Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jack Whitten's Black Monoliths: Born in Bessemer

Jack Whitten, Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison
The Invisible Man,
1994, Acrylic, molasses, copper, salt, coal,
ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade
on canvas, 58 x 52." Brooklyn Museum, William K.
Jacobs Fund 2014.65
Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting runs through August 2 at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The show displays fifty works by an artist of outrageous originality and dynamism. So driven by the need to experiment is this man that, were labels withheld, a gallery visitor might reasonably assume this to be a group show of six or seven abstract artists. 

While the show, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, refers to Whitten as a painter, I think this artist would much more precisely be called a fabricator rather than a painter through much of his career. One often sees this impulse in printmakers and sculptors, for whom innovation with processes and materials can be as important as the glimmer of the image down the road. Whitten works with acrylic paint, but he has rarely made works that would be universally identified as "paintings." He has used acrylic in its liquid form not only to carry pigment for making images, but also for its industrial properties: It is elastic; it can be layered and separated; it can be molded or cut; its colors can be blended or separated in sheets. Acrylic is plastic.

I think the direction of Whitten's artistic inquiry has to have been shaped by location. He was born in 1939 and grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, a close western suburb of Birmingham. Heavy industry dominates the whole region, which is known for ore mining, iron smelting, and the manufacture of railroad cars, including Pullman Standards. Bessemer's African-American population has always hovered around 75%. The labor for the city's vast industries was provided by integrated unions. Whitten's father was a coal miner; his mother was a seamstress. 

1950 map showing heavy industry in Birmingham, Alabama and suburbs. Bessemer would lie in the lower right area, approximately
eight miles from Birmingham.

Whitten's maturity and artistic career have been spent in New York, where he arrived in 1960
during the flowering of the Abstract Expressionist movement. This mid-century 
milieu is reflected in his work of the period. Whitten worked among the artists of the New York School, particularly with Willem DeKooning, but he apparently maintained an independence from them too, associating himself with other artists of color, and experimenting with his own ideas about abstraction.

Before New York, though, Whitten studied at Tuskegee Institute and then at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he discovered his vocation for art. His move to New York City had as much to do with his despair over the South's intransigence during the movement for civil rights reform as with any intention to attend Cooper Union—which in fact he did. Entering the art school at 21 was Whitten's first experience as the lone black in a white environment.

Of the many bodies of work represented in Five Decades of Painting, I find myself most fascinated by works begun during the 1990's, the Black Monoliths that honor Whitten's African American heroes and friends. As in the Homage to Ralph Ellison above, each of these is a mosaic composed of thousands of colored tesserae. Each tile is formed from acrylic paint (and any additives). Since detail is difficult to interpret at such a reduced scale as in these pictures, I point out that the tiles don't contain image, only color.


 Jack Whitten, Black Monolith IV For Jacob Lawrence, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 96 in. (243.8 x 243.8cm). Courtesy the artist, Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. ©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann. 

 Jack Whitten, Black Monolith III (For Barbara Jordan), 1998, acrylic collage on canvas, 
69 x 65 ½ in. (175.3 x 166.4cm). Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan.
©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. 
Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann. 

Whitten makes no claim that these are attempts at portraiture, though it's difficult not to attach the idea of likeness to them in at least a rough way. The homage to Ralph Ellison, above, takes the form of an anonymous silhouette, the sort we see when a journalist interviews a person whose identity must be protected in order to maintain their safety. In this work though, the silhouette is nevertheless, in layer upon layer of irony, "the only Black in the room." While he is anonymous because he is faceless, he is unmistakable against the unbroken wall of white and blue, the two colors that provide no prayer of invisibility or protective coloration for a Black man. The homage is to the courageous daily bravery of the visually conspicuous, for whom freedom from invisible individuality remains so tortuous and tragic. 

When I encountered Black Monolith IV For Jacob Lawrence—breathtaking at eight feet by eight feet, yet every tessera worthy of scrutiny when you're close to it—I first thought I had come upon a remarkable map of Manhattan, glimmering and demarcated against a dark world. But then, there is also a strong resemblance to a capped (not hooded) smoking silhouette out of a Philip Guston painting—that ambiguous, vaguely threatening, possibly explosive character. Only after that did I see the title referring to Lawrence. Maybe both of my thoughts have a home in this work?

Lawrence's subject was the common life of African Americans—not always a visually attractive subject, given the poor material and social conditions in which so many lived. The series of painting with which he is perhaps most identified is his The Migration of the Negro, which tells the story of rural Blacks moving to the industrial cities of the north. Lawrence lived in New York City most of his life, having spent his earliest years in New Jersey, and moving with this wife to Seattle when he was in his fifties.
Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro, Panel One, 1941. Posted
 in accordance with fair use principles on Wiki Art.

Maybe it is a map of Manhattan, white Manhattan with conspicuous dikes raised against a coal-black sea. As an homage to Lawrence, perhaps Whitten reflects bleakly on African-American migration to cities where they haven't ultimately been integrated or their lives bettered? Where they remain immigrants? The Gustonian, alienated smoker neither sees nor  responds. He doesn't wear a hood anymore, but his anonymous indifference testifies to his enduring hostility.

However one interprets the particulars, Black Monolith IV strikes me overall as a phenomenal commentary on immigration in the 21st century. It is certainly the most pressing issue of our time as Africans, Middle Easterners, and Central Americans—people of color—risk all to reach Europe and America, whose nations bravely fight the tide and erect walls of all sorts against them.

I love Whitten's Black Monolith III (For Barbara Jordan) if only because it's not monolithic. A monolith is not only massive, but it is coherent and unified—which this so conspicuously is not. Whitten has also altered the shape of his support, giving it "shoulders" and sloping its sides inward toward the bottom: like a memorial or gravestone? Like a figure? 

