Maya Stovall offers videos of dance on sidewalks and neon objects to vividly juxtapose art and humanity.
On April 16th, 2022, the Reyes / Finn gallery opened an exhibition of artwork, Sail, as a continuation of Maya Stovall’s extraordinary conceptual artwork that permeates her being. The accumulation of Liquor Store Theater, 1526, Theorem no. 2, The Public Library, LUX, Razon/Reason, and now Sail, reveals a visual artist who uses her conceptual art to communicate her social grievances…her data-driven observations, her hatred for human rights abuses and the sins of human slavery. Not in my recent experience has an artist’s work been so simple yet created by such a complex, thoughtful and complicated artist.
Stovall employs a mix of anthropological observation and urban intervention to create what she considers performance and ethnography. I was first introduced to her work at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 when I saw her row of videos, each screen playing one of the Liquor Store Theater episodes. I realized she was an artist from Detroit whose work was selected by the curator, Christopher Lew, to be part of the Whitney Biennial 2017, and I included her work in my review. At the time I did not understand the meaning of her work, but in time, with more exposure to the work and her writing, I have come to understand that the Liquor Store Theater contrasts dance performance in the store parking lot (or on the sidewalk) to the everyday activity that is intricately braided with significant socioeconomic distress. Through dance, interviews, and many conversations, Stovall reviews the dismal demographics in the McDougall-Hunt (Detroit) neighborhood, including the median annual income of $13,500 and an unemployment rate of 40%. All of this as the Arab liquor store ownership draws $400,000 per year in profits.
Leading up to Sail was the 1526 series of neon dates that included a citation next to a wall-mounted neon sculpture that reads simply ‘1526’. At White Column in 2020, the gallery mounted LUX, Maya Stovall’s first solo exhibition in New York City. LUX comprised 16 wall-mounted neon sculptures from the artist’s ongoing series. The number is of great personal significance to Stovall, since it marks the year of the first rebellion of enslaved people, which took place in North America’s first European settler colony. Each hangs in chronological order.
Initiated in 2018, the 1526 series emerged from Stovall’s extensive research into historical archives. From tens of thousands of pages of research, the artists developed a series of dates, from 1526 to 2019, that reflect, in the artist’s words, “critical moments in U.S. history.” Each sculpture, a year expressed as numerals inscribed in neon is accompanied by a postcard that visitors were free to take. The postcard expands upon the significance of each particular date or historical ‘moment’.
Maya Stovall’s most recent work proceeds further away from the obvious where her conceptual thinking moves to Minimalism by creating these vertical neon bars of color. The apparent context is the work of Dan Flavin, an American artist and pioneer of Minimalism, who is known for his seminal installations of light fixtures. His illuminated sculptures offer a rigorous formal and conceptual investigation of space and light in which the artist arranged commercial fluorescent bulbs into differing geometric compositions. If conceptual art aims to present an idea, the work takes precedence over traditional aesthetics.
In the new exhibition Sail at Reyes / Finn, Stovall creates enlightenment through a minimal arrangement of vertical neon bars with subtle color changes. One can assume that like all of her work, she seeks to draw the viewer into these elegant compositions of neon light with research, discovery and the creation of a better world for those in need.
By design, each elegant, linear composition in the A____that defies gravity series evades direct recognition and simultaneously provokes many algorithmic and structural associations.
The artist says, “In the work, the concept is considered after theory and after abstraction, such that the concept, object, subject, thing, etc., is able to defy gravity itself.”
The Sail concept becomes a metaphor for reaching out to where place, space and time are complex constructs requiring critical and conflicting analysis. Such an analysis is reflected across the artist’s work. In relentlessly searching out contradictions to both investigate and impose within her work, the paradox of abstraction becomes stunning, sensual and compelling amidst the density of the concept, and the creation of Sail is the result.
Maya Stovall is a conceptual artist and anthropologist whose practice spans objects, performance, text and video. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology, Wayne State University, MBA, University Of Chicago Booth School of Business and BBA, Howard University.
She is currently an Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), Pomona.
Maya Stovall: Sail at Reyes / Finn, April 16th – May 28, 2022