THE FUTURE OF BLACK ART
June 21, 2019
Riffing on the hashtag #mood, the 2018-2019 Studio Museum Artists in Residence present an eclectic triad of fine-tuned and distinctly individualized sensibilities in the Harlem museum’s annual residency exhibition. Installed in a suite of small rooms at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens (while the Studio Museum constructs a new facility at its 125th Street site) the show’s new location, perhaps unwittingly, acts as a palate cleanser. It isolates the work of each artist — Allison Janae Hamilton, Tschabalala Self and Sable Elyse Smith — in discreet, boxy and windowless rooms; and within a new borough, effectively amplifying the “mood” that each woman creates.
Hamilton’s immersive installation includes sculptural objects, photographs and a video. The video work — a lulling ebb and flow of rhythmic underwater undulations — is projected from floor to ceiling on one wall, with its edges spilling adjacently. It submerges viewers in the sound and sights of water and fresh-water vegetation, and provides the only light in the room. Assembled objects hung from the ceiling, resting on a wall and the floor, range from wood, rope and a skull, to horsehair. They speak in a language of organic materials and earth tones that moves viewers from water to land. A pair of photographs features young girls dressed in white in a dense pine forest devoid of sunlight. Another pair of photos — Floridawater 1 and Floridawater 2 — capture a figure underwater with a dress wafting in the weightless ambiance of a murky, yet clear river. For fans of Zora Neale Hurston, the mention of Florida offers a clue to the lush and mysterious story-scape Hamilton has offered up.
In contrast to the sensory communication of Hamilton’s project, Smith’s work is highly conceptual, yet also accessible. It is an installation whose points of inquiry are the prison industrial complex and the construction of value. Two works by Smith suggest a keen eye for the manipulation of the materiality of objects, giving them a dual meaning as both form and content. One, a rotating collection of Hennessey and Tanqueray nips (mini-bottles) inside an elegantly lit glass display case, uses negative space, light and movement as sculptural elements. The other, Cornering, 2019, the centerpiece of Smith’s body of work, is a sculpture that reworks tables often found in prison waiting rooms. A series of dizzying connections of hexagon shaped tables with small circular stools attached, turned into one large hexagon; it creates a powerfully recurring sense of geometric form that is contained by color. The legs and hardware connecting the hexagons and circles are black; the tables and stools are blue.
Though Tschabalala Self’s installation includes two sculptures that offer an exciting peak into how she’s bringing her work into three-dimensions, it is Self’s textile-based paintings that are steadily growing in stature and visibility, and may even already be familiar to some viewers. The pieces here do not disappoint. Large-scale portraits feature familiar essences from the streets of Harlem, while simultaneously expressing each subject’s powerful inner character. Abstracted figures with exaggerated anatomical configurations or postures, vibrate with the sense of flesh and life of everyday people. In most cases, the subjects in each piece do not offer a direct gaze to the viewer, and instead explode with storylines yet to be imagined. While intellectually, the hand of the artist might be deemed obvious through the visibility of sewing, puckered fabric and composition, Self has the uncanny ability to be subsumed and rendered invisible by her robust and vibrant personifications. In one work, Dime, 2019, a female figure, composed on a red background — full of style, thighs, attitude, femininity, and mystery, smoking what looks like a spliff — is captured mid-strut. She’s dressed to be seen, but doesn’t seem to care who’s looking.