Jhere is a painting in this beautiful but devastating investigation by the American artist Howardena Pindell which looks, at first glance, like old-fashioned pointillism. Thousands of colorful dots accelerating and shining on a large abstract canvas. The predominant color is rust, suggesting some sort of cityscape – unless, perhaps, it’s a mud or dirt shadow. Slate blue creeps in, like autumn mist, but there are hints of ripening orange and a kind of eerie rumble in the distance.
The more you watch, the more puzzles come together: what is behind and what is before? What is the season and what kind of place? The tiny circles don’t look like brush strokes, with their hazy softness, so how are they made? Painting has all the connotations of figuration without holding an image. It is a great abstract mystery.
At 79, the Philadelphia-born Pindell has been baffling audiences for more than half a century. Even the object with which she made this painting – a colossal cardboard stencil, fully perforated using her signature puncher – looks like a kind of sculpture, presented in the gallery next door.
Leftover confetti from tiny paper discs is used in paintings, reliefs and even 3D collages, the circles mounted on receding sheets of tracing paper so that you appear to be looking through slow-motion snowfall. Everything is white or cream, sometimes shimmering with sequins. And, as she points out in a biting video performance from 1980, that’s not what the white establishment expects of her because Pindell is, of course, black.
She plays the role of two characters in the video. The first is herself, recounting experiences of day-to-day racism, being bullied as the only black kid in kindergarten trying to find a job after Yale, and being pushed back over 500 times along with everyone else. non-white candidates. The second character is a white woman (Pindell in wig and makeup) who keeps intervening. “You must be really paranoid… I’ve never had such experiences.”
This accusation of paranoia extends to everything from childhood trauma to the art she makes as an adult that isn’t political enough, or the wrong color, or just too comely for her. the white art world at that time.
Pindell was MoMA’s first black curator and the first to resign in protest at the museum‘s refusal to condemn Donald Newman’s so-called N***** Drawings exhibit at Artists Space in 1979. She was co-founder of the pioneering feminist AIR Gallery At New York. She is resolutely, ardently and fearlessly political.
Circles, for example, don’t just look for shapes. They recall a childhood experience of driving through Kentucky with her father in the 1950s and stopping for root beer from a stand where the cups they were drinking had a bright red circle on them. the bottom. Her father explained that it was to distinguish cups to be used only by black customers. The circles indicated apartheid.
They appear throughout this show. Painstakingly pasted on canvas directly stuck to the wall, they are like glitters of light (she speaks, with emotion, of trying to reverse the horror of the red circle). Sometimes they are numbered, in memory of his mathematician father; sometimes lettered from an ancient text suggesting that the Phoenicians crossed the Atlantic to reach America before Christopher Columbus.
But, more powerfully, they appear blood red against the seething black darkness of Diallo, a tremendous protest against racism and police violence. Two names appear on the canvas, including that of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean student who was killed by New York police in 1999. There are four pistols, representing the officers, and 41 dots representing all the bullets fired on Diallo. Those in red indicate mortal blows.
The police were all acquitted.
Lately Pindell has applied his tiny discs to strips of canvas, painted an ocean green and sewn with calcified cotton that looks nothing like a rotting coral reef drifting underwater. Swarms of papery discs materialize on other fragments of linen painted like a premonitory time; visions of a planet in decline, these works are like beautiful warnings.
Which could be a description of Pindell’s art across five decades, its polished, immaculate aesthetic bearing its weight of tragedy and horror so lightly. Visitors to Kettle’s Yard are offered flyers to help them with the cinematic installation that awaits them upstairs. Pindell tried to do this decades ago in the 70s but couldn’t get the backing or backing. You could say (she does, in a meeting) that she had to wait for the era of Black Lives Matter.
String/Fire/Water is projected in a cinema gallery. It’s so heartbreaking it’s almost impossible to watch, and yet the narrative asks you never to look away. The lynching, the torture, the rape, the roasting of a black man alive as if he were a pig, these are historical images that will haunt you – and should – haunt you forever. Pindell explains that she saw the photograph of the burning man in a copy of Life magazine as a child, while her mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen. She couldn’t eat meat for years afterwards.
Her steady, calm, deadpan voiceover never wavers or exaggerates. A metronome keeps time steady like a raft to cling to in shock. The ground floor paintings look quite different in hindsight: Pindell explicitly urges you to rest your eyes, now, on something quiet. And so these works come to have another meaning, another significance, another effect on the viewer. Their beauty is doubly political, at the end of this unmissable exhibition – like a message but also a comforting benevolence.