Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sonya Clark—Coiffed, Tangled: “The Hair Craft Project” by Robert Sparrow Jones

We sometimes visit the hair salon for change, almost as if we are asking for a new identity. Hair not only comprises our physical appearance but it marks out our lives with various styles and length. Molecularly, hair follicles contain our actual DNA, but also, somehow, our spiritual selves. Using hair as subject matter, contemporary fiber artist Sonya Clark weaves a cultural tapestry of the very fabric of our community. Physically, she allows for a mindful build-up of elaborate textures that, in many ways, represent a landscape of places and people. Inherently, a history is formed—a tactile topography where a wealth of cultural wisdom emerges from Clark’s mind and through the collaborative hands of other artisans.
Trained as a fiber artist, Sonya Clark draws from her heritage. Specifically—materially, through her interest in African American hair. Her series “The Hair Craft Project” encompasses photography and fiber arts where Clark introduces something very beautiful, selfless, and unexpected. In the spirit of collaboration and with craftswomen in mind, Clark digs deep into her personal communities to invite hairstylists to use her head…as a canvas.

“Hairdressers are my heroes. The poetry and politics of Black hair care specialists are central to my work as an artist and educator. Rooted in a rich legacy, their hands embody an ability to map a head with a comb and manipulate the fiber we grow into complex form. These artists have mastered a craft impossible for me to take for granted.”

Hairstylists/barbers are important, prominent occupations in our local communities. Like any serious discipline, styling and grooming hair is a complicated and time-enveloping craft. Close relationships inevitably form through ritual and vanity. These bonding friendships come across beautifully in this exhibit. The works comprising “The Hair Craft Project” manifest in an intimate narrow gallery space at the heart of The Fed Galleries, Kendall College of Art and Design. One side of the long gallery space is lined with ten large-scale photographs, the opposite side contains the paired wall weavings on canvas of similar size. The photographs themselves, with their saturated backgrounds, are forces. In each image, Clark stands with her back to the viewer, prominently modeling every unique hairstyle design as if she were a walking sculpture. The design is foremost, close, tight-weaved and revealing the sculptural contours of Clark’s head. To the left in the the photographs, the individual hairdresser proudly addresses the viewer. Featured in this series are Kamala Bhagat, Dionne James Eggleston, Marsha Johnson, Chaunda King, Anita Hill Moses, Nasirah Muhammad, Jameika and Jasmine Pollard, Ingrid Riley, Ife Robinson, Natasha Superville, and Jamilah Williams.
On the opposite side of the narrow gallery, so that they are paired with each photograph, the wall weavings stand as interpretive works executed by each of the hairdressers represented in the photograph. These works are slightly less traditional and yet magnificent personal abstract art. Each wall weaving consists of a stretched canvas substrate, square and minimal, clearing the stage for each complex sculptural weaving. Clark’s materials of threads or cords have a linear, pliable element and the softness of the crocheted, knotted, sculptural forms are textures that invite the hand. Because their scale is human, if we imagine we are able to act upon our impulses, it would be an intimate stroke. The crowns of our heads have spiritual connotations. A life force flows from the top of our heads. This is a place of thought, conjuring love, where a halo might be symbolized, and brings up vivid storytelling, such as the tale of Samson and Delilah, and Rapunzel.
The dark silk thread representing hair, particularly, African American hair, is inventive, playful, and very powerful. Close up, their varied patterns are keenly manipulated into buttresses; coils of twisting braids curve like fingers that seek to identify and enhance points of connection and tension. It’s as if, through Clark’s methodologies, she expresses that even as we try to impose our will on nature, nature imposes its anarchy back on us. Here Clark engages us with these works as abstract art but also these are contemporary cultural artifacts that reference history in multi-facets of intersecting threads and braids.
Every skillful hair tapestry adeptly explores certain personal symbolic interpretations of each craftswomen. And yet, we are all part of a vast tapestry. Through materials and processes Clark’s art contains wonderful accounts of the ways in which the artists and craftspeople of our immediate community come together to form our cultural landscape. And because the thread takes us adeptly to the larger metaphors: warp and weft becomes identity, and family, community, the workplace, and the world. Here is where life inevitably tangles. And “The Hair Craft Project” does it so elegantly. Exploring the importance of urban place for identity and individuals, Clark touches human lives, our lives. On the tangle-braiding of community, cultural value is expressed appropriately as “The Hair Craft Project” is centered in the context of the larger exhibition series, “I AM: Money Matters” focusing on currency, consumption, and value.*
Viewing photographs of actual sculpted hair and then physically exploring the wall weavings in “The Hair Craft Project” transforms the familiar into a metaphorical construct. Crossing through the images and weavings I imagine a space that follows a meticulous and yet open conceptual map. Here I envision a community that contains all human cultures, addressing class, race, and identity. It is through this acknowledgement that Clark highlights the talents embedded within the landscape of her community and culture. Or rather, she surrenders to the beautiful hand of community. “The Hair Craft Project” exemplifies a dedication to craft, especially in the fiber arts, where weaving, stitching, and adorning with feminine sensibility shows us that an arduous craft is imbued with a sense of time and stirred with storytelling. In doing so, these embroidered threads contain the pattern of time.
There are many threads that run throughout our lives. The very fabric of our culture is a complex tapestry of these threads crossing and weaving. Everything around us is in constant flux. In life, nothing is ever really fixed in place but rather everything interacts in dynamic relationships, especially as we settle for a while in the communities in which we reside. We all touch, all walks of life; these threads snag and tangle—ignorance, self interest, cultural indifference, dogmatic and outdated belief systems that are not our own to begin with. But as we take hold of the thread of life, we should be careful because we touch others. By holding onto these threads of life, we leave ourselves the chance to find our own way, though all the while we should caution ourselves that we touch others. When this happens, we weave tapestries.
* Clark was co-winner of the 2014 ArtPrize Grand Juried Prize. This was the first year the Juried Grand Prize panel actually decided on a split of the $200,000 prize. (Her co-winner was Anila Quayyum Agha’s excellent meditative installation, “Intersections”).

Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, by Robert Sparrow Jones

Benjamin Duke’s paintings that make up “A River Without Banks,” hosted by the Paul Collins Art Gallery in Grand Rapids, MI, are as rich and layered an experience as the concepts behind the work. Whatever meaning you ascribe to the action–personal, civic, divine, or none at all–it is certain they will leave their mark. Each work is a complicated, feral environment—a portrait of a personal and universal mash-up of transcendence.
Benjamin Duke, "Crash", 75 x 94”, 2009
Benjamin Duke, “Crash”, 75 x 94”, 2009
During the artist opening, Duke stood before a crowded gallery and carried forth his mellifluous, spirited talk. A rich stew of complex material was made a little more accessible, and certainly enjoyable, via rhetorical flourishes, brilliant connections to poetry, philosophical discourse, and art theory. Sometimes, when it slipped into the candid portal of his own methodology—home life, fatherhood, teaching—Duke set up the necessary scrims as a prism for us to look through. All the while, his painted figures budded behind him, teetering from his large canvases into something new and a bit wild.
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the GRCC Collins Art Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
These are not sedentary works. Each painting burgeons with energy. People, objects, and spaces lure us inside to explore ideas concerning our current state of multiplicity. Actions and shifting grounds overlap the way human experience intersects. Invisible strings that tie us to the world cross and weave. This culmination of relationships and experiences imprint themselves on the viewer. They overwhelmingly represent a society of the intimate and casual connections that inhibit and build our own world. For Duke, this is where the abstract, the expression, and the figural shift and unite to create a vortex. This brings us from a state of internal weaving to a new ground of cataclysmic budding. In each work, the illusory complex, centered by this action, suggests the eternal present.
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
In, “Crash” a highway leads to a city, palatable of multiple intersections and boundless altering grounds. The highway is weighted with traffic and the vigor of a city wrought with possibilities forebodes in the distant. Before that, literally exploding into a new ground, Duke’s vortex takes the the form of a just-crashed and air-bound convertible. Ecstatic and uncaring, bodies are caught suspended, ejecting as a signifier of constant change. This conceptual architecture is uncentered and frenetic as behaviors, actions, and reactions come together full-force in a new dynamic, contributing to the particular transformative gestalt. The fictive world designed from those physical things forms the vortex that grows and surges toward us and locks us in. These are inescapable experiences, however momentary, however perpetually happening. It is as if Duke were stating that in the lived-in world we are untethered, though the ensuing chaos allows for wonder and grace.
Benjamin Duke, "The Compatibilists", 62 x 93”, 2014
Benjamin Duke, “The Compatibilists”, 62 x 93”, 2014
Although Duke’s work is intentionally rooted in a deep philosophical discourse, it is ultimately seeded in reciprocation. Here the work becomes a truth, which makes the abstract knowledge possible. Through a construct of recognizable objects and people it makes the death-defying action accurate, as in “Crash.”  But he sometimes uses terrific humor, such as in “Enter the Dragon.” Here the vortex is imbued with a teetering stack of animal, insect, and human sinew.  In the back field, behind the stack, a light, but looming architecture repeats that shape on a different ground. Duke accomplishes his humor underscored by a lack of certainty, such as in “The Combatibilists.” Here it is through the contrast of flat apparition-like shapes verses illusory space. I think Duke wants us to not experience his illusions directly, but mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space, the way his figures in “The Combatibilists” actively suggest while drinking tea. The action of disorder is a symptom of something greater, foreboding and ungraspable in its entirety.
