Fragment – an essay by Erin Thurlow
Our House in Parts The gallery asked Erin Thurlow to write an essay responding to the group exhibition curated by Tyler Emerson-Dorsch. The exhibition featured artworks by Jenny Brillhart, Yanira Collado, Ryan Roa, Leyden Rodriguez Casanova, James Allister Sprang, Paula Wilson, Robert Thiele, and Khaulah Naima Nuruddin.
February 15, 2019
By Erin Thurlow
We’re cut-ups, you and I, miming cohesion, working the disparate angles of an unruly life, dutifully modulating as we track through a gauntlet of imperfect compromises and outright surrenders, leading double or triple lives, at home, at gig jobs, online with the newsfeeds and dating apps.
While you cannot equate the often violent uprooting and subsequent migrations of increasing numbers of people with the freedom of movement enjoyed by a relatively small number, we’re all castaways. We share the idea that the past, especially our own, is linked to the home, that place from which we have fled or been banished, and straight away spend the rest of our lives trying to recover. No matter how violent or insecure the situation might have been, home represents a time when at least we ourselves were innocent, and therefore whole.
For, Fragment, curator Tyler Emerson-Dorsch has brought together a diverse group of artists, each of whom works through visual, material or metaphoric fracture. Historically, fragmentation has served as the visual lingua franca of the avant-garde in a culture being torn apart by its own centrifugal force. As our current era of social atomization increasingly resembles past paradigmatic schisms the art follows suit, but, of course, it is a unique moment so it doesn’t. Emerson-Dorsch has something different in mind from the dada violence of the photomontage or the ironic, disassociated self of the postmodern. In 1974 Gordon Matta-Clark cut a fucking house in half. How would it be put back together?
Khaula Naima Nuruddin’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture reflect her experiences as a black lesbian, the incongruity between her identity and the assumptions placed on her in a hetero-normative, white-supremacist society. Till the End, Zora’s House, 2018, is based on a photo she took of Zora Neal Hurston’s last known home in Eatonville, FL. In her drawing, the partial structure is surrounded by a field of varying hatch marks, yet resists being entirely enveloped. The drawing’s darkly punning title and compulsive markings are reminders that the work of black women has often been laborious and repetitive, that for some people just trying to be yourself is made laborious and repetitive, and that this work encroaches on your very being. Like Nuruddin’s other art, it is unsentimental in a way that avoids nostalgia. The overwhelming feeling is of sadness and an attempt to recoup something missing.
Each of the artists of Fragment seem to draw on a materiality of the past to form a visceral link to the present, creating through-lines that can reconnect disparate personal or historical narratives. Part of the tension in Ryan Roa’s art comes from the struggle with the physical properties of the building materials he uses. Roa developed a heightened awareness of these materials during his time spent renovating houses, literally restoring homes. Unpainted and primarily dark and light, they give the tightly ordered work a monochrome, graphic quality. In Tar Paper Piece #7, 2017, his flat, wall mounted support and shapes made by folding and stapling the heavy black paper across it’s grid, reference painting. The art constructs its identity through a synthesis of Roa’s former work in renovation, and his current career as a visual artist. In this compression of roles, hIs art constitutes an aesthetics of skilled labor, not a valorization, but a decision by the artist to cleave these parts of his life together.
It is the labor inherent in these materials and the forms they take during their transitions which provoke and conjure up invocations, ritual, transcendence, of presence and in many ways “fragments becoming whole.
Similarly, the “Cuban mop” handles used in Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova’s sculptural arrangements, call attention to the cleaning and other labor often done by immigrants, while his thrift-store-sourced shelving units, picture frames and other props reflect the domestic aesthetic tastes and economy of necessity familiar to anyone who grew up among Miami’s Cuban Exile community. Like Roa, he assembles these props and presents them in the mise en place of the formal grid, the organizing principal of the institution, specifically the art institution, as made visible by artist Michael Asher. Rodriguez-Casanova, who also works as a graphic artist, likens it to the “snapping” into place of elements in a design application. Subjected to this recalibration, his materials nevertheless retain their quiet histories while infiltrating the art system and suffusing it with their own experiences.
