Review: ‘Out of Easy Reach’ DePaul Art Museum, Gallery 400, Stony Island Arts Bank

Jul 19, 2018 / by Evan Carter, Bruce Thorn / New Art Examiner

The impetus for Out of Easy Reach, an innovative cross-institutional show came from a conversation in early 2016 between Julie Rodriguez Widholm, director of the DePaul Art Museum and curator Allison N. Glenn. All three directors (Widholm, Lorelei Stewart at Gallery 400 and Theaster Gates at Rebuild Foundation) issued a combined statement about the multi-venue exhibit that read, “Out of Easy Reach…from its inception, has recognized the gaps and failures of an art system to celebrate, exhibit, honor or even acknowledge its many makers”. The exhibition is “committed to lifting the veil” to allow the feminist part of the art system to be shared with larger audiences. This translates into a wider representation of black and Latina artists and greater attention to the show’s central themes: race, identity and gender.

“Out of Easy Reach—Gallery 400”
The Gallery 400 portion of “Out of Easy Reach” presents work by nine artists from the black and Latina diasporas whose art practice converges around issues of spatial politics, mapping and migration.

Three artists who engaged my attention were Juliana Huxtable, Howardena Pindell and Lisa Alvarado. Huxtable’s Untitled (For Stewart) presented an extended text filled with personal history and pop-cultural references. Pindell’s Free, White and 21 focuses the camera on herself and speaks to the racism she encountered as she came of age as a black woman in America.

Alvarado’s mixed-media use of fabric, embroidery and paint for her Traditional Object series was mesmerizing. Her double-sided tapestries combine abstraction with the ceremonial crafts belonging to traditions of the aftermath of cultural erasure.

“Out of Easy Reach—DePaul Art Museum”
The DePaul Art Museum features 13 of the 24 artists exhibiting work in “Out of Easy Reach.” The exhibition is curated by Allison Glenn, associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The range of themes covered across the show’s three venues creates an opportunity to present the central theme from different angles. However, the theme is ultimately singular: the representation of female artists of color.

The DePaul portion addresses the body, landscape, and the archive. This selection of works seems to walk the line between overt politics and maximalist material concerns, favoring the formally elegant. Given that DePaul is the only exhibition site with the word “museum” in its name, it seems typical that this selection of works lacks the bright colors and densely packed assemblages of found objects. Instead, the expected role of the museum to display elegant, formal objects is fully embraced.

Markedly absent from the modern art historical canon, the female artists of color theme has nevertheless employed one of the canon’s key tenets– abstraction. We not only get to see contemporary abstract work in the DePaul space; we also get to see the canonizing validation that so many of these artists were historically denied.

There is excellent painting, sculpture, photography, and video by Candida Alvarez, Caroline Kent, and Ariel Jackson, to name a few. Maren Hassinger’s Fight the Power is a poignant symbol, albeit a literal interpretation of the exhibition’s title. But it is the works that reimagine the archive that seem to truly embody curator Allison Glenn’s mission.

The exhibition is divided into three rooms on the ground level. Entering into the central room, one is confronted with a collection of large grids. Good News by Ayanah Moor features 24 prints of textual musings on who women are likely to date in various American cities. The text has been lifted from a section of Ebony magazine titled “Where are the Eligible Black Men,” and the gender of the subjects has been switched from male to female.

The blue-collar vernacular of this cavalier commentary suggests an alternate reality in which same-sex relationships between women are a part of everyday life and popular culture. Regardless of any given viewer’s skepticism that there was and is a platform friendly to statements like “Most of the women want more than one woman,” the pervasiveness of heteronormative values is strongly implicated. In addition, the ideation of a society is presented where women can discuss same-sex relationships with the same candor as their straight counterparts.

Proceeding clockwise brings one to Bethany Collins’ Southern Review, 1985 (Special Edition). On the wall, sixty-four framed pages from books hang like miniature Rothkos in gray-scale. Upon closer examination, these pages contain text that has been redacted in black charcoal. The redacted pages come from a 1985 edition of a literary journal, The Southern Review, in which only writings and artworks by people of color were published.

This repeated gesture of selective editing is a comment not only on the historic lack of representation so central to this exhibition but also on the masking of this obfuscation under aesthetics of modernist abstraction, i.e., a grid of Rothko-esque rectangles. Though this original publication was an attempted remedy to a lack of representation, Collins’ choice to block out most but not all of the text is reflective of how people of color have continued to be omitted from certain cultural platforms.

