New YorkMining the Archive
Yancey Richardson Gallery presents Mining the Archive, a group exhibition featuring new work by nine African American artists using diverse approaches to photo collage and a variety of archives to question ideas around identity, memory, beauty and history. Co-curated with Racquel Chevremont, participating artists include Sadie Barnette, Alanna Fields, Todd Gray, Lyle Ashton Harris, Leslie Hewitt, Dionne Lee, Wardell Milan, Deborah Roberts and Mickalene Thomas.
Throughout these works, the artists examine the relationship between the political, the personal and the material. Vernacular photography, personal archives, iconic photographs, popular magazines, vintage calendars, and the internet are among the myriad of sources from which the artists have drawn their imagery. Through the fragmentation, deconstruction, juxtaposition and layering of these media, the artists transform the familiar into the strange and conjure new meaning from the ordinary. The recombining of individual images and materials undercuts any narrative reading, and draws attention to the fluidity of identity, revealing culture as a web of associative ideas and history as malleable.
In many cases, the approaches taken by the artists impede easy visual reading – and propose materiality and the body as an archive of Black radical history. Drawing on artifacts gathered from private, cultural and government spheres, Sadie Barnette’s work illuminates her own family history as a reflection of a broader history of repression and resistance in the United States. Photographing her hand with its rhinestone-embellished pink manicure holding her father’s copy of Malcolm X Speaks, she tempers the seriousness of revolutionary politics with feminine joy and a dose of gender politics. By inserting herself into her family’s archives, Barnette reveals the political as deeply personal. Mickalene Thomas melds the visual vocabularies of art history and popular culture to examine issues of Black identity, femininity, sexuality and power. Her new large-scale photo collages result from her research into the nudes featured in the monthly calendars of Jet, a mid- 20th century magazine which sought to promote the beauty, strength and self-reliance of African American women while also chronicling the civil rights movement. Thomas’s collages reference the medium’s tradition within the history of African American art, while questioning notions of canon and beauty throughout the course of history. Alanna Fields is a lens-based mixed media artist and archivist whose work investigates and challenges representations of Black queer identity and history. Noting the scarcity of images of Black queer life in photographic culture prior to the 1980s, Fields scours eBay for vernacular photographs of queer individuals. Scanning, cropping, enlarging and overlaying these images, Fields then applies layers of beeswax in bands of jewel-like colors. The varying opacity of the wax frames or veils aspects of the image, referencing the historical suppression of Black queer representation in the photographic archive.
Lyle Ashton Harris’s work explores intersections between the personal and the political, examining the impact of ethnicity, gender, fame, and desire on the contemporary social and cultural dynamic. His ongoing Shadow Worksseries comprise unique mixed-media assemblages of monochromatically photographed collages embedded in panels of West African fabrics, overlaid with spray-painted letterforms or selectively appended with the artist’s personal artifacts. Todd Grayʼs large-scale photographic assemblages explore the relationship between European colonialism, slavery, and the African diaspora. To create these works, Gray mines his extensive archive of personal photographs – sublime Ghanaian landscapes, classical European architecture, formal imperial gardens – to select and juxtapose images that create a new whole. Dionne Lee works in photography, collage, and video to explore power, survival, and personal history in relation to the American landscape. Working primarily in the darkroom, Lee’s photographs are collaged or juxtaposed with found images drawn from survival manuals and how-to books on tying ropes or making fires. Her hands often appear in her work, tearing a page showing a scenic landscape, clearing leaves from the ground to form a fire bed, and performing other metaphorical acts that speak to the land as a site of both refuge and danger. Deborah Roberts’s mixed media works on paper and on canvas combine found images sourced from the internet with hand-painted details in striking figural compositions. Roberts focuses her gaze on Black children, investigating how societal pressures, perceived images of beauty or masculinity, and the violence of American racism conditions their experiences growing up. In the work of Wardell Milan, identity is a construction, gender is fluid, and beauty is subjective. He liberally mines from and elaborates on imagery culled from fashion magazines, family photographs, and the history of photography, specifically Robert Mapplethorpe’s problematic Black Book. Applying charcoal, graphite, colored pencil and cut paper to the photographs, Milan creates portrait collages that range from the seductive to the disturbing and allude to shifting cultural identities and social structures. Leslie Hewitt’s works reference the Black literary and popular-culture ephemera of her upbringing. Personal mementos are assembled on the floor into a sculptural collage that is then photographed to explore the mechanisms behind the construction of meaning and memory. She examines how photography provides access to memories of personal experience, frames one’s understanding of the self, and shapes the collective memory of historical events.
Courtesy of the artists and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York