The disposition of black and white tiles, while interspersed, nevertheless tends to converge in the suggestion of a torso. This notion is strengthened by the column that rises at the center top, out of the picture like a neck, giving the image the sense of an x-ray. Is that big dark shape a massive heart? This body lacks clear edges, quite unlike the others in the Monolith series and, again, contrary to the definition of the word. Perhaps this suggests Jordan's aptitude for politics, that art of compromise, of dancing between black and white to move people together while respecting the rights of those on the edges? The name for monolithic politics is tyranny.

 Jack Whitten, Black Monolith, V Full Circle: For LeRoi Jones A.K.A. Amiri Baraka, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 63 in. (213.4 x 160cm). Collection of Sheldon Inwentash and Lynn Factor, Toronto. ©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.
The experience of Full Circle: For LeRoi Jones A.K.A. Amiri Baraka is like looking at the Earth from a space ship, or through a telescope on the moon. The best part about it is that all the life of the universe is encapsulated on our planet, for there are no stars and no hint of any other life in a sky that is impenetrably black. It is a wonder that Whitten could manufacture so black a black as the space that surrounds this globe.

The globe, however, is infinity. By creating intensity at the center with lots of color and small elements, Witten draws the eye in ever deeper and we eagerly search beyond what we see. Though this caption provided identifies the materials here as "acrylic," it is a great jumble of collaged materials, not all of which are made of acrylic: There are lots of found materials as well, colorful, hard scraps of life.

In this there is almost no contrast between black and white. The edge is between blank black and black that is filled with color: with idea, life, and, above all, the representation of deep time. Here's an image of the history of the world in Baraka's color—all of his colors: the colors of thought, idea, travels, loves. This is also a mirror, it seems, for any viewer. You look at it less than you look into it. As you do, it's impossible not to want to find something, to see what you relate to, to pick out your place. In the other Monoliths, there are boundaries to consider and we are asked to deal with their significances for us. This one is different. The boundary is the ends of the earth and we cannot but fall in.

Viewing Whitten's Black Monoliths, I continue to be nagged by the memory of another artist from Bessemer, the wonderful self-taught artist, Thornton Dial. Dial was born in 1928 (Whitten in '39) and work in the fields before he moved to the city where he was a metal worker, in the Pullman factory particularly. Much of his art is sculpture made from re-purposed found materials, from tin cans to mattress springs. 

I think that there is a kinship between Whitten and Dial in that they share a deep central aesthetic of fabrication born in Black, industrial Bessemer. Dial was a manual laborer; Whitten was not. But I believe that Whitten's youth in a city that was all about manufacture, mining, and callous-producing labor affected his outlook as a visual artist. Five Decades of Fabrication?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Holocaust Memories from Rural Poland: Esther Nisenthal Krinitz at the Columbus Museum of Art

Black and white are the colors of the Holocaust. The black and white starkness of documentary images result simply from the available technology of the 1940s. Respectful subdued tones follow suit as if to add color would be to pile unbearable sensation onto images and memories already overwhelming in color-drained grayscale.
Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, Swimming in the River, 1978. Embroidery on linen. Art and Remembrance.
So I was surprised when I walked into the gallery where Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz is showing at the Columbus Museum of Art until June 14. Filled with textiles detailing the memories of a Holocaust survivor, the room is alive with bucolic scenes of nature sewn from vari-colored fabric, crewel, and embroidery threads. Krinitz's hand-sewn tableaux feature Polish village life and landscape—backgrounds durable enough in memory to have survived all that the Nazis perpetrated; scenes in which the Nazis in fact seem dwarfed by the fields and forests around them. 

These scenes of rivers, grain, and gardens remained vivid enough that when Krinitz began recording her childhood at age fifty, the horrors remained contained in images of a world much larger than the certainty of the death that only she and her sister, out of the whole family, escaped.

The tapestry above was the first she made, in 1978. She recollects her childhood home before the war. She and her brother swim in the river while their sisters look on. The villagers come and go about their tasks, and benign Nature dominates. Her house is big and solid, the size of a castle. It doesn't matter that Krinitz was fifty when she made this, for it is a picture of what the child still alive in her left behind. 

This is the picture of home that is fundamental to personality and to character, the image that each of us harbors at some level. The top portion is linear and structured; the bottom is curvaceous and flowing. The whole is both stable and relaxed. The naive image has little artifice and an abundance of unfiltered, joyous expression.

During the 1970s, Krinitz originally made several pieces with subject matter like this, drawn from pre-war memories of Polish village life, where Jews and Gentiles lived side-by-side. She records memories of matzoh-making, of walking to holiday ceremonies on stilts that her brother made: The pleasure of simple, pre-industrial, pre-electrical, agricultural life ordered by the combination of seasonal and religious community observations. 
Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, The Bees Save Me, 1996. Art and Remembrance.
After a long hiatus, Krinitz returned to her project in the 1990s, finally moving into the darkening story of her early adolescence and the arrival of the Nazis. Several of the Krinitz textiles show the indignities of Nazi sadism. She depicts soldiers cutting the beard off her grandfather; arousing the family in their nightclothes at gunpoint while neighbors gawked; marching Jewish boys off to forced labor where they were shot when depleted; and, finally, rounding up the Jews from among their neighbors for transport to death camps. 

Esther and her thirteen year old sister fled (the rest of the family was killed). They survived by speaking only Polish and pretending they knew no German (closely related to their native Yiddish). They disguised themselves to find work for an elderly couple in a nearby village. In the scene above, Esther works in the garden that the old man to allowed her to plant. One day Nazis came and tried to question her. She explains in the embroidered caption: 

"June 1943 in Grabowka. While I was tending the garden I had planted, two Nazi soldiers appeared and began to talk to me. I couldn't let them know that I understood them, so I just shook my head as they spoke. Dziadek, the old farmer who had taken me in as his housekeeper, came to stand watch near by, but the honey bees rescued me first, suddenly swarming around the soldiers. "Why aren't they stinging you?" the soldiers asked Dziadek as they ran out of the garden."

