Peter Williams @ MOCAD & Trinosophes

Where do Black people go during times fraught with pain and sorrow?

Installation Image Peter Williams: Black Universe, MOCAD

Peter Williams’ query is one with a storied lineage within the Black community. Over the course of 45 years, Williams, a senior professor of painting at the University of Delaware with time spent in the Detroit arts community and as a professor at Wayne State University, has tackled problematic social structures of white supremacy and discrimination with uncensored perspectives. Curious and inquisitive, he is often in a state of mental travel and critical culture investigation within his practice.

These themes set the foundation of Peter Williams: Black Universe, an Afro-futuristic narrative that takes the viewer on a journey through consciousness and pursuit of a better life. Within this universe, Williams creates a melanated race who travels to outer space with hopes to discover new planet homes and an end to systemic constructs of oppression, racism and injustice.

Co-curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei, Peter Williams: Black Universe exhibits at Trinosophes and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) through January 21, 2021. The installation is experimental and actively fuses abstract strokes with contemporary figuration. Narration and Transitions at Trinosophes begins as a meditation. Its energizing colors, use of repetition and symmetric designs flirt with sensuality, sarcasm, spirituality and identity. Through use of abstraction, Mazzei notes that the viewer is experiencing a “painter’s painter” working through ideas and experiments that create space to sort through ideas.

Peter Williams, OWL, 2019, Oil on Canvas; 24×20 inches

 

Peter Williams, SQUEEZE II, Oil on Canvas; 24×30 inches

Bird Man closes Narration and Transitions. The active piece steers from the serene and transitions to dark humor and an evolving narrative. The larger canvas preludes Williams’ Black Exodus suite of paintings on view at MOCAD. The figurative composition is a self-portrait of the artist after a major surgery. A bit disoriented, the subject sits, appearing unbothered, in the middle of the frame with a dragon devouring his slumped body. Movement seems to be controlled by the wizardry figure in the lower right corner raising its wand. This sense of energy and twist on a thematic composition that could be viewed as defeat, may be informing what’s to come.

Peter Williams, BIRD MAN, 2019 Oil on Canvas; 48×60 inches

 

Peter Williams, SPECTACLE, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 48×48 inches

MOCAD’s Black Exodus gets to the gristle of the narrative using color as a luring factor toward bigger ideas and societal confrontations on large canvas. Here, Williams uses dark humor, allegory, art history, and witty satire as a way to challenge us to confront the truths about society and ourselves.

In Spectacle, blackness is on display. The tone is blunt and touches on the eerie and invasive feeling of being watched and observed. The figures are constructing the building blocks of their new alien planet. Wearing garments from historical myths, they have a heightened awareness of their surroundings but make no effort to perform, if you will, or oblige the onlookers’ expectation for something to happen. The last laugh, however, is owned by the “spectacle” with his sharp, hard gaze refocusing the lens by peering through a monocle implying a shared curiosity and the discomfort of surveillance.

Peter Williams, BLACK PEOPLE’S OIL, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 72×96 inches

Ossei-Mensah worked with Williams in 2018, for a show at the CUE Art Foundation, and speaks to the allure of Williams’ knowledge and experimentation with color theory. “It’s a common place to enter while suggesting that you spend more time not only looking at the full picture composition but paying attention to the details,” he says. “These are the little norms that I think make Peter such an incredible, not only artist but just a thinker reflecting on the Black experience.”

Peter Williams, ROCKETTRY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 60×72 inches

The central element in Black People’s Oil  is the figure trudging through swamp-like oil in a spacesuit emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front and the letters ‘B L M’ scrolled on the arm of the suit. A ‘BP Oil’ blimp flies above, likely referencing the 2010 oil spill that deeply affected the Gulf of Mexico and another flying car resembling the Pan African flag reads ‘Black People.’ A goggle lens frames the Black figure in the space suit. The piece is a complex visual suggesting routes of escape, but also questioning if that means something better or the type of desired difference that alleviates one from oppression and despair.

