evocative effect.
Not surprisingly, the artist reflects on connections between architecture, infrastructure and ecology, as well as on the spatial awareness of people of color. Though initially monotonous together, the paintings begin to reveal just how much depth each composition conveys once the viewer slows down and looks at them individually.
The art in this exhibition is not only shown in discreet rooms, but also in the more open areas of the museum. The artists chosen for these spaces tend to dominate them.
Kennedy Yanko’s stunning sculptures are a fusion of junkyard finds and dried lacquer skins. There is a tension in her work with the hard edges of crushed metal and the deflated and limp “skins” formed by the dried paint. Each tells its own story of brokenness and vulnerability, while their contrasts create tension within the visual elements and structure of each work.
Opposite, Karyn Olivier has installed How Many Ways Can You Disappear, a tangle of salt-coated lobster-rope placed on the floor beneath a cluster of hanging colored buoys. “I thought about the history of salt in terms of trade/currency, specifically the practice of trading slaves for salt in ancient Greece,” said the artist.
On the walls she has applied photographic inkjet prints coated with asphalt and tar onto acrylic glass. In some cases the photo image is a tiny window in the overall presentation, in others it dominates. The more specific the subject of the revealed image, the more specific the title of the piece. In this work there is a sense of both personal and universal memory and history, as well as a representation of consciousness and how we often bury or cover things with other memories.
Back in the galleries on the south side of the building are the works of February James and Leilah Babirye, each occupying their own space. Ms. James’ space is filled with haunting figurative bust portraits on paper and canvas in acrylic, oil, liquid graphite, watercolor and other mediums. It’s busy, but the artist viewed it all as an installation, “These Are My Ghosts to Sit With”, consisting of “28 portraits and a cardboard living room surrounded by a wooden frame and standing in the middle of the room”, as the museum describes it.The space seems to exist like a faded and blurred memory as the portraits of those who may have once inhabited look on.
Ms. Babirye’s totemic sculptural assemblages bring forth complex and abstract ideas such as human rights. Her tapestries have a historically resonant feel but, like the standing pieces, are sculpted from modern urban debris. She further enhances the pieces with embellishments she has burned or otherwise altered. “Through the act of burning, nailing and assembling,” she said, “I want to address the realities of being gay in the context of Uganda,” which recently passed anti-homosexuality legislation. According to the museum, the pejorative term for a gay person in their native language, Luganda, “refers to that part of the sugar cane that is discarded and thrown away.”
“Set It Off” in this context is defined as “doing something meaningful, with intensity or with a hurricane-like force; or changing an atmosphere for the better”. Examination of the individual practices of the artists is an appropriate organizational theme for the exhibition. With a different meaning, it could also be seen as taking the museum in a different direction, one concerned with the inclusion of voices that may not have played a historical role within the walls of the parish, and their context for the better changes.
The exhibition will remain on view until Sunday.