‘This Longing Vessel: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2019-20’
Through March 14. MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, Queens; (718) 392-6447, moma.org.
Over many decades, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s annual artist in residence exhibitions have been events of unfailing interest, with most in recent years showcasing three up-and-coming young artists, among them some of the very best we have. This year’s edition sustains the winning streak, even in an unusual location: While the museum’s new David Adjaye-designed building is under construction in Harlem, the current show is (as it was last year) at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens.
According to an exhibition essay, the “longing vessel” of the title is, basically, the Black body. And while this year’s three artists might be seen as at least tangentially connected to a current, heavily marketed trend in Black portraiture, they expand on and complicate the figurative tradition in refreshing ways.
In large-scale paintings done in lush, citrusy colors, Naudline Pierre sets her own image in a mystical realm of winged female beings — angels, ancestors — caught up in scenes of conflict and mutual protection. In the culturally syncretic rainbow-hued universe she creates, the poet of liberation William Blake, the mythmaking Black painter Bob Thompson, and religious artists of many places and persuasions would feel equally at home.
The artist and musician E. Jane proposes a different but related female empyrean, a cyber-realm devoted to Black divahood. Through the person of an alter-ego pop star named Mhysa, the artist projects the power and glory of pathbreaking performers from the recent past — Diahann Carroll, Whitney Houston — and presents them as avatars of a Black feminist future. E. Jane, who released an album titled “Nevaeh” last year, embodies this vision in a multipart environment encompassing texts, neon signage, digital prints, mirrored walls and videos. It’s up to the viewer to fit the pieces together and sort out meanings. For once, the diva doesn’t do all the work.
In Elliot Reed’s installation, we are surrounded by the artist’s bodily presence: The color of the gallery walls is derived from a digital color scan of his skin. And the potential danger that comes with having Black skin is the subject of a multichannel video that is the installation’s centerpiece. It’s based on a crime, in which a wealthy white man, Ed Buck, a well-known contributor to Democratic politics in California, was accused in 2019 of providing drugs that led to the deaths of Black men whom he’d hired for sex. During his Studio Museum residency, Elliot wrote an account of the case from the perspective of a queer Black man, and in the video he dramatizes that text through an extraordinary, self-performed choreography of vocalization and movement.
The show has been organized by Legacy Russell, associate curator of exhibitions at the Studio Museum, working with Yelena Keller, a curatorial assistant at the museum, and Josephine Graf, an assistant curator at MoMA PS1. Russell is responsible for other recent work of note. One is last year’s important “Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto” (Verso Books), in which E. Jane plays a prominent role. Another is the lively online video exhibition “Lean,” a collaboration with Performa featuring an intergenerational lineup of seven artists: Justin Allen, Jen Everett, Devin Kenny, Kalup Linzy, Rene Matic, Sade Mica and Leilah Weinraub. (It’s on view through March 31 at performa-arts.org.)
It has long since gone without saying that some of the most interesting new art anywhere, at any time, is made by artists who identify as Black. And it’s thanks to alert, smart, out-there curators like Russell that we get to know them. HOLLAND COTTER
Through March 27. Galerie Lelong & Co., 528 West 26th Street, Manhattan; 212-315-0470, galerielelong.com.
Some artworks, like some people, are garrulous and noisy, clamoring for attention. Others, like the “Wood Pictures” and geometric paper collages of Mildred Thompson on view in “Throughlines, Assemblages and Works on Paper from the 1960s to the 1990s,” at Galerie Lelong, are more taciturn. They command your attention with quiet dignity, elegant craft and concision.
Thompson (1936-2003) was born in Jacksonville, Fla., studied at Howard University and made the rounds of various prestigious American art institutions and residencies in the 1950s, and her work is very much in conversation with the country’s 20th-century art. The biomorphic wood sculptures in her “Vespers” series from the ’90s hark back to artists related to Abstract Expressionism like David Smith, Julio González and Louise Bourgeois. The exceptional assemblages from the ’70s that Thompson called “Wood Pictures,” made with interlocking strips of found wood, are in dialogue with Louise Nevelson’s giant wooden constructions and Donald Judd’s idea of minimalist “specific objects” that fuse sculpture and painting. The “Wood Pictures” also recall more humble structures, like shacks and cabins, that are painstakingly built with an economy of means.
So why does Thompson remain virtually unknown? Partly because she lived in self-imposed exile in Europe after encountering racism and sexism in the United States upon returning from Hamburg, Germany, in 1961. We are, of course, in an era of renewed and reinvigorated reckoning, and Thompson’s art serves as a reminder that not all of the great artists throughout history speak loudly or have been heard yet. MARTHA SCHWENDENER