Rockettry doesn’t answer that but serves as a call to action. Here, Williams paints a community of people working together to build their mode of transportation and way out of a corrupt and disastrous planet. Car parts and tools are scattered, men and women work individually and collaboratively on vehicles. There’s a lot of  movement on canvas that offers commentary on the inventiveness that can be birthed within a confined environment. The details are pivotal as Ossei-Mensah references. Notice the brown man slumped over holding cans of fuel cell,  another holding his Cuba identification card, and a  community member wearing a shirt that reads: Roses are red/violets enjoyable/don’t blame the Mexicans cause your unemployable. In the upper right corner, a burnt orange, sun-like shape overlooks the community working to create a way out, but this is not a beam of light. The words: Fascist, Pigs, KKK, FBI, Lies, Bitch, Ice, Trump with multiple HaHas are carved on the figure. The community continues on their mission.

I Fell From the Sky references the history of painting the human form. We see astronauts floating in a “suspended state of consciousness” and uncertainty regarding their future – a testament to the present day in the midst of a global health pandemic,  hyper-visible racial and political tensions. The astronauts hands are  covered with white gloves, referencing the minstrel show and television shows illustrating Black people as cartoon buffoons. The visual statement traces a traumatic past that has seeped into mainstream consciousness in various forms from  — some of which holding such an aesthetic appeal the foundational roots have been obstructed from memory or a desire to know. But Williams doesn’t paint frivolously. History is significant even while the artist deciphers thoughts and colliding worlds.

The figure at the core of the canvas is flying in a space suit designed with stitches of Kente cloth – an homage to Ghana in West Africa. The symbolism here is communication. Gold articulates status and serenity; yellow is fertility; green speaks to renewal; blue aligns with spirit and harmony; red is passion and black represents a union with ancestors and spiritual awareness. These elements arrive in the conscious state, perhaps serving as a guided language for Williams while conceptualizing the series and dialogue that discusses the Black experience.

Peter Williams, I FELL FROM THE SKY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 72×96 inches

Peter Williams is an educator and artist with the condition of Black lives always at the forefront of his creative transport. In Black Universe, we journey along an experiential thinker and conversationalist en route to another world within and beyond the known. He extends the invitation to use your imagination when digesting the complexity of his works and exploring how to come to terms with the world that presently exists. The solution does not rest in escapism that suggests something new is better, but the power to choose and decide how to make the lives we lead on this planet our version of utopia.

Peter Williams at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art – Detroit) and Trinosophes.

*Writer’s Note: Thank you to Rebecca Mazzei,  Larry Ossei- Mensah  and Zeb Smith for conversation and insight.

Black Matters @ Flint Institute of Art

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

Chicago-based artist Matthew Owen Wead never intended Shooting Targets to be an ongoing series.  Originally conceived in 2009, this body of work memorialized selected black victims of police violence spanning the years 1969 through 2009.  But the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year sadly keep this body of work perennially relevant.   The thirteen works from Shooting Targets comprise the bulk of the exhibition Black Matters currently on view at the Flint Art Institute, a moving and considered exhibition of life-sized woodcuts that manage to cross into the realm of performance and conceptual art.

Occupying the FIA’s single-room graphics gallery, Black Matters consists of sixteen large woodcuts depicting black victims of police or vigilante violence; each print shows a black figure against a stark, white void, echoing the nearly universal formula for a typical target at a shooting range.  Using himself as the model for most of the prints, Wead imagined the possible expression and posture of each victim in the moment before their death.  Revealingly, it’s not necessarily always fear or panic we see; the five bullets that struck the mentally disabled Ronald Madison were fired into his back, for example, so some of these victims couldn’t react to what they didn’t expect.  Each image is accompanied with didactic text on the wall relaying the story of each victim.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Breonna Taylor, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

These works are confrontational in scale and certainly make a strong statement presented together as an ensemble, but their size also references the approximate size of a target at a shooting range.  And we see each individual only from the waist up, also a conscious allusion to a target.  Close inspection of some of these prints reveals actual bullet holes in the print corresponding to the number of times each victim was shot.