Yanira Collado’s layered sculptures also suggest a lineage of occupation. Cloth remnants and photo-copy transfers of geometric patterning which she traces to the crafts of the African diaspora, give them a sense of being created over generational time. In her art, the present coexists with the past, draws solace from it, and carries its weight like a blanket. Untitled/ echague, 2019, an L-shaped plinth with a small slit opening into one side, gestures towards it’s interior as well as it’s surface. Cuaba soap from the Dominican Republic, where Collado was born, covers the top, while Congos Del Espiritu Santo (Dominican Santeria) ritual objects hidden inside, are protected by its form.
There is a strong correlation here with the work of Robert Thiele whose art also bears a characteristic inwardness of spirit. Thiele’s abstract sculptures, like 782, 2018, evoke architectural forms, but suggest the figure through their golem-like character, inanimate but imbued with half-life and a visceral relationship to the human body. A painted wooden box with a perforated face that hangs at eye level, 782 simultaneously suggests a bird’s house whose contents we can’t see, and a floating head, the other, who’s thoughts we can never fully know.
Jenny Brillhart also references the body in the title of her work, Contrapposto, 2019, and while we can actually detect the suggestion of a figure in it’s combined parts, there is another kind of off-kilter, yet balanced state of being established here, one that links her practice to other Fragment artists. It’s a cabinet arranged with accumulated found objects and their trompe l’oeil dopplegangers, forming a complex dialogue of representation and perception. Some of the found items become the surfaces for more paintings. One scrap of metal has just a patina and shadows painted on, essentially becoming a representation of itself. In a riddle that must be solved by the viewer, a piece of drywall that is hanging above a shelf like a picture, is perfectly mortised to cradle a painted pane of glass resting on another shelf. These confounding methods of doubling and conflating images and objects have echos thoughout the show.
We see it reflected in Paula Wilson’s mixed media painting, Gathering, 2018, where she has embedded a monitor so that it appears to be the screen of a camera in the hands of a woman. This is Wilson herself, kneeling in the sun over a blanket, her dog resting almost out of the frame, her lover troubling the earth with a shovel in the background. Laid out on the blanket are plastic water bottles, sunglasses, pieces of cloth, painted wood, or maybe porcelain. The video on the monitor is a scan over an array of similar items, so that the camera in her hands seems to capture the contents on the blanket and performs a strange trick of transubstantiation, turning what has been painted, real.
In Nuruddin’s drawing, Till the End, Zora’s House, there is actually a tiny, collaged photographic element. It’s from a picture taken at the site of the house as a mark of proof, establishing the truth of the place and of Nuruddin’s time there. A witness is important when inconvenient histories have a way of being buried, but all of these shifts in medium, each of which offers another viewpoint, also conjures a parallel universe. Teasing the boundary of the thing with its representation actually presents us with a puzzle, one that acknowledges and then cobbles together our complex, often contradictory, always self-conscious sense of the world.
Sometimes all that is left is the “proof” of the image. Like Roa’s, James Allister Sprang’s art is highly physical. It is also full of action, but in the two framed photographs included in the show, both titled Concrete Color Arangement, 2017, we only experience this after the fact, as document. Sprang performs demolition as catharsis. Breaking apart flat casts of pigmented cement, he then composes and photographs the colorful shards. Sprang, who is African American, suggests that if the pigment symbolizes skin color, he happily demolishes this construct. The compositions are pictures of colorful ruins, the vernacular of urban decay, but they signify that redemption, and beauty, are also found here.
I’ll a quote from a statement written by Collado, within which she has quoted bell hooks. “It is the labor inherent in these materials and the forms they take during their transitions which provoke and conjure up invocations, ritual, transcendence, of presence and in many ways “fragments becoming whole””.
A fundamental aesthetic principal, unification refers to a gravity that bounds the object or image in our minds eye. This is how artists heal the world: Reconstituted within the artwork, the fragment becomes no longer apart. Seeking artists who responded to past ruptures, internal contradictions, and a world that resists cohesive meaning, Emerson-Dorsch found that they are actively working to achieve a sense of wholeness, vaguely remembered, or only intuitively sensed. We are all looking to get back home.
No references for this essay.