Take away the rifles, take away the caption, and what distinguishes these two scenes, made almost twenty years apart, first when the artist was 50 and then approaching 70? 

The first, the pre-war memory, is quite specific—each of the five siblings is located, the house is recalled in loving detail—yet it is mythic too. It is an undatable memory of golden childhood. Esther's memory could be of life at four or fourteen. It is a recollection of well-being, innocence, stability, and love—a memory of place as feeling. Many adults recall such an idyll of childhood. But few recall the idyll's interruption by such sudden and complete trauma as Krinitz was to experience.

The pre-war scene is actually a tapestry. Every bit of the linen is covered with crewel embroidery so that the surface is entirely worked with stitches. Every inch of the surface has been touched and transformed by the artist's hand. The ideas of caressing and modeling come with this. It's not only a scene she recalls, but one she has invented as well—one she has caused to appear, and to appear just as she wants to remember it. She is its author. 

The picture of her as an adolescent—no longer a girl, shoved into untimely adulthood—is not a tapestry. The sky, the "earth" of the garden and some other areas are simple fabric underpinning. The plants in the garden have been sewn in place by embroidery or appliqué; the bees, the flowers, the details of the figures, but the surface has not been as carefully stroked. In contrast to the first picture, it is entirely lined up. The importance of order at this stage in the girl's life was paramount. Even the bees on their hives rest in lines. Krinitz has made up this scene too. She has authored this scene not to refresh herself, but as a way to diffuse trauma.

More of the artist's time and attention have gone into a substantial narrative below the image the explains what might otherwise elude the viewer. She interprets the picture for us to be sure we know what she felt and how Nature continued to aid her.

The second image is remarkable for the way a survivor of great trauma pictures herself coping. The human figures—both the good and bad ones—remain small in the largely natural scene. She is located off to the side. She seems to mediate her own feelings of fear by spreading all possible feeling through the natural landscape, like healing wounds with resort to the earth. Even the bees, massing around the hives and buzzing around the soldiers, appear insignificant in the grand scheme of the picture. Krinitz controls her panic and fear by telling the story, controlling the context and perspective, and placing herself in a large framework.

Esther Nisehnthal Krinitz, Ordered to Leave Our Homes, 1993.
Embroidery and fabric collage. Art and Remembrance.
"This was my family on the morning of October 15, 1942. We were ordered by the Gestapo to leave our homes by 10 a.m. to join all the other Jews on the road to Crasnik railroad station and then to their death." 

This wall hanging, in narrative sequence previous to the one above, pictures Esther's recollection of the day her family had to face their impending deportation to the camps. This is a family portrait, undiluted by the presence of their killers. This was the day that Esther and her sister, in red, would flee. 

Of the thirty-six pieces Krinitz made, this is one of the least dense in terms of sewing. The fabric background is largely plain cloth with a few large swathes of appliqué. Huge crows hunch on the housetop, symbols of impending death for the black-clad quintet.Two outsized sunflowers bloom for the escaping girls in their red capes.

Dark colors signify the grievous content of this picture but its momentous content is signaled by the size and forthright positioning of the family and the house. Nature does not soften or disguise emotion; if anything, it underscores the tragedy. Krinitz does not caress or decorate this image with thousands of strokes of her needle. In terms of presenting the most traumatic event of her life—a moment where she could be emotionally frozen forever—she is if brief, still heroically direct. In naive art, to place the figures near the bottom of the picture is to locate them in the most important place. It's to ground them, as children do in crayon drawings. This is the drawing that stays forever on the parents' wall, the treasured picture of the family, drawn by the daughter with a heart full of love. From this instant forward, Esther would be her own mother and her sister's. In her seventies, mother and child, she recounts the story of how this came to be. 
Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, Granddaughter, 1999. Embroidery and fabric collage.
Art and Remembrance.

The final image in both the series and this show pictures a little girl who raises her arm to examine the trunk of a stout tree in a beautiful garden. The lawn, the bark, the flowers, the girl's hair—all are elaborately embroidered. They are touched all over with a loving, lingering hand. Krinitz has brought her story sequentially through the war years and her visit to the camp where her family was killed, a harrowing scene even in naif stitchery. She details and names the piles of ashes, the gas chambers, the burnt down home of the camp director. Aside from the girl's pigtails and dress, there is nothing bright in the meticulously catalogued scene.

In this final scene, she has lived a long life in Brooklyn with her husband whom she met in a refugee camp, with her daughters, and now celebrates her granddaughter, joyous in nature. There is an attempt at observational representation her; she has moved beyond the grip of memory and the burden of interpretation into a real and safe present. The girl is little and the tree next to her is really enormous; there is actual scale and it feels reassuring. The border is green, the text is white: "When you were three years old dear Mami Sheine, Grandma came to visit you. We went to a park where you discovered a huge tree. I never forgot the expression on your face as you stood there admiring the tree. Grandma loves you so much." 

Grandma is free and insures that she will be part of another little girl's strength, no matter what comes.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Catherine Opie: Portraits and Landscapes" at the Wexner Center for the Arts

I think that Thomas Edison has already been installed to replace William Allen as an icon of Ohio in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. Had I only known that ours is Catherine Opie's home state, I'd have done something to see her enshrined instead next to James Garfield as the a representative of Ohio's glory. Move over, second-tier presidents, when we have artists of true stature and vision.