Stylistically, these works conscientiously betray the influence of early 20th century expressionistic woodcuts, particularly the visceral and emotionally charged works of Kathe Kollwitz, which Wead acknowledges were a formative influence on his work, along with the dark and visually punchy works of the Baroque painter Caravaggio.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Johnny Gammage, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

All of these works apply expressive linework.  The agitated undulations and swirling light and shadow that appear on the jackets of Michael Pleasance and Khiel Coppin seem to help externalize their states of mind and underscore the drama of the moment, for example.  And the knee on George Floyd’s neck is rendered abstractly as a frighteningly oppressive network of chevron lines which consume half the page.  But there’s also an understated elegance in some of these images, as in the portrait of Ronald Madison, his back rendered with sinuous linework and deft application of light and shadow.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Ronald Madison, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

Both this exhibition’s title and font carry subtle references.  Black Matters, of course, references the Black Lives Matter movement.  But the “B” and “M” in Black Matters  double as a 3 and a 5, wittily referencing the Three-Fifth’s Compromise which emerged from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a policy that determined that in assessing the populations of each state, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person.  The title and the 3/5 fraction together also subtly make the point that addressing systemic racism should always be a priority, not merely in those moments when a particularly sensational video happens to go viral.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 George Floyd, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

This show demonstrates that police brutality has been a problem well before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbey unwittingly became names with which we are all familiar.  Personally, I found it sadly revealing that almost all of these individuals were people I had never heard of before, suggesting my own relative ignorance of the history and the scope of the problem.  Black Matters is a considered, moving, and pathos-laden exhibition, and it’s also an exhibition that shouldn’t have to happen.

Black Matters, Matthew Owen Wead, Flint Institute of Art

KA Letts @ River House Arts

ANTHROPOCENE Paintings and Drawings for the New Normal

KA Letts’ title ‘Anthropocene’ refers to the current geological-time epoch where humans have the greatest impact on the Earth’s environment. The term was first introduced by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000 and has gained popularity in elite scientific circles. Humans are the first species keenly aware of our drastic planet-scale influence causing mass extinctions of plants and animals, pollution of the oceans and alteration of the atmosphere. Letts’ work references this phenomenon through myths and stories from our shared cultural history.

KA Letts, Death of Phaeton, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 18” x 24”

In Greek mythology, Phaeton is the bastard son of the sun god Helios. In an attempt to prove his paternity, Helios gives Phaeton permission to drive the chariot of the sun through the heavens for a single day. Phaeton is unable to control the horses of the sun chariot, driving them too close to the earth and scorching it. Zeus stops the madness with a thunderbolt, killing Phaeton. Letts draws on indigenous Aboriginal art using one-dimensional geometric shapes accompanied by a Seurat dot-style application that permeates Australian contemporary work. Her style strongly aligns with Native Alaskan artwork that conveys spiritual and physical activity through a similar use of line and shape. The black and white palette allows the viewer to focus on the characters whose physical expression communicates their emotional response to the lifeless soul crumpled at the bottom of the picture.

KA Letts, Encounter, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 50” x 38”

The scale of Encounter immediately demands attention. Before unpacking the subjects and their message, the image twists and moves, inviting a closer look. Upon discovery of the intertwined figures, their intimacy is disclosed. Because one figure is flat black and the other is rendered in that primitive style, this could as easily be a tryst between lovers or a god tangling with its seeker.

KA Letts, Three Angels and a Harpy, 2019, acrylic on paper, 36” x 48”

In Three Angels and a Harpy, we are permitted colored pointillism that affords some warmth. Upon first glance, these bending and dancing figures immediately remind of Detroit’s Charles McGee’s striking graphic white patterns on black. There is a very subtle checkered line that snakes through this piece, belting the characters together. It’s difficult to separate the subjects, but no matter. This composition is lively and commands the eye to circumnavigate the picture excavating for interpretation.

KA Letts, Burning Earth, 2019, acrylic on dibond, 36” x 48”

Burning Earth’s character on the right seems to have pitched the erupting fireball while the character on the left shouts in horror “Don’t do it!”. Gods at odds and humans pay the price for their whims. What’s great about this piece is it reads like a mosaic. It’s only upon close inspection the viewer can discern the fastidious application of colored dots. These marks create an almost tactile background. The progressive color values grant necessary dimension behind flat subjects.

KA Letts, Martyrdom of St. Jezebel, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 50” x 38”

Martyrdom of St. Jezebel is a dramatic piece. Jezebel has been released by judgmental hands, plummeting toward the vicious dogs of fate while an onlooker considers the matter. Letts’ training as a set and costume designer reveals in the stitching of the black structures. Jezebel’s tiny hands and feet are the only afforded color describing her delicate circumstances as well as her person. The text, although not particularly necessary, is well camouflaged and is secondary to the horror of the story taking center stage.

KA Letts, Reliquary, 2012, tinted gesso on paper, 38” x 50”

Reliquary resides in the small vestibule ahead of the gallery entrance and can be easily missed, which is tragic because it’s a fabulous piece. Dark and ominous, the skulls call to the European catacombs where overflowing cemeteries had to be relocated in subterranean tombs. Out of respect for the dead, the bones are mindfully organized and stacked in patterns. Several inscriptions, paintings, statues and ornaments can be found in these sacred tunnels, often depicting and exulting Christ. Most religions attach spiritual power to coveted relics. The Catholic Church would have inscribed any religious artifacts in Latin signifying its power. Letts leaves the translation of her mystical text to our imagination.

In a contemporary landscape of interdisciplinary and/or conceptual art shows, straight up painting, when it’s well executed, is a real treat. The skill it requires to invoke an emotional response without controversy, indecipherable imagery or optical tricks is to be admired and celebrated. At a distant glance, Letts’ work appears graphic and precise. Moving in for close examination, the meticulous craftmanship of the brushwork is evident. Artwork has to stand on visual merit, hopefully both compositionally as well as emotionally, or it’s not worth bothering with the written statements. It’s not entirely necessary to read into Letts’ myths and metaphors to enjoy her work. It visually captivates on face alone.

ANTHROPOCENE Paintings and Drawings for the New Normal by KA Letts is on view now through October 3, 2020

River House Arts, 425 Jefferson Ave, Toledo, US

We Used to Gather @ Detroit Library Street Collective

Installation, We Used To Gather, Library Street Collective, 8.2020

The walls of Detroit’s Library Street Collective are lined floor to ceiling with vibrant canvases that match the bright, sunny days of this hot Detroit summer. The gallery’s first opening since the widespread closures following the COVID-19 pandemic, We Used to Gather ambitiously responds to communal anxieties with a series of figurative works by 26 different artists. As we begin to tiptoe wearily out of social isolation, many of us are reflecting on what we learned both about ourselves and our relationships with our communities over the past few months. The show reminds us that reflections of ourselves are everywhere we look and often, we struggle to make sense of what we see. The title itself recalls a time when we were able to gather freely, only here, the presence of others is supplanted by two-dimensional representations.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, American Gangsta: Uncle Sam, 2018 Oil on canvas 48 x 60 in. (121.92 x 152.4 cm)

At the very entrance of the gallery, the eye is immediately drawn to Tylonn J. Sawyer’s American Gangsta: Uncle Sam, 2018. Sawyer’s fine technical skill and command of his medium shine through in this life-sized depiction of a Black man sporting a clean suit and touting a cigarette in front of the American flag. With a gun tucked in his belt line, he peers critically out of the canvas. His dubious expression begs the question: who exists to protect and serve America? And likewise, who does America exist to protect and serve?

