How does the synthetic play with and against an experience of the real? How can the artificial lead us to understand the actual? Two young female artists, now receiving their first solo museum shows here in New York, are dealing with these questions in vastly different ways.
In her sumptuous and affecting exhibition “Dead Treez” at the Museum of Arts and Design, mixed-media artist Ebony G. Patterson takes on the subject of violence as spectacle. (Concurrently on view is …buried again to carry on growing…, selections from the museum’s jewelry collection displayed inside an installation Patterson designed for the occasion.) The Jamaican-born Patterson is known for seductive, finely crafted drawings, sculptures, and installations that explore the construction of black identities, both from without (mediated) and from within (self-styled).
The major works here are five jacquard photo tapestries that Patterson has richly embellished with brocade, paste jewels, beads, glitter, plastic flowers, crocheted flowers, and more, to form works of exceptional dazzle and radiance. From afar they appear lively, celebratory, and possessed of a palpable life force. Moving in closer, however, one takes in the darker story beneath the surface. Each tapestry features prostrate figures in stiff, uncomfortable positions. Patterson gives us no faces or limbs to look at, only lavish outfits where the bodies would be. Despite their vibrancy, the sight of each figure is unsettling, solemn — as though the artist has taken the chalk outline where there once was a dead body and filled it with resplendent textiles, luminous baubles, chains, medallions, and other stripes of bling.
In fact, the central figures in Patterson’s tapestries are inspired by photographs that document the violent deaths of black men, women, and children. The artist stages her own photos based on images she finds online, where they’ve been posted and shared in order to bear witness, to raise awareness. This is a practice that is both noble and, as the artist points out, problematic. Painted high on the wall of the exhibition’s second room is a quote from Patterson that reads in part: “I think there is something very strange that happens with people who choose to share images like that. We no longer think about the individual; it’s not a person, it’s an image, it’s an object.” This raises the question: How to remember a life taken without erasing it completely?
The choice to re-create images of violence may at first seem to short-circuit the power of her work: re-enacting the disappearance of real bodies by transforming them into opulent art objects. But when you look more closely, it becomes apparent that Patterson’s tapestries walk what might be called the double edge of dazzle. Glitter, gleam, shimmer: Reflected light illuminates — but it also blinds us momentarily. It interrupts our vision. In order to view these works, one must reposition oneself constantly, dodging the glint in order to see the subjects more clearly. For Patterson, dazzle doesn’t simply function as a bid for visibility, as material from which to construct one’s identity. Dazzle is also a kind of protective armor that always acknowledges what’s missing, one that declares with full presence and authority: Now you see me, and you don’t.
At the Whitney, New York–based video artist Rachel Rose has installed a single-channel video, “Everything and More,” which investigates the delicate natures of sensation and perception. At the core of the work is an audio interview Rose conducted with NASA astronaut David Wolf, who spent more than 4,000 hours in space, including 128 days aboard the Mir space station. Wolf describes the profoundly moving sensory experiences of being in space: looking at Earth’s surface from above; seeing colors never seen before; the floating; the absolute darkness. Returning home was another matter. “I thought I’d ruined my life,” he confesses. He had become so accustomed to zero gravity that back on terra firma he could feel the weight of his own body, now burdensome. Breathing the space station’s filtered air for months had heightened his sense of smell to such a degree that he was overwhelmed by the scent of grass.
Over Wolf’s voice, Rose weaves together shots of earthly sights meant to evoke the astronaut’s experience: a neutral-buoyancy lab where astronauts prepare for zero-G by suiting up and immersing themselves in a pool of water; found footage from an electronic dance music concert; extreme close-ups of colorful oils and chemicals swirling and bubbling together. These shots are the work’s strongest, images so vibrant and lovely because they shuttle us between the micro and the macro — allowing the eye to play between what something is and what it appears to be — tickling our sense of scale as we see a new cosmos in what’s not much more than a tabletop spill. Another nice touch: When Rose’s video cuts out, you can see through the screen and the gallery windows behind it just clearly enough to catch a glimpse of Frank Stella’s oversize sculptures Black Star and Wooden Star I (both 2014) installed on the roof terrace, as though the artwork has returned us to Earth.
Despite these virtues, in the end “Everything and More” feels thin. (The title, which Rose took from David Foster Wallace’s 2003 book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, doesn’t help matters, setting an expectation of a certain boundlessness of inquiry and/or imagination). Despite seamless postproduction manipulations, the lab and concert footage remains very much locked into the knowable world; the images settle as visual similes instead of becoming strange and engaging facsimiles to upend our perception — a fair shortcoming, one might say, for a young artist who’s still finding her feet.
Ebony G. Patterson: ‘Dead Treez’
Museum of Arts and Design
2 Columbus Circle
Through April 3
Rachel Rose: ‘Everything and More’
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
Through February 7