 Catherine Opie, Miranda, 2013. Pigment print, 33 x 25 in. ©Catherine Opie, image courtesy the artist
 and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 
Certainly Opie's photographs in Portraits and Landscapes, showing at the Wexner Center in Columbus until August 2, would be at home in the proudest marble and columned traditional setting. If we were in the 17th century galleries of a great European museum, surely our feelings would be much like the ones we experience as we move at considered pace through this show.

Each of Opie's sitters appears before a background of profound, impenetrable black. Whether we register that as a blankness or as infinite depth, the effect is in either case the same. It places the subject in a timeless  three-dimensional space entirely his or her own, unrelated to any other place or moment.

The effect is to sculpt the figure out of this medium of black. The light not only defines the subject's features, emphasizing some over others, but frees the form from the darkness as sculptures are said to free figures from great pieces of stone. So, through two galleries of portraits, each figure is captured at a second birth, born not of flesh, but of mind, effort, and imagination These are individuals sprung like Athena from Zeus's head, fully grown and mature. ( An interesting comparison can be made at http://www.modigliani-drawings.com/nude%20in%20profile.htm .)

In her portrait, Miranda wears a gown of almost Quakerish simplicity and understatement. Its claret color and her red hair mediate between blackness and the luminous skin and blue eyes that shine from her steady, resolute expression. Beauty can be a poisoned gift. Here, beauty is neither disguised nor avoided; its possessor can carry the weight with chin slightly lifted, directly returning the viewer's gaze. The image portrays the strength, stature, and balance of a flawlessly beautiful woman with nothing—not even her perfect face—to hide.

Miranda, a three-quarter standing portrait of a woman of noble bearing, is clearly related to a long tradition of Western portraiture, evident in any museum one cares to visit. While this particular woman captivates us with her seriousness and beauty, we also know that, individual, her photographer places her among a class of persons demanding our highest respect. The setting, the attention to details, the lighting all tell us so. Do we really need to know who she is? Here is a distinguished individual who is also a participant in the centuries-old tradition of women posed for posterity. She is one; she is another one.

When we visit museum galleries hung with grand and stirring portraits of Renaissance, Enlightenment, or nineteenth century royalty, clergy, poets, and concubines, how often do we know who those portrayed persons were, or what they accomplished in the world? Certainly not as often as we'd like. King George? Henry? And what number? Not a clue! Yet we interpret the images through our understanding, general knowledge, and imaginations via the art itself, through conventions and deviations from them; from our own reactions to images of luxury, eccentricity, and beauty. We react to the story the artist has told and we create the central figure to satisfy our use of the painting. Ahistorical? Anachronistic? Yes. Utterly commonplace? Yes again.

In fact, we do the same thing with contemporary portraits simply because we don't know everyone who is thought to be important to image-makers. Nor are we supposed to. In this series of portraits, Opie identifies her subjects by first names only. How they were posed appears to have been largely up to the artist, who received lovely testimonials from many of her subjects for the generous or enlightening experiences they had with her. As recounted in gallery notes, the artist Kara Walker remarked that before many scheduled portrait sessions, she has been less than at her best: "There are a handful of images by well-known artists out there of me at my darkest, lowest points. Cathy's manner and the resultant images show me feeling cool, collected, showing my muscles…I felt a rush of ownership or at least fellowship—that we were going to endeavor to correct this past."


Catherine Opie, Mary, 2013. Pigment print, 50 x 38.4. ©Catherine Opie.  Image courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

So, yes, Opie's subjects are eminent people, contemporary artists working in the avant garde of visual arts, literature, performance, and music. Even though many will be recognized by a relatively small audience, they are nonetheless constantly imaged. Miranda, above, is the filmmaker/performance artist/writer/actor Miranda July. If you haven't seen her before, just Google for her image: There are pages of them. It's a worthwhile exercise in understanding the difference between a picture and a portrait.

In the present day, pictures are everywhere by accident and by design. The tradition of grand portraits in which Opie places this series derives from times in which images of the great were rare and precious. A painted portrait of Voltaire would become the basis for engravings, which could be printed and disseminated at low cost. But the world was not saturated by an infinite flow of unique images of a single eminent person who was redecorated and whose personality was recast daily. There was a constancy about the central identities of intellectuals and artists.These portraits, in this form, reclaim that idea of constancy. 

To the extent that Opie's portraits help define and settle identities, she uses visual tradition as a structure upon which she arranges the ideas, works, and core identities of the individuals portrayed. The black background, the exquisitely controlled lighting, the dignity of the posing, the shapes of the portraits: These form the traditional framework that assure a place of honor. Within that framework, the individual is exactly as portrayed—nude or clothed; regal or workmanly; facing forward or back to us; looking into the distance, or daring us to return a gimlet gaze.

Catherine Opie, Idexa, 2012. Pigment print, 50 x 38.4. ©Catherine Opie.  Image courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

While Miranda's classicism provides studied definition to a woman whose image is ubiquitous and casually broadcast, in Mary and Idexa,  Opie uses conventions to bring the temperature of uncommon images down. Tradition soothes expectations and we are eased into accepting the differences in purpose and outlook revealed in these portraits. Formality does not stifle outrage, but it is a leveler; it brings discussion back to a home base.The women depicted here are not women with traditional self-awareness or lives. But who they are and who they wish to reveal are who we will see in the same dignified ways we would see queens and saints and famous lovers portrayed. 

These two portraits will hang comfortably in haughty halls centuries hence, among the late Maries and Georges and Voltaires; the images will command respect beyond our period and, like all historical images, will require the acts of research and imagination that we are asked to give to the past from our own present. The question cries out: Can we understand the genius of difference in our own time with the acceptance we grant to heroes of the past? Can we imaginatively condense the years it takes gradually to achieve understanding through the mediation of formal visual traditions?