Conrad Egyir, Sydney King, 2020 Oil with mixed media on panel 48 x 48 in. (121.92 x 121.92 cm)

Conrad Egyir, JustTina, 2020 Oil with mixed media on pane, 48 x 48 in. (121.92 x 121.92 cm)

Conrad Egyir touches on similar themes in the two works he has featured in the show. In Sydney King and JustTina, his subjects are framed by another hallmark of national institutionalism: the postage stamp. Both women gaze outwards with their right hands laid gently over their hearts. Ghanan-born Egyir is interested in how African identity is perceived as it travels across the diaspora. The postage stamp is quite literally a vehicle for the transportation of words and ideas. It also serves as a sort of tribute to those prominent figures who we, as a society, have chosen to honor. In these two works, Egyir chooses to honor Black women, whose lived experiences and contributions are far too often overlooked in daily life.

Maja Djordjevic, Be here and be loud, 2020 Oil and enamel on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.92 x 91.44 cm)

Maja Djordjevic, Waiting and hoping, 2020 Oil and enamel on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.92 x 91.44 cm)

A little further down the salon-style lineup of paintings hangs a work by Serbian artist Maja Djordjevic. The artist has two pieces featured in the show, both of which depict a pixelated nude female figure in dramatic posture. With her stiff limbs and mouth fixed open, she bears semblance to an inflatable sex doll. Though painted entirely by hand without tape or stencils, the digitized style of Djordjevic’s work alludes to the virtual realities many of us live via the internet, especially over these past few months when contact with the outside world has been so limited. To whom do we turn for comfort during these trying times? More often than not, it’s the women in our lives, be they real or digitally imagined, who play the role of caregiver.

Gisela McDaniel, Do Right, 2020 Oil on canvas, found object, resin, flower, sound on USB, 40 x 20 in. (101.6 x 50.8 cm)

An ode to the feminine is also made in Gisela McDaniel’s Do Right. McDaniel creates visual realms where victims of sexual abuse can seek refuge from their trauma. In Do Right, a woman envelops herself gracefully in her own criss-crossed arms. Intertwined with her are two small white dogs. Bright colors, vibrant foliage, and three-dimensional trinkets fixed to the surface of the canvas all serve to delineate a personal fortress where this woman reigns free. Stories, especially as they are told and personally reclaimed by women, are at the heart of McDaniel’s work.

Jammie Holmes, Untitled, 2020 Acrylic on canvas 60 x 44 in. (152.4 x 111.76 cm)

The show also features two works by Louisiana-native Jammie Holmes. His untitled work depicts a young man sitting, facing squarely forward, on a wicker Peacock Chair. The ornate chair was popularized in the twentieth century by countless celebrities and public figures who often posed sitting in the chair for portraits, album covers, and publicity stunts. One famous Peacock Chair portrait is that of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Here, the subject is poised in a commanding position of authority, not unlike that of Newton’s in his respective portrait. It is not difficult to imagine that Holmes might have intended to invoke the radical notions of the Black Panther Party during a time in the United States when police brutality against Black people is at the forefront of national attention.

Photography attributed to Blair Stapp, Composition by Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967. Lithograph on paper; Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Marcus Brutus, Annie, 2020 Acrylic on canvas 30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 60.96 cm)

Along the same lines, Marcus Brutus has four intimate portraits featured in the show. Each of them center in on a Black male figure set against bright yet minimal backgrounds. Annie is calm and stoic in its presentation of a young man gazing tiredly out of the canvas. His downtrodden expression and timeless dress are enlivened by the brilliant lime-green backdrop just behind him. Traces of bright green glint off of his skin. Brutus celebrates the ordinary with his reverent portraits of familiar faces.

Pedro Pedro, Figure Fumbling for a Cigarette, 2019 Acrylic and textile paint on linen 49 x 34 in. (124.46 x 86.36 cm)

Pedro Pedro, Portrait of Kaitlin Concerned, 2019 Acrylic and textile paint on linen 19 x 16 in. (48.26 x 40.64 cm)

In fitting contrast, LA-based Pedro Pedro offers two portraits of female figures. The features of each woman are exaggerated to the point of comedic effect, yet each composition feels wholly balanced. The warm hues and richly blended colors pay service to the expressions of the women, each of which appear to be frozen in a moment of contemplation. The variation of style and concept in We Used to Gather might at first overwhelm, but ultimately succeeds in capturing the feelings of chaos and uncertainty most of us are experiencing in these trying times.