The archive continues to transform. Similar to the piece by Collins, the invitation to take a closer look is present in the installation In an effort to be held by Kellie Romany, but its implications are quite different. This piece functions less as subversion of cultural conventions and institutional discrimination and more as an invitation to experience intimacy and vulnerability through material interaction. Dozens upon dozens of small, white clay discs rest on a table. Each one is painted with oil colors evocative of skin tones, and viewers are allowed to don the provided gloves and handle the small painted clay objects.

The metaphors are rich and varied in this piece as are, presumably, viewer experiences with it. What is most present is a visualization of the range of skin-tones of practically all races, from light pinks to dark browns, all existing on a stark white substrate. One of the many possible comments that could be extruded from these material metaphors is that whiteness is the most pervasive of socially constructed racial systems and that, even as we examine our diversity, white hegemony is still a domineering force that society is grappling with today.

“Out of Easy Reach—Rebuild Foundation, Stony Island Arts Bank”

The Stony Island Arts Bank (SIAB) portion of “Out of Easy Reach” presents three American artists working with abstraction and assemblage practices to address personal and universal histories, identity, and sociopolitical and cultural issues. Each artist has an outstanding track record. These three remarkable artists are Shinique Smith (born 1971, Baltimore, MD), Sheree Hovsepian (American, born 1974, Isfahan, Iran) and Barbara Chase-Riboud, (born 1939, Philadelphia, PA).

An uncluttered and sophisticated presentation at SIAB allows each work to command space and gravitas. The entire former bank lobby, now a white, box-shaped cube, is given to Shinique Smith’s Forgiving Strands, which consists mostly of bundled and stranded fabrics strung from wall to wall high up near the ornate vintage ceiling. In this case, Smith’s work is more installation art than assemblage.

In one corner, a group of hanging bundles of black fabric looks eerily figurative, suggesting a squirming, tarred body, while in an opposite corner, a defeated-looking teddy bear hangs like a suspension of childhood belief. Nearby, a worn-out dream catcher is a stand-in for a fading star. I imagined the strands from wall to wall to be lifelines, timelines, pathways and voyages, the bridging of continents and interpersonal constellation, the ties that bind us.

It’s important to view Forgiving Strands from various viewpoints and distances, as the bundles take on different personas while new forms appear and disappear. The bright lighting on Forgiving Strands is a shadow slayer; one can imagine what the effect of shadow play might have been like in this presentation.

Also by Shinique Smith, there’s a baled, bundled, upright and ironically rigid monolith of clothing and textiles called Bale Variant No. 0022. Both of Smith’s pieces sent my imagination to wondering just who the people were who once wore these articles and scraps of clothing and what their lives might have been like. One can almost feel their presence and hear their whispers. They’ve all been compressed and imprisoned in one homogenous block in Bale Variant No. 0022.

There are five pieces by Sheree Hovsepian included. Four of them are based upon old-school, analog photographic processes such as photograms and dye transfers, which are used as elements in mixed-media constructions. Three of these pieces (Sway, Lotus Position and Form Body) make much use of layered shapes of stretched nylon to suggest minimalist, stage-like environments behind architectural veils.

Reveries of a Solitary Walker is the largest and most complex of Hovsepian’s photographic constructions presented here. An attached and weathered wood stick divides the picture plain vertically and diagonally. References are made to star maps, planets and to the four directions. A cross over a rainbowed heart hovers above a small silhouette of a walking figure.

Hovsepian’s large ink and walnut oil-stained painting on paper, titled Peaking, is similar to classic and gestural abstract expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. It’s got calligraphic motion and form like a Whirling Dervish twirling above the blank white space of the paper. Hovsepian’s very modest use of color is thoughtful, elegant and mysterious.

The star and matriarch of the SIAB portion of “Out of Close Reach” is Barbara Chase-Riboud, a 78 year old with a record of accomplishments longer than Mount Everest is tall. She also happens to be quite a successful novelist and poet.

Chase-Riboud’s larger than human-scale stele, Little Gold Flag, consists of a bulky, crumpled, reflective, and lost wax bronze form above a skirt made of strands of knotted silk. It’s like bumping into a dazzling one-eyed warrior who is wearing a tribal rope kilt.

Little Gold Flag is part of Chase-Riboud’s Malcom X series of monumental stelae sculptures, which she began creating in memory of the slain civil rights activist in 1969 and has continued for 48 years. The contrast of bronze and stranded silk threads is striking, and while it would be easy to dig for meaning here, the artist has stated that the work is meant to be purely abstract and beautiful. Here’s the quote from an interview with the artist in Artforum, Oct 24, 2017:

“The work is pure abstraction, pure beauty—that’s the only thing I’m really interested in. Most activism sacrifices the aesthetic part of making art for the message. I never do that. For me, the message is the message.”