 Catherine Opie, Untitled #5, 2012. Pigment print, 40 x 60 in. ©Catherine Opie, image courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles 

The Portraits in Opie's show are so intense, so detailed and personal that the curator, Bill Horrigan, made the interesting decision to divide the portraits into groups of three or four separated with single, large scale landscapes the artist's. Some of these, like the one above, I am sorry to feel obliged to call a landscape, as I think it is so very open to—so inviting of—free interpretation. But their use is fascinating, contrasting as they do with the entirely unfocused with portraits in which every detail is in sharp focus. Neither is realistic, of course. But the effort the portraits compel from the viewer, with a degree of focus that only incites us to come ever closer—sends one into the landscapes as if suddenly lifted out of stress and sent into cool reverie. It is both relaxing and disorienting, for there is no middle between the two photographic approaches. I like this arrangement better in the first floor gallery, which is larger than the narrow upstairs room. With lots of room to stand back and to take in a whole long wall, the effect of the combination is lovely and its meaning is clear. The closer one is to the works, upstairs, the harder the effectiveness of the contrast is to grasp.

If there is any problem with this show, it's that any single work in it could stand alone as a show in itself. It's an embarrassment of riches to be sure. The portraits are of a size and degree of detail that each is a map of the world, a voyage out far beyond anything you can notice at the outset. Every well-crafted detail is surrounded by a field of more and more subtle and revealing manipulations of Opie's medium. They are captivating and fulfilling—and absurd to present in miniature, in a blog. Don't miss a chance to see them.


Catherine Opie, Hamza, 2013. Pigment print, 33 x 25 in. 
©Catherine Opie, image courtesy the artist and Regen Projects,
 Los Angeles 









Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mother's Day Special: "Nothing Personal," by poet Marina Blitshteyn

Mother's Day has just passed. I'm interested in the variety of conversations it starts among women in our era. No longer a simple holiday of greeting cards, flowers from the garden, or fixing Mommy breakfast in bed, Mother's Day has become a subject for debate.

This year I heard among my acquaintance objections to a holiday initiated by a greeting card business (false: it was founded as a national holiday in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson; the commerce followed); complaints that not every woman is a mother; that not every mother is happy to be one or has the means to be one. In short, like every holiday celebrating any occasion, it is as exclusive as inclusive. As many people suffer it as celebrate.

So Mother's Day has entered the new mainstream, which includes a broader and more searching awareness of women's real lives. Women of no stripe can escape the culture-wide reexamination of traditional roles and society's gendered habits. All women live with daily testing and pressure from outside and within. Wars rage around the idea of feminine empowerment in the US contrasted with that in the developing world. Liberation of the female body is in the news daily—as are matters of family duty, poverty, and proscribed ambition.


Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn is the first title from Bone Bouquet Books, which extends the excellent Bone Bouquet Literary Journal in New York, a small press that publishes women writers. Blitshteyn's volume has nothing that links it directly to Mother's Day, but everything to do with the being the daughter of a mother who, like most, haunts her. Her poems implicitly ask parents what they think they are doing and what world they think they are raising their child for. This book constitutes acute confessions of a brilliant, female outsider in the clubby man's world of letters. Her dreamed ghostly, primal parents offer little guidance and considerable obfuscation. Did they ever imagine such a woman in such a world? Did any of us, raising our girls?

Blitshteyn's world is one few of us visit, that of a young professor and a poet. It's Academia, and, as her poems demonstrate, it's a world that young women are even less likely to visit, let alone to prosper in. Sexism has its particular flavors, and she has savored Literature's, to exquisite effect. Using careful word choice and placement, Blitshteyn uses an everyday convention—the call for submissions to a literary journal—as a way to bring the reader directly into an emotional situation she experiences daily, which few of us even imagine:  

JOURNAL OF AMERICAN POETRY

would like to solicit
YOUR work for its annual
WOMEN's issue. We're self-
reflexive enough to publish
the best in critical and hyper-
critical poetry, in any form,
style, or length. SEND US
your finest work on the theme
WOMEN, open to your
interpretation, along
with a brief bio and
cover letter, using our
online submission system.

Despite the specificity of the situation, Blitshteyn has written a poem that puts any woman directly in a position to feel red-hot anger while her blood runs cold. The journal dedicates an issue to "Women" yet advertises in a demeaning way. The editors get credit for their liberality while the poet feels twist of their deeply ingrained contempt. 

YOUR…WOMEN…SEND US…WOMEN. These words, suggestive of the Neanderthal with club in hand, stand out like the few blades of grass that haven't yet been salted in the landscape by withering phrases like, "we're self-reflexive enough to publish the best in critical and hyper-critical…" The editors set the standards; they are the best. But how do we know they are male? 

Because women are the "theme" of their journal issue. Theme is indeed open to "your interpretation." Theme has to do with qualities and major concerns that inhere in art. Editors feel free to judge anything in their domain of "critical and hyper-critical poetry."

Topic is the subject itself, which would include women's realities, their experience, emotion, or truth. This is not being solicited. Ambiguously then, Blitshteyn shows the editorial door opened enough to be slammed in a common and terrible tease. If it comes through the door, the editors are automatically authorities, empowered to judge.

"Journal of American Poetry" ends alluding ironically to another standard practice of the literary profession, getting one's poetry to the editors via the submission system, a phrase that Blitshteyn uses brilliantly for her feminist and personal purposes. That it is an online submission system highlights the permafrost that underlies the whole sham of this satirized journal's interest in "WOMEN, open to your interpretation." Submit, Dorothy. 

Several of Blitshteyn's poems bring the reader with similar directness into the professional world of a female academic. She invokes the misery of any academic conference in "Club," where females are scarce and automatically at a disadvantage. She tells another woman,

"All the boys here love each other
You'll get the hang of it

At night they go out drinking so they can talk
They won't invite you

Unless you give them something to flirt with…
…….

