Allison M. Glenn, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, gave a talk at Lipscomb University on November 8, 2018 as part of part Seed Space + Locate Arts Insight Program. Discussing her curatorial project, Out of Easy Reach—an intergenerational exhibition of female-identifying artists that was on view simultaneously at DePaul Art Museum, Stony Island Arts Bank, and Gallery 400 through August 2018, and is currently showing at Grunwald Gallery at Indiana University—Glenn outlined the curatorial strategies, notes on abstractions, and conceptual relationships between artists central to the exhibition’s narrative.
Below is a transcription from a portion of that talk. All words contained in this transcription are Allison Glenn’s, save for in-line comments in regards to artwork descriptions.
Allison Glenn: Thank you all for coming tonight.
I want to talk about a few different projects. I’ve been at Crystal Bridges for about nine months, and it’s been a huge transition. I moved from New Orleans, Louisiana to Bentonville, Arkansas which is basically in the north-west corner of the state. There’s about 35,000 people in the town I live in, which I think is about twice the size of this university.
I’m going to walk you through a few projects that are really near and dear to me. One of them is Out of Easy Reach which is an exhibition that is on view now at Indiana University in Bloomington. With this exhibition, I remain super grateful for everything that’s happened around it. The genesis of the project came out of frustrations in graduate school with a lack of representation and a lack of diversity in classes I was taking. It was always week seven or week nine in the class [when there was a discussion] about women, artists of color, and queer identifying artists. It became super exhausting to be set up in this framework that was one dimensional.
This exhibition works really hard to push against these seemingly siloed art histories and to think about—in particular—abstraction. While it’s doing the work to push against siloed art histories, it also does classify artists based on gender, identity, and race. What I was really thinking about in this exhibition is abstraction.
There are two particular places that I started. One is the artist Adrian Piper. She has this wonderful book that is basically her notes on contemporary art [Adrian Piper: Reflections 1967-1987]. There is this really beautiful quote that I’m going to share with you:
“Abstraction is flying. Abstraction is ascending to higher and higher levels of conceptual generalization; soaring back and forth, reflectively circling around and above the specificity and immediacy of things and events in space and time, from a perspective that embeds them in a conceptual framework of increasing breadth and depth…[Abstraction is also flight.] It is freedom from the immediate spatiotemporal events of the moment; freedom to plan the future, recall the past, comprehend the present from a reflective perspective that incorporates all three…Freedom to survey the real as a resource for embodying the impossible.”
A second note on abstraction that I’ve been looking at recently is by the artist Zachary Cahill, who just put out a book through Mousse Magazine called the Black Flame of Paradise:
“Sometimes I feel like people get too hung up on the 20th Century’s shape(s) of abstraction. Which can be a superficial take on abstract form; devoid of the content that many abstract pioneers were surveying. Abstraction may have the “look” of abstraction but not the abstraction of abstraction, if that makes any sense. That abstract-looking art could actually be abstract in the substantive way in which the old pioneers were after, but I think it’s important not to lose sight of the verb and the idea that abstraction is a process; to pull something out of something. Abstracting gold from the ground = a form of abstraction.”
I want to leave you with those two positions as notes.
In his 2008 essay “Toward an Ethics of the Double Entendre” Thomas J. Lax considers the oscillation between familiarity and distance in photographer Leslie Hewitt’s body of work, Riffs on Real Time (2002-2008); “Pushed back by the severing perspective, the objects and the memories they reference are out of easy reach.” End quote.
From traditional approaches to broader more challenging usage of the term, Out of Easy Reach explores the conceptual expansion of abstraction by American female-identifying artists from the black and Latinx diasporas. This exhibition is an argument for an expansive approach to the limited conversation around abstraction in contemporary art, and uses language as an avenue to navigate this discourse.
Often, the language used to discuss abstraction is primarily focused on formal concerns such as “painterly” and “gestural”, that point to the application of paint, the rendering of imagery, and the relationship between artists and their canvas. These descriptors have historically been used in reference to the practices and processes of a canon of predominantly male artists while often leaving the contributions made by women—particularly women of color—outside of the dominant narrative of art history.
