For Abigail DeVille, whose projects use scrap materials to address often obscured themes in American history, the opportunity was to do something big. At the center of his multi-part installation in “Brand New Heavies,” an exhibition by three artists at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, is a 20-foot-tall metal and wire mesh structure inspired by the dome of the US Capitol.
For Xaviera Simmons, whose practice includes photography, performance and sculpture, the show was an opportunity to try out a new medium, ceramics. She built a 15-foot building of clay spheres fired at high heat; two video works are shown there, one didactic, the other of an impetuous sensuality.
And for Rosa-Johan Uddoh, a young performance and video artist from London, the exhibition is an American debut – the first time it has presented her tongue-in-cheek investigations into British society across the pond. One work is projected on a giant screen in a cinema environment with lush curtains and carpet, the other on several small monitors at its entrance.
“Brand New Heavies” – some will remember the funky acid-jazz group that inspired the track – doesn’t hesitate to put artists first. Its curators are the artist Mickalene Thomas and the collector Racquel Chevremont, life and creative partners under the nickname of Deux Femmes Noires, who have taken advantage of their success to bring others.
But the exhibition is also a demonstration of method.
“Our curatorial practice is this: These are artists we want to work with, let’s allow them to do and do things they couldn’t have done otherwise,” Thomas said. Curators urged artists to use the half-acre footprint and 40-foot ceilings of the old factory space, and backed them up with a manufacturing team and resources.
The intuition is that giving artists a wide open creative brief, with the freedom to do the work they deem most urgent, and the space and resources to carry it out, can be just as effective in informing a period of crisis than any well-designed job. conservation argument – and maybe more.
“This is the moment,” said Thomas. “It’s something you’ve never seen before.” A few weeks ago, the curators and artists – minus Uddoh, at his home in London because of the pandemic – offered a preview of the making of the show. An area had been transformed into a ceramic workshop with three kilns, where a team of potters worked in a meditative way. The painters prepared the Uddoh screening room and frames were put in place for the designs by Simmons and DeVille.
“I wanted to install the Capitol dome for a minute,” DeVille said. Mounted in the completed structure, which she calls “the Observatory,” are screens showing images of what she called “the besieged sites of American history.” (She initially envisioned periscope-like viewing devices stuck in the wire mesh, but taped this approach for pandemic hygiene.) Suspended above the dome is a dark disc suggesting distant galaxies, or a black hole.
DeVille was concerned, she said, about how American public architecture projects a grand narrative that suppresses conflicting evidence – from the Capitol building by, among others, enslaved black workers, to the current sanctioned violence. by the state.
“In the formation of the United States, there is a love affair with classical structures through which to project our potential greatness,” said DeVille. His idea of the dome crystallized after the election of Donald Trump, with his call to restore lost American glory. “We’re always trying to position ourselves back,” she said, “and we’re missing the point a bit.”
Its Capitol hosts different stories. On screen, for example, vintage maps of Manhattan’s Fresh Water Pond area, where free black residents lived until it became largely Irish Five Points. “I think of the places where people put down roots, but that always changed because they were subject to being kicked out,” she said.
Other footage was shot during his travels, including along the Carolina and Georgia coasts. Once, she recalls, after stopping to pick up rubbish by the side of the road, she saw a sign indicating that she was at the Combahee River – where Harriet Tubman led a raid of the ‘Union that freed 700 enslaved people. She integrated her video of the place in this work.
DeVille’s installation features a second ziggurat-shaped structure made up of 370 trash cans, filled with old bottles and other containers, with protruding mannequin legs. The tins were collected from a former Social Security office in Baltimore, she explained – a federal building with a much more utilitarian function.
To complete the environment, perforated tarpaulins cover the windows of the cavernous exhibition room, filtering the light; silhouetted legs emerge at the base. Long sticks lean against a wall, each with an array of red feathers at its foot – inspired, she said, by MAGA hats and freedom sticks. The aggregate effect is a sort of folk panorama, both prosaic and mysterious.