All works mentioned above as well as many others are available to view at Library Street Collective through September 18, 2020. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 12-6PM. A virtual tour of the exhibition is also available on the Library Street Collective website. 10% of the proceeds on any works sold from We Used to Gather will be donated to the Metro Detroit COVID-19 ACE Fund.

WE USED TO GATHER

Library Street Collective, July 18 – September 18, 2020  –   1260 Library Street, Detroit, MI  48226

Soft Powers @Arab American National Museum

 

Soft Powers, dimensions variable, installation

Yasmine Diaz has already had work exhibited in both sides of the Atlantic ranging from venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Poetry Project Space in Berlin, and Station Beirut in Lebanon.  But soft powers at the Arab American National Museum is her first solo exhibition in a museum space, and as such seems like a debut of sorts.  Los Angeles based Yasmine Nasser Diaz recently completed her artist in residence in March 2020 at the AANM, and with Soft-Powers, she presents an intimate and largely autobiographical reflection on the experience of coming-of-age in the United States as the daughter of immigrants.

Soft Powers wittily puns on both the medium and the message of the exhibit, referencing the silk of the show’s fiber etchings and the “soft powers” immigrants are forced to develop as they navigate conflicting loyalties and cultures.  Diaz approaches the topic from first-person perspective, having herself grown up in Chicago as the child of immigrants from Yemen.

Say No To Drugs, 30 x 38,” silk-rayon fiber etching

The exhibition is divided into two sections, beginning with an ensemble of fiber etchings based on the artist’s own photographs of Yemeni friends and family in private interior spaces.  Her fiber etchings are mostly monochromatic (and of a warm rose color palette), and the figures they portray are reductive like those of an Andy Warhol screen-print.  But there’s enough visual information to suggest some of the tension (and fusion) of differing cultures.  In one image, we see a woman wearing a “Say No! to Drugs” t-shirt; in other images, we see women dressed in what appears to be more traditionally ethnic dress. In most of these images, we see women in a group or ensemble, often embracing, and exuding sisterhood and solidarity.

Thick as Thieves, 28 x 36,” silk-rayon fiber etching

Truth or Dare, 44 x 58,” silk-rayon fiber etching

The second space in the exhibit is an immersive installation of a bedroom with some interactive components.  This is the third iteration of her Teenage Bedroom series, and comprises all the elements you’d expect to find in the bedroom of two fictional children of immigrants to America.  There’s enough detail that wandering around the space feels almost creepily voyeuristic.  Having come of age myself in the 90s, I appreciated anecdotal elements like the California Raisin collectibles placed on the television set, and the Trapper Keeper binder on the floor, details that imparted a bit of whimsey and (for me anyway) shared experience.  Queen Latifah posters, stacks of cassette tapes, a stack of People magazines, Islamic prayer beads, and black and white photographs of presumed relatives are a few elements in the room that collectively hint at cultural synthesis as these children embrace American culture while acknowledging their traditions and family histories.

Video Courtesy of the Arab American National Museum

Unfortunately, by its nature Teenage Bedroom loses some of its impact when just viewed online, and since the AANM is closed indefinitely due to Covid 19, the show must be experienced digitally by default.  However, the AANM assembled a virtual walk through of the exhibit, narrated by Diaz herself.  And most of the silk-etchings from the show are viewable on her website.  Though the show can’t be viewed in person (for now), it remains a timely and relevant exhibit, particularly against the backdrop of the 2017 travel ban which affected aspirant immigrants from Yemen.  In this show, Diaz quietly urges us to look at arrivals from other homelands with empathy, and she imparts a healthy respect for the soft powers these immigrants develop as they tactfully navigate the bridging of cultures.

They Talk About Us,  36 x 30,” silk-rayon fiber etching

They Talk About Us,  36 x 30,” silk-rayon fiber etching