They all get a hotel room together
But it's really not homosocial

I just mean they all stick together
In case there are too many of us here."

As if there were too many women there. But her point is made with a loud, resounding slap. Of course the boys avoid the women. And it has to do with more than the flirting and sexual objectification. Can anyone talk about the possibility of their fearing the woman who has had indeed to be better educated, have a better strategy, to be better turned out and quicker on her feet? By appearing to instruct her colleague in the inevitability of the boys' hegemony, she adroitly shines the light on the deeper issue of protecting the power status quo.

Blitshteyn's daily experience of womanhood, no less feminist, is equally powerful, poignant, satirical, and funny. Trapped with no way out from masculine inspection and rules as she pursues her academic and literary career, she struggles even more with her heritage as a girl raised by parents with acculturated gender expectations. She is influenced by her mother's domesticity and by her father's wish for women to be just that way. How do we grow past our parents' wishes into the ideals we, in our own era, wish for ourselves, especially if we are in the vanguard of our times?

Nothing Personal opens with the poem, "I'm good," a title that certainly sets on edge the reader with any shred of feminist self-awareness. Every little girl is raised to be good. Feminine goodness can become a chronic disease of adulthood, often passed to daughters as if it were a gene to select for. Blitshteyn communicates the struggle with goodness in lines that cross the whole page, breaking in the middle instead of at the ends and changing modes as quickly as tired, useless habits rip us back from acting on liberating knowledge. Her confessional form leads us to expect a certain linguistic registers, and she foils this expectation with formidable skill. From early in the poem:

                                                                                                 it's about a power dynamic
particularly with respect to sexual politics        the man dominates, he communicates
in particular forms of violence                        I also occasionally enjoy the sensation of 
feeling trapped or suffocated during the act               with a woman the dynamics
have not been culturally enforced and are more ambiguous                I want to add
that at no point have I felt myself devoted to                            a particular kind of
domestic existence         short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever 
made me feel in danger of kitchen work      my mother still lays out clothes for
my father             insofar as I am my own woman I believe it's time to experiment
with a particular kind of sexual freedom    the loss of one's virginity is a turning
point in any young writer's development   depending on the conditions and 
social pressures of her time, a woman can feel abandoned or exposed during 
the sexual act…

The wit in this passage ("short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever/made me feel in danger of kitchen work;" "the loss of one's virginity is a turning/point in any young writer's development") is winning in any event. But in the big picture, here Blitshteyn brings together an amazing assortment of topics. Who would think to put these side by side, in the open? It no doubt takes years to develop and refine the high level of self-consciousness that permits the poet  to create so many concurrent streams—her thoughts about the sex act, her memories of her parents' relationship, and her fantasies about her professor as both dominator and husband. She confesses her bisexuality; her intimate feelings about the violence of the sex act and its implicit power struggle. She tries to separate sex and domesticity; she recognizes the unhappy connection between her intimate and her public, professional life. Does sex make her more vulnerable to the powerful? Did the loss of virginity give her more material, or more access? 

I think this is an outstanding passage for the way it unties a knot and shows us each thread of a tangle that adds up to something surreal, something that sounds insane. But it also reveals a perfectly logical and not unfamiliar way of being a woman. When and how can she be who she is? How would she know? When is she not in a power relationship, from cradle into maturity and career? How does she keep power voices out of her head? Why can't sex itself be freedom or bliss? Goodness is servitude, defined as it from without. Whose poem is this, anyway?

Nothing Personal is unusual for being both poetry, narrative, and sourcebook all at once. Surely Blitshteyn speaks to us through personae, but they are so deeply drawn on believable experience that every poem feels transparent.  

I suspect that many readers recoil at the very idea of feminist poetry. No doubt about it: This is feminist poetry. And does it ever merit widespread attention. It is keenly observed, self-aware, funny and sharp. It isn't mean, but it is smart.  It asks as many questions of the self as it does of a misogynistic society. Best of all, there are no stereotypes here, but an introduction to one very intelligent, capable artist in whose voice I can hear my own. Many will hear theirs too.

___________________________________________________________________
Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn, copyright 2015, ISBN: 978-1-934819-52-4, is available from http://bonebouquet.org

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Walkin' Down the Long Street: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson at 75


Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hog Hammock
 Community. 
Buttons, beads, crayon,
 pen on paper. Framed: 19 x 16 inches
Courtesy Hammond Harkins Gallery
It would be so easy to frame the story of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson as the great American tale of rags to riches. Brought up in an African-American family in Columbus, Ohio public housing, soaked in the stories of a great aunt who recalled the horrors not only of slavery but of the Middle Passage, the child of material poverty grows up to be an abandoned single mother, raising her child alone on welfare, then to have her son die as a young man. Yet she endures and works, refusing to let poverty interfere with art-making, her calling. She relies on the support of artist mentors in the African-American community. She sells her work to anyone she can persuade to buy it until one day, after years of focus, one day after she's turned sixty, the MacArthur Foundation rings her up. Finally, she's rich! And, the world discovers, she's a genius!

Great story, and in certain facts true, but essentially all wrong. Robinson's story is of riches to riches, or perhaps from rags to rags. In the great body of work on display now at Hammond Harkins Gallery in Bexley, Ohio, the show celebrating Robinson's 75th Birthday, we see no changes of theme or even materials in work that spans over 60 years. Wherever she's been in time and place, whatever she's owned, we see that she's an artist who has always had access to what she needed. Past. Future. Community Memory and Race Memory. Love and Anger in passionate degree. And the sharpness of observation that we call Vision. With those, rags will always do. In fact, they are the most precious material of all.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, The Crowman.