Benjamin Duke, "Enter the Dragon", 48 x 98”, 2013
Benjamin Duke, “Enter the Dragon”, 48 x 98”, 2013
In the lexicon of Duke’s work, lies the idiosyncratic, drawing attention to and describing of, the role of the notion of a lived-experience, lived-objects, and the present moment. There is an apparent bodily engagement and primacy in which Duke’s living connections intermingle in the world. They intertwine and resonate with a reciprocating action. Imagining multi-sensory worlds, Duke offers different levels of detail, space, light, shadow, and color with both control and abandon of the medium which creates the illusion of a multi-sensory world, embodying the corporeal and sensory dimensions all at once.
Benjamin Duke, "I’m Not Your Superman"  98 x 98”, 2013
Benjamin Duke, “I’m Not Your Superman”  98 x 98”, 2013
What keeps us tethered is Duke’s perception and skills at building his worlds. However, Duke adroitly pursues abstraction and distortion without jettisoning the sensuous surfaces of objects and space. “I’m Not Your Superman” illustrates objects, figures, and space with a sense of material expression—soft, hard, cold, gritty. In visually explaining the reality of objects with textures and wear, there entails the mark of body experience. These descriptions bring specific features of that lived-experience into greater perspicuity through the distortion. This is true especially in “The Cobatibilists” where multiple perspectives and ground shifts suggest the act of seeing, and therefore consciousness. Duke’s world’s are germinating and fill up like a tableau. There is a more fundamental realm of human experience through distortion—more attuned to the actual way in which we see the world. These elements keep us looking because they feel primal. They are true and we recognize without doubt direct qualities of the physical world.
Benjamin Duke, "Nature vs Nature", 72 x 93", 2014
Benjamin Duke, “Nature vs Nature”, 72 x 93″, 2014
It’s not just about the illusory worlds where Duke finds center. The magic is perhaps something beyond. A liminal and urgent paint language necessitates the viscous strata Duke incarnates into the work as a body memory. Even from five feet the viewer can experience the illusions being created, the invisible made viable. So fresh it seems; again, always at present. So apparent that we are able to imagine the artist in the act of imagining while simultaneously constructing the moment. He is caught up, intensely intertwined in the midst of making all tangible. Duke is working these surfaces but he is also breaking the surfaces. This is where I think Duke embodies the concept with which he is trying to communicate. We are watching an imagined and physical experience rather than just seeing a perceptual illusion.
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Duke intertwines lives to remind us that the multisensory experience can be a terribly beautiful and disastrous experience. His constructs are reflective illusions where spaces are about the body’s existence in the world, the body’s activity in the world. It is important that these are worlds that have been lived in so that pondering them we don’t feel external to them. He organizes and gives structure to different grounds through which he is positioning us. When these grounds intersect a vortex blossoms. The amplification denotes specific, important changes that occur in the physical process of creation where, in the exaggeration, lies deep significance.
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Yet Duke’s paintings tell us one more secret. Duke is at his sharpest when his poetic and allusive language of materials and perceptions appear to prefigure what will be seen. Detailing the tacit, pre-reflective relationship between experience and the built world, Duke seems to be painting experience, as he is receiving it. The descriptive evidence points to that of awareness. For Duke, painting is close to the palpable life of things and the world around him. We experience Duke looking and studying and ultimately reveling in the wonder and mystery of the now. We feel that. We feel his now.
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Benjamin Duke: A River Without Banks, at the Collins Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan