I was talking the other day to a class of students about what motivates my looking at art and I unabashedly talked about beauty, about visual art that is beguiling and celebratory without caveat or disclaimer. It’s difficult to make an argument for work solely on those terms these days. And, to be clear, I won’t exactly make that argument here, but a group show now on at Welancora gallery in Brooklyn doesn’t look askance at beauty or pretend that it can’t coexist with conversations about race and power. Behold features five artists, but for my purposes three of them, Oasa DuVerney, Roberto Visani, and Chris Watts, make objects that are visually alluring, but wrestle with more than just pleasing the eye. (The other two artists, Sana Musasama and Komikka Patton, here don’t offer work that brings these tensions into palpable apprehension for the purposes of this review.)
Duvernay gives me gorgeous forms and then hits me with her politics with her titles: “A Stoic Mountain of White Guilt” (2020) and “Black Power Wave, A Mounting Lurch” (2020). The wave is reminiscent of Hokusai, but Duvernay makes this form with graphite, so it has a graphic quality that is very much about the dark pigment of her pencil carving a curling, almost grasping shape into being. These compositions are snarling, gnarled, muscular. She offers mountains and waves like elemental forces that for her are commensurate with the elemental forces of Black liberation.
Visani is more subtle. His figures trace a bare outline, almost there, almost not — humans in an early version of computer-aided design (CAD). In “A New Tomorrow” (2021) the figure is not fully visible, not fleshed out, but her hands are shackled in front of her, and half turning, she looks back over her shoulder. With figures set in antique frames, they suggest that Visani is looking back as well, half turning towards a past were ancestors of his were put in chains. Being drawn this way, the figures look concocted out of a mix of personal memory and the digital representation of that memory — a whisp of a recollection resurrected by an algorithm. It’s also important to note that the form and figure is that of the “Greek Slave” a marble sculpture carved by Hiram Powers in 1846. Thus the artist both suggests the continuance of a tradition of representation and its evolution.
Watts is almost completely embedded in the viccisitudes of resin. He combines resin casts with wood, silk, and pigment to create lushly colorful picture scapes. It’s about looking at an alien sky, one that is infused with roiling atmospheres of clay and asphalt, burning coal and found gold, fumes of spent ordinance lingering in the air after war. In “Respect the boundaries (Throne of Elijah)” (2021) there are slight echoes of Mark Rothko, but Watts’s colors are far more lush, his backgrounds more complex, and the titles refer to biblical prophets that are well known to those in the Black community who grew up in the Evangelical Christian church. There is a visual representation here of the storm and stress of those stories of characters who wrestled with forces larger than themselves.
Behold is both a command and an entreaty. It is here, in this exhibition, also an invitation to see the intertwining of aesthetic concerns and the rigors or political and historical exploration. It is apparent to me that they indeed can go hand in hand.
Behold continues at Welancora gallery (33 Herkimer Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn) through January 31, 2022. It was curated by Ivy Jones, the gallery director.
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