Buttons, beads, cloth, thread, crayon, pen on Hosho
 paper. Framed: 16 ¾ x 14 inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery

Robinson was trained in drawing by her father, to whom she attributes her ability to see quickly and deeply. These skills were enhanced at what is now Columbus College of Art and Design. Were she to have made a career of draftsmanship alone, she would be one of our great artists—a great portraitist, for she reveals worlds in her drawings of individuals. 

The Crow Man appears many times in her works memorializing Poindexter Village, where she grew up. Many of those works are on a grand scale, picturing the whole neighborhood, where individuals are represented with only a stroke or two. In portrait drawings like these, we see who they are and what they mean. As in nearly all of Robinson's work, she does not allow the elegant drawing itself suffice to portray the depths or to communicate the importance of this person. When she was a child, the Crowman was a king—a source of wonder, friendship, and awe. He may have been someone most of us would see as a street person. She bestows upon him a winged crown—a bird that trusted him—and gives him brilliant rags that serve the role of royal robes. Rags are central to his richness.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba.
Cloth, gouache, cowry shells, string on heavy stock
Framed: 57 ¼ x 28 ¼ inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery
Another form of Robinson portrait reverses the proportion of drawing and collage in a way that makes the drawing even more forceful and tender. In this life-sized portrait of her great-aunt Themba, It's clear where the woman's force lies. The swaddling fabric scraps give her volume and definition in the sense that they delimit her: they keep her human. The simplicity of the forms in this piece help us understand Themba as more human than goddess, while the size hints that her impact transcends the mortal.  

The size of the hands in this portrait is a hallmark of Robinson's women and elders, who are protectors and vessels. They preserve history, mores, and cultural wisdom. In doing so, they watch out for the current generation and those to come. This Themba, so simplified yet so particular, is both the wise woman who suffered horrors, yet endured to pass her spirit and knowledge into Aminah; and she is the mother of us all, the mother who asks us to continue her inherited values of love, respect, and reflection.

Robinson uses cowrie shells to sew together the two sheets of paper that form this drawing, those shells being reminders of Africa, whence Themba was forcibly carried to the United States. The picture that opens this article is also of Themba in the Hog Hammock community where she first lived on Sapelo, a barrier island off Georgia. In that portrait, her vision is enhanced with glass button eyes as she stares into the future of her community (the current population is under 50). Robinson does not make of Themba a goddess, but she does admit her role of seer.


Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba, Healer,
Herbalist, Prophet.
First page of fabric book. Author photo.
The current Hammond Harkins show is particularly rich in Robinson's fabric and book works, works in which the artist not so much moves beyond drawing, but into it. In many works on paper, she begins with dry or wet drawing media, then enhances or ennobles her subject by the addition of scraps, buttons, or beads. These collaged materials serve the role of riches: They are the incrustations with which Medieval artists responded to devotional needs; they are the decorations with which animist tribal artisans responded to their spiritual communions. 

In the large format book, Themba: Healer, Herbalist, Prophet, the woman is portrayed with features represented by cowrie shells and a green button mouth. behind her (on the right side of the page) a wide-eyed, shadow Themba exerts (or shares) a forcefield with the figure to the left—another representation of Themba? 

For Robinson, the same person is, I believe, rendered observationally in every form of representation she makes. Themba with shell features sending stitch powers; the one whose face and hands dominate her physical being; the one with beads sewn onto on a portrait head drawn as if by Leonardo: In the mind and in the eyes of Robinson, all these portraits are one and all are real. Rags? Riches? Distinction is absurd; category and compartmentalization are absurd. The reason Robinson gets up at 4:30 in the morning and works in solitude all day is because expression of insight is such difficult work, requiring endless effort. To overcome the viewers' habits of distinction, to cultivate awareness of common wisdom, is the work of a lifetime for Themba's legatee.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Aminah’s Blackberry Patch,
 1800-1930: Before Poindexter Village. 
Carved, dyed, and sewn
leather with five insets (insets are mixed media). 18 ½ x 11 x 2 ¼"
 (closed). Dedication: “Gift to My Son – Sydney E. Robinson on
his 15th Birthday, 1982.”
 Courtesy of Hammond Harkins
Gallery.
Robinson's brilliant books are well represented in this show. The book as an art form is a favorite form for contemporary artistic exploration. Shows of artists' books often concentrate on what can be made of the codex form. Robinson experiments with the codex as vehicle, but she does not play with the central concept of the book as The Word—as the means of communicating  enduring, valuable content. In her hands, the book is why we weep over the floods that destroy libraries, and why we shudder to hear of the Taliban's wholesale destruction of ancient monuments. By means of books, civilization preserves the memory of culture. This is emphatically what Robinson's books are meant to do.

Opposite side of Aminah's Blackberry
Patch,
1982. Author photo.
Aminah's Blackberry Patch takes the form of a large leather portfolio into which smaller cases fit, holding fold-up, paper books of drawings that picture the busy African-American neighborhood of Aminah's childhood in Columbus. A gift for her son in 1982, this too is a vessel and an embracing, a gift that passes along memory and heritage. As a work of art, it manifests all of Robinson's quickness and control: the supreme confidence of her direct carving into the leather—the way she gives the impression of spontaneous writing on the inner flaps, paired with the neatness of the lacing and the perfectly-fit composition of the faces on the cover and back panel. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Vol. 3 -- “Life Throbs, the Neighborhood (1800 – 1930), Blackberry Patch.” Crayon, pen, buttons, thread on paper. Contains four “pages.” Closed: 9 ½ x 11 ½ inches. Open: 10 x 41 inches. Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Gallery.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson,
Emancipation Day, September 22,
1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Aminah Robinson, detail of Emancipation
Day, September 22, 1900, Blackberry
Patch.
Author Photo.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Emancipation Day,
September 22, 1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Robinson creates books of overwhelming size, books so big that they are banners, so big that they fill walls. These are books that I compare to stained glass windows because they tell stories of broad cultural importance, and do it in a form that glorifies the content. Her commemoration of Emancipation Day is a collection of individual panels, each of which could stand alone, but which, all together, remind the viewer of many reasons to celebrate everyday African-American life. This, as so often in Robinson's work, takes the form of the folk life that binds the two continents. Emancipation is understood as a holiday of American Black folk. But Robinson strives to link the emancipated American to a heritage of first freedom, when Americans were Africans. She makes these connections through allusions to folk life fed by deep ties to legacies people might not even recognize as ancestral. In this panel, children play the game "Bird in the cage." In Themba: Healer, Herbalist and Prophet, she illustrates the custom of jumping the broom. This was a practice of enslaved couples trying to form permanent, wedded unions, which hearkens back to West Africa.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, scene of
jumping the broom from Themba: Healer,
Herbalist and Prophet.
 Author photo.

