THE THERAPEUTIC GAZE OF SIMONE LEIGH’S “BRICK HOUSE”
By Piotr Orlov
May 10, 2019
If you raise your head and start looking uptown up Manhattan’s Tenth Avenue, you might begin to feel her presence somewhere around 23rd or 24th Street. The shape reveals early on that the oversized statue on the distant overpass, is a bust of a Black woman — the roundness of the afro, the slenderness of the long neck, and what at first appears to be symmetrically impeccable braids on either side of her head are all a give-away. As you inch closer, block by block, her character also comes into view, the silent strength of shape and color, a gracefully matte black bronze that, from afar, naturally blends with the century-old iron railroad bridge which she’s been installed atop. She hovers purposefully, radiating a quiet power above that four-lane transportation thicket, often clogged with Jersey-bound drivers looking to escape the city through the Lincoln Tunnel entrance directly behind her left shoulder. Yes, she sees you Exit 16a! Or does she? It is only standing directly beneath Simone Leigh’s incredible “Brick House” when you might notice that, though she possesses a knowing half-smile reminiscent of Mona Lisa’s, she has no eyes. So, what does it mean that the gaze you’ve been feeling for seven blocks may be internal conditioning?
“Brick House” is a New York rarity not only in that it is a statue of a woman, but of a Black woman. The city’s so famously short of such pieces that recently its first lady, Charline McCray, helped launch a public arts initiative to make and install such works around the five boroughs. Yet as with all truly great public art, its representational importance is only a part of what makes Leigh’s statue a monumental, therapeutic tour de force. Timing, placement and intent (creative, political, otherwise) all matter. And like the Commodores song the title echoes and whose lyrical metaphors it evokes, “Brick House” is foundational in both how it literally establishes a public image of strong Black femininity, and the meaning brought forth by its 2019 presence in this particular space. In her proximity, the world we populate feels different.
The Black female experience has long been central to Leigh’s work — from the African roots of that experience and its place in a Western society built on Black bodies, to Black women’s needs and the regenerative powers they offer their communities. The Brooklyn-based artist is known for sculptures and ceramics of female heads and torsos (direct precursors to “Brick House”) which have won Leigh great art-world acclaim, elevating her renown and landing her a solo show at the Guggenheim. Yet she’s also worked on special projects that spotlight the local work of Black women, such as a Bed-Stuy free women’s clinic that was part of the epic 2014 exhibit “FunkGodJazz&Medicine, Black Radical Brooklyn”, that she called “a platform for which the idea of black pain and the history of the black body in the US in medicine was taken into consideration.” Leigh’s mastry is imbuing familiar ideas and images with new contexts.
Which brings us back to the eyeless gaze of “Brick House” — and its adjacence to Hudson Yards and Chelsea’s global-one-percenter condos, on a brand new spur of The High Line’s made-for-tourism urban park, during a so-called Resistance moment when Black women’s leadership is both increasingly valued and derisively dismissed. Just being there, right now, speaks of a potential purpose. Even rendered visionless, “Brick House” is an observer of her environment and its values, soaking them in and taking stock. Just as her audience does – or must. And what do we look to her for? Well, it is whatever individual ideals we ask for from Black women and art. And as human history knows, we ask and keep asking for a lot!
The very notion of “We See You” has to work both ways, if a society is to truly develop on the ideals of mutual respect, trust and care — or purports to nurture such a community. The best ideas of truly public art, as opposed to some rich white man’s mirrorful fancy, have to embody such exchanges — medicinal and uplifting, a comment and a call-out, memory and hope — with zero half-steppin or virtue signaling on the part of the (inevitably white) powers making the decisions as to what is shown in these public squares. And it’s in this that Leigh’s mighty mighty “Brick House” is elementally overwhelming. She exists with the promise of “no compromise.” You either get the beauty of that, or you have to get out of the way.