“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. [Art] says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself” – Jeanette Winterson1
Ayanah Moor’s Good News makes me smile. It was the first thing I saw walking into the “Out of Easy Reach” exhibit at the DePaul Art Museum this summer. A grid of eight-by-three screen printed sheets of paper showing cream colored text set against a black background. The first reads, “Chicago: Chicago has a lot of professional Black women. But a lot of the women just don’t have their heads together. They try to be professional, but they forget that it takes a well-rounded life to be happy. – Danielle Thomas.” 23 more sheets list women’s candid remarks on the dating scene for women loving women in different cities across the U.S. Instantly there is a sense of a queer satire — taking the viewer’s knowledge (physical, visual, and sensual) of relationships and sex and gender, and transforming them. The wall text tells us that the writing in the piece originates from an Ebony article entitled What They Say About the Men in Their Towns, and Moor has feminized the male gendered pronouns and words in the responses.
Whatever you think I am, I’m not.
This edict seems to be at the heart of “Out of Easy Reach,” a cross-institutional exhibit covering the myriad contributions of Black and Latina women artists to the genre of abstract art. It is filled with shapeshifters, apparitions, the calm and the storm dancing in and out with each other.
What best to illustrate the mutability of this exhibit than Fight The Power, a work that does its disappearing dance before your very eyes? Here, Maren Hassinger printed sheets of paper with the titular phrase, then shredded, crumpled, and wrapped them around each other. The call to action is wound in and around itself, looking simultaneously weathered and secure, frustrated and triumphant (as it hangs “above eye-level, like a frieze in a Greek temple”2). In the end (where we started), the words are not even visible.Fight The Power is but one of the ghost stories on display in this room. On the opposite wall, Bethany Collins’ Southern Review hangs, displaying an array of pages from a 1987 issue of the literary magazine. This particular issue was intended to apologize for, and combat the erasure the Black writers from earlier issues of the magazine. It’s perfect material for Collins, whose practice offers an inverted form of erasure. In this work, she systematically blacks out passages of the issue, leaving behind inky fingerprints and smudges [read: testimony, presence]. Many questions rise from this work, but the ones that carry the most feeling in the context of the exhibit seem to ask: Who is remembered? Are we liberated or limited through that memory? Who evades definition? Who is free? Black and Latina female-identifying artists often work in a world that seeks to define, to constrain, to alphabetize and order us. These efforts may exist at any point along continuums of physical violence (e.g. human zoos, redlining, borders) and psychic violence (e.g. media stereotypes). Growing up, stereotypes of Black womanness in the United States sometimes felt like a sharply drawn outline around my existence, hemming in what I could and could not do. In these contexts, what does it mean for us to create work that sets down roots within your thoughts; races up and down the halls of your mind with pounding footsteps; work that says, “Run run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me,” work that so audaciously resists straightforward explanations? The freedom to be one thing and at the same time another, to contain multitudes, to be more than what we see on the screen, was the first feeling that came to mind when faced with I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me, by Abigail DeVille. She has taken a gutted television that fills the room with static noise, and covered it with shards of glass and archival images of African-American life. Looking into it, you are confronted by your own fragmented self (and fragmented histories). Thinking back, I start to wish that all mirrors were composed of shattered glass, so we could see ourselves as we really are: always, as Solange Knowles writes, “[wearing] a thousand lives.”3
The artists in this exhibit evade simplification, many using themes of what is lost in translation, or even further, what can never be communicated. Two of Caroline Kent’s paintings, with their air of mysticality and unfulfilled symmetry, hang in a separate room. They contain extensive blackness as a background, contrasted sometimes sharply, sometimes gently, by geometric motifs from the artist’s imagination. According to conversations between the artist and Mia Lopez, Kent’s inspiration comes partly from a childhood of watching foreign films, observing the dissonance between what is said and what is read in captions.Down the hall is Steffani Jemison’s Same Time, two interlocking clear panels with printed symbols. The symbols are translations of those created by artist James Hampton in his personal vocabulary of symbols and marks. At first glance, this is quite honestly frustrating. Like an inside joke that you didn’t even hear the punchline of, but that you can see them laughing about from across the room. Knowing that it is heavy with meaning, my first instinct is to decipher. Though the dimensions of the work lend themselves to leaning, turning, and bending around it to attempt an understanding of how the symbols are related, nothing concrete can come of this. There are also works included within the exhibit which play on the fundamental abstraction of memory. Brenna Youngblood’s untitled painting prominently features a red soda can tab preceding a red line against varying shades of white (brought together by a crumpled piece of white paper, and the bottom of a 30-pack case of beer with repeating circles created by the imprints of the bottles). Youngblood uses objects that we all see, but that have become nearly invisible in their mundanity, creating “space for a viewer’s subjectivity and memory to dance around her symbols…”4 Five viewers bring five meanings to bottle caps, crumpled paper, and beer cases — giving the work the precise opposite of meaninglessness. Reflecting on the drama in the red line of paint, I couldn’t stop thinking of a line from Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger, “A swooping line descends from nowhere, turns, escapes to some infinity… in mathematics, as in love, the riddles matter most.”5
Out of Easy Reach presented Chicago with ghost stories in the form of abstraction: artists whose work remained fluidly self-contradictory, and asked us to do the same.
Out of Easy Reach was shown at UIC Gallery 400, the DePaul Art Museum, and Rebuild Foundation through August 5, 2018.
1Wachtel, Eleanor, and Jeanette Winterson. “Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel.” Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel, CBC Radio, Sept. 1994.
2Wall text for Fight the Power, by Maren Hassinger. Out of Easy Reach, 26 Apr.-5 Aug. 2018, DePaul Art Museum, Chicago.
3Solange Knowles. “Locked in Closets.” True.
4Widholm, Julie Rodrigues. “Brenna Youngblood.” Out of Easy Reach, edited by Allison Glenn, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
5Chang, Lan Samantha. Hunger: a Novella and Stories. W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.
Featured Image: Ayanah Moor, Good News, 2011 [installation view]. 24 black panels span the corner of a white room. White text covers each panel, unreadable from this distance. Image courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.
Kanyinsola Anifowoshe is a 17 year old Nigerian-American who is a senior at Whitney Young high school. She is usually thinking about the architecture of justice, radical hope, and building new art histories. She is editor-in-chief of Wahala Zine, a platform for the creative work of young people in the Nigerian diaspora, and host of The Now podcast where she interviews young creatives. She is also a co-organizer with Fempowerment Chicago and Youth for Black Lives, organizations intended to amplify the power of young people within activism.