This exhibition enthusiastically moves beyond a highly restrictive space of art history and beyond the terms that I mentioned by identifying themes in shared aesthetic and conceptual concerns, emerging across three generations of artists.
This exhibition originated in Chicago and it opened simultaneously at Gallery 400 at UIC Chicago, DePaul Art Museum, and Stony Island Arts Bank. The artists were grouped based on conceptual, material, and process affinities, but there were definitely connections across the groupings. I’m going to walk you through that process.
The curatorial process began with four artists that I consider anchors; Candida Alvarez, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maren Hassinger, and Howardena Pindell. Ten of the artists were born as part of Generation X and ten were born as part of the millennial generation. A really important thing, to me, was to introduce these intergenerational dialogues.
Out of Easy Reach addresses a crisis of visibility of female identifying artists of color within the narrative of abstraction’s history by connecting multiple generations through a wide temporal framework. The exhibition is thus structured to incorporate the four artists [Candida Alvarez, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maren Hassinger, and Howardena Pindell] whose work has influenced generations of artists who have followed them. For example, Candida Alvarez’s consideration of the landscape and the impact of history and culture on place has directly or indirectly informed the work of younger artists like Caroline Kent, Shinique Smith, and Kellie Romany.
Spatial Politics, Mapping, and Migration at Gallery 400
At Gallery 400 the grouping was on Spatial Politics, Mapping, and Migration. This is the statement that grouped these artists together:
Amidst a current global turn towards nationalism and the United States’ ever-increasingly exclusionary international relations, artists who explore spatial politics and their bodies in relation to borders and the built environment are opening avenues for re-thinking narratives about ownership and access. As a country comprised of indigenous populations and individuals who, at one point or another, were brought here by force or came here by choice, the U.S. will always face infrastructural biases based related to immigration, land use, and policy making. In this section, abstraction is employed as a tool to consider issues related to the mapping of race and gender onto the body, southern migration to the north west, and borders—this is one of those intergenerational exchanges that I mentioned.
The image on the left is by Howardena Pindell and it’s from a film called Free, White, and 21. It was made in 1980. What Pindell is doing is employing the theatricality of performance through costuming, storytelling, and changing mise en scène. Though this film is unique in Pindell’s oeuvre, it is integral to the exhibition for several reasons. It’s the oldest work, and it acts as an anchor, bridging the performance practices of the seventies and eighties with those of younger artists such as Juliana Huxtable, whose work is shown here on the right [below].
In this film, Howardena switches between recounting micro-agressions that she and her mother experienced and the role of the aggressor. She adds material to her body and to her face to shift the way that she is presenting herself, and it creates this dialogue between the aggressor and the aggressed that identifies and further elucidates exactly what Howardena was experiencing at this time.
Juliana is a female identifying trans artist who relies on some of the similar tactics of performance that Howardena does in this particular film and also that other artists, like Adrian Piper. She expands this big race binary that Howardena is looking at to include gender. By putting these two artists together, one of the biggest questions that I have had is; how is representation abstraction? How is a body abstraction?
From the onset, this was really about making an argument that abstraction is—as Zachary Cahill said—abstracting from something; abstraction is a process. It is not necessarily tied to what we commonly understand as a very formal painterly approach. It’s interesting, a lot of people asked me questions about this in talks and in gallery walk-throughs because it was difficult for many people to understand how abstraction can be a form of representation. I stand by it.
There were these really interesting moments that popped up within Spatial Politics, Mapping, and Migration. The image of the left [above] is by Torkwase Dyson’s installation, and on the right, [below] is another work by Juliana Huxtable that I included in the exhibition.
Torkwase’s ever evolving practice examines how geometry and the language of shapes pull history and meaning. This work is entitled, Untitled (Hypershape) (2017) and it continues the production of painting and works on paper that investigate power with specific relationships to land, history, and natural resources. The title is influenced by ecological theorist Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobejcts”; objects that are so diffused that they are not easy to study and understand directly, such as global warming. Dyson’s hypershape practice builds formal improvisation on proximity, habitation, and motion, as they relate to the material zones of industrial abstraction and capital exploitation.