DeVille expects visitors to associate her piece with the Jan.6 Capitol uprising, although she has already designed it. In fact, she said, there was no shortage of available historical allusions: “Throw a dart at the map anywhere in the United States and you’re going to hit a box of worms.”
Simmons’ installation incorporates some 800 ocher spheres in a structure with a vaulted entrance. The artist’s resume is extensive and eclectic, including, most recently, steel pieces with embedded text at Socrates Sculpture Park, and work on a highway billboard in the current Desert X Biennale in California. At Pioneer Works, it has taken a new step forward.
“I’m always interested in formal processes,” Simmons said. “It’s about doing work and opening a new chapter or channel in my practice.”
In his mind was touch. The clay work, she said, had a certain tactile integrity, as well as roots in all cultures. “It is an earthly desire on my part,” she added, “to see and feel this type of material, the oldest type of material.
Inside are back-to-back monitors. One shows text slides that distill history and current events – a story about Thelonious Monk, a commentary on the split in political movements, a reminder of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and more. The other plays a montage of sensual images, picked and blurred with eroticism.
“Melee,” Simmons said. “I want you to be excited.” She titled the book “Even in variations, the sharing of pleasures helps us to situate ourselves to defend.”
Active citizenship, she suggests, operates in both realms – analytical and libidinal. While the pandemic caused a scarcity of touch, the year’s social justice protests were met with catharsis, modeled by young people whose elders had much to learn.
“These young people want to feel who they want to feel with,” she says. “They want to sleep together” – she used the simpler term – “I’m sleeping with you, and you, safe, so I’ll be on the street, then I’ll create. It is a kind of abolitionist framework.
The present moment, said Simmons, was full of potential – a pause, with seeds of a better way to germinate. “I think we are at a beautiful pivot point, especially for artists or thinkers, who have to devote themselves to the work of the imagination. I think we are coming to that point of repair. “
Uddoh, meanwhile, is the youngest artist in the series, steeped in the British experience, which she inspects with scientific insight and lively humor. Graduated in 2018 from the Slade School of Fine Art, she received early career accolades in the UK but had not yet exhibited in the US.
When she got the invitation, she said, she thought it was a hoax. But the Conservatives had spotted it. “It was something about him,” Chevremont said. “I thought she needed the money and the resources behind her to really get the job done.”
On the big screen, Uddoh presents “Black Poirot” – a 20-minute film mixing found images with textual narration, in which she assumes that Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, with his ambiguous status in British society, could just as well having been black – and if so, could have developed a radically different method of inquiry, informed by Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant and other theorists of race and empire.
In her work “Performing Whitness”, shown on smaller screens, she inhabits the character of Moira Stuart – the first black BBC news anchor, hired after the Brixton riots in 1981, and who was part of the childhood of the artist. “There was a black woman to trust,” Uddoh said. “She’s smart, she’s in her costumes and everything, she’s the spokesperson for the public broadcaster.”
In his own maturity, Uddoh said – study architecture at Cambridge; working in a London company; then she went to art school and took care of galleries and museums – she became fascinated by what women like Stuart did, and the cost. “With my experience of what it means to navigate white institutions, I began to see it as an incredible feat of performance.
If conditions allow, Uddoh hopes to come before the show ends on June 20 and add a live component. Already, Thomas and Chevremont said, his work injects a different diasporic perspective into what may be overly insular American conversations.
Compared to the heavy-themed exhibitions, “Brand New Heavies” offers a different way of approaching the contemporary period of cascading trauma and, hopefully, the promise of renewal.
There is value, the curators suggested, in opening wide and leading with confidence, the idea that the discoveries artists make along the way will also inspire viewers with new ideas.
“When artists get the platform and have an idea, something magical happens,” Thomas said. “It’s heavy. This is the brand new. “