The "bird in the cage" and "jumping the broom" pages illustrate two manners of Robinson's work in "folkloric" styles, which are clearly masterfully considered and controlled. Whether she uses stick figures or expressive, exaggerated figures, each of her many styles is chosen carefully and used to convey the values invested in her subjects. 

One of the materials Robinson uses as prolifically as she uses paint or ink is buttons. In some of the work, buttons are virtually the sole material—buttons and some underpinning to hold them all together. Many understand these bright, common, utilitarian closures as her popular signature. I sometimes wonder if the charm of buttons don't lure viewers not merely to the work but straight past its passionate messages. 

The use of buttons, pins, and similar trinkets, however, points to yet another aspect of Robinson's almost explosively-laden art. Buttons have the functional and symbolic power to bring two sides together, but they can also serve, as any pretty small thing can, as a medium of exchange. Like coins, marbles, beads, or shells, buttons can be traded, offered, acquired. They can make a person rich. They can be used as people in European traditions use gemstones, to decorate and to denote special objects as precious.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, book cover, Family Treasures. Author photo.

The cover of the large, wall-mounted book, Family Treasures, shows a document that is twice-precious. It is family history, which is sacred, and it is preserved in book form. This comes literally encrusted, literally like a treasure that tempts the hand to scoop into it. The appliquéd title appears to be sunken beneath a layer of gems. Yet if the reader clicks on this photograph for a larger view, it's clear that none of the buttons are particularly noteworthy in themselves—just as an aggregation of coins in itself need amount to nothing. Rags to riches. Riches to riches.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, first page, Family Treasures. Author photo.


















The page that follows depicts two women dancing, the one in a dress fashioned from a showy beadwork appliqué. Along the edge of the adjoining cover are tubular beads that Robinson may well have acquired on one of her trips to West Africa. If those beads have the significance we usually assign to items of exotic origin, that value sinks quietly into the fabric of the book. The detail our eyes value is the gaudy appliqué that forms the dress, which could be a scrap cut from a an elderly relative's castoff. Exotic commonness and familiar exotica; riches both.

Robinson works in so many ways that have arisen and disappeared only to rise again in the the current of her long career; and since she works literally without interruption in her home, where she eschews media connections and keeps her landline phone number most private; it is difficult to generalize about anything that may be representative of her "current" work. But I was mesmerized by a tiny work from 2014 that appears to bring to refined, essential form all she values of African and Western traditions; of nurture, elder wisdom, and of cultural memory preserved in word and in artifact. This is a "roll book" that incorporates a doll figure of a woman into the structure of a book.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 1, exterior. Author photo.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 2, exterior. Author photo.
The piece is made of black and white cloth  and knitting scraps, ornamented with buttons and beads of white and silver. The fabrics are homely, but the ornaments, applied with red thread, are most artistically chosen to lend a luxurious trim and texture to a figure that would once have been considered (and is, no doubt still, in some quarters) a "Mammy." The sparkling glass; the variegated ceramic beads; the magnificent silver butterfly brooch are like a lifetime's accumulated wealth in which this woman is garbed. Her riches are at once real and metaphorical. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 3, interior. Author photo.
In an exquisite condensation of meaning and materials, though, we find that the doll is in fact the opening of a book. Its tiny, velvet pages turn wordlessly, each decorated with a beautiful frame of  virtual gems and pearls. In this book there are no words, and no representations of historical or autobiographical scenes. The work itself seems to represent the value of memory itself, or of history. The doll is a kind of guardian angel, a woman whose dignity is earned from her age and experience of labor in the past, all refined now to pearls of wisdom, placed in the hands of the bearer. It's an invitation to use the future as wisely as others have preserved the past in written and spoken history. Perhaps she suggests that our books of days—so tiny, precious, and intimate—will fill up and wipe themselves clean effortlessly in the course of time.

Since she was ten, it's been Robinson's mission to preserve and transmit the values she learned from Themba, a visionary born in Africa, brought to America as a servant beast, who lived for a century to reveal the importance of history to an intuitive great-niece. Robinson's gift comes without hauteur, powered by the heat of conviction and of talent, raw and practiced. In what most of us call scraps and discards, she uses her talents as thread and buttons to sew together African prehistory with the stories of her own childhood and her mentors for the benefit of untold kin for millennia to come. 

At 75, Robinson reveals through a lifetime of work that she is an artist comfortable in her own inheritance as seer, historian and conservator of her culture. This isn't work that could be done by anyone who thinks of herself as a genius. It's the work of a woman who doesn't see rags.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Folklife in Columbus Ohio 1957, altered spinning wheel sculpture. Mother pushing baby carriage; baby with bottle. Inscription reads, "Walkin' down Long Street." Music box installed in Mother figure. Author photo.
 _________________________________________________________________
For other articles on Aminah Robinson in Starr Review, see:
May 3, 2012: Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing
August 29, 2011: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Knowing Love from Where She Sits