I juxtaposed the two of these works together because they’re really landscapes for me, and they are abstractions of landscapes. So, for Torkwase on the left—thinking about the impossibility of site—she is looking at land that may have been traumatized by drilling or fracking, or water that was contaminated. On the right, Juliana is—I would argue of all the works in the exhibition this is probably the most autobiographical—she has created this digital landscape where she is taking on this first person narrative, talking about desire through the lens of video games.
What is interesting about Juliana’s work is that often she creates these chat space works which arguably could be considered performance scripts, and the images also. The text and the image work together to create a narrative, but the text is also the image, so it too is the work itself. The intimacy of this narrative invites the reader into a recollection of longing that is rooted in a digital landscape. Juliana explores alienation through the lens of video games, specifically, how her desire to play video games as a female avatar stood in contrast to her male counterparts. The artist recounts an affinity with what is shared in official womanhood that both she and the avatars possessed, using the artifice of video game culture as an opportunity to explore the landscape of gender identity.
A sentence from this work; “My womanhood was entirely artificial, save my mind and a tingling sensation in my spine present at the revelation of a new level, especially one unlocked as a secret”.
Landscape, Body, and the Archive at DePaul Art Museum
At DePaul Art Museum we looked at Landscape, Body, and the Archive. For this section I feel that many of the artists could have easily fit into Landscape, Body, and the Archive, but I was really interested in considering artists that were thinking about either reframing archives that already existed or reconsidering landscape through their subject position. It includes a group of artists that mine histories of abstraction and modernism, relating them to representation of the self and the environment.
Print media has a particular resonance and many works in this section explore how artists employ mark making and translation in order to re-situate, shift, and reconsider the archive. Architectures of power and protest appear alongside intimate considerations of the body, and material explorations collide with shared philosophical relationships to nonlinear time.
The object on the left [above] is Xaviera Simmons On Sculpture # 2 (2011), and it was created after she did a walk with a group of Buddhist's. She traced the transatlantic slave trade and immigrant migration from north to south. What’s interesting is that she has mapped this image that she has torn from a magazine and in the corner you can read that it says, “backstage”, and there are all of these bodies jumping and diving off the boat. It seems playful but you wonder about that site.
The image on the right Ariel Jackson [above] created from various different sources. She created it post-Katrina as a way to talk her experience with the aftermath of the storm and how people—her classmates in New York—accepted her position and her understanding of that event.
Process, Time, and Material Culture at the Stony Island Arts Bank.
There were three artists in this portion of the exhibition. Shinique Smith is the artist on the left [above]. I was very much struck by Shinique’s choices to drape Forgiving Strands, I actually had a chance to see it Hauser and Wirth in L.A. in 2015 and I was just set on having this in the exhibition. It is a work that has so many challenges in regard to shipping and installation but I was really quite struck with the way that her draping really mirrors Barbara Chase-Riboud’s work.
Barbara is the oldest artist in the exhibition; she was the first and only artist to be on the cover of Ebony Magazine; she has had multiple moments in her career. Through the exhibition, while I was planning it, Shinique shared with me that while she was working at the Walters Art Museum, Barbara was having an exhibition there. So there was this moment of reciprocity and Shinique was very much impacted by Barbara’s work.
The work on the right [above] is by Sheree Hovsepian. Again, I had to make an argument for this because this exhibition is really focused on black and latino diasporas so the question is; how is an Iranian artist part of this? It was through the material connections. The etymology of macrame is rooted in the French language, but it also has roots in Arabic. If you trace the movement of this material, it moves from Egypt and East Africa into Iran—that was the connection.
For each site [in this exhibition] it was important to have a site-specific work. This is [below] Edra Soto’s installation at DePaul Art Museum on the facade. Edra’s work often looks at architecture as a power. There are these ornate fences in Puerto Rico called rejas and they’re primarily middle class architecture, but they definitely have this dual purpose of designating who is allowed inside.
Edra Soto installation at DePaul Art Museum