Open: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm

10 Dosan-daero 45-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Open: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm


Tavares Strachan: Do and Be

Perrotin Seoul, Seoul

Sat 2 Sep 2023 to Sat 7 Oct 2023

10 Dosan-daero 45-gil, Gangnam-gu, Tavares Strachan: Do and Be

Mon-Sat 10am-6pm

Artist: Tavares Strachan

Perrotin Seoul presents Do and Be, the first solo exhibition in Asia by New York-based Tavares Strachan following his acclaimed showcase in the inaugural Frieze Seoul in 2022. It debuts a new body of ceramic works referencing the African continent’s enduring history and relationship with ancient civilizations, and his long-standing interest in technologies through time.

This exhibition offers an introspective view on Strachan’s twenty-year-long practice of extensive research and hands-on investigation often crystallizing into ambitious projects which are monumental in nature and scale.

Installation Views

Billions of years ago, the basic elements of life on our planet—oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen—were fused into existence within the primordial stars. Over eons, violent explosions of dying stars dispersed these atoms across the universe. “We are made of star stuff,” the American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) famously proclaimed. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

These words are called to mind by Tavares Strachan’s Self Portrait as Exploding Galaxy (2023), a two-panel painting of clustered orbs amid clouds of cadmium-red space dust. From afar, the work might fool a passing viewer into assuming that it is a telescopic snapshot. Look closely, however, and this illusion is replaced by another: the circles that ostensibly represent points of light are more like peepholes, revealing fragments of a blank crossword puzzle, pages of text, and a picture of a snowy owl. The conflation of stars and self in this “portrait” seems to gesture at our shared atomic origins, but the obscured pictorial elements—and the absence of Strachan’s face—lend an air of deliberate inscrutability.

Not knowing and, more importantly, not seeing are formally and conceptually integral to Strachan’s multidisciplinary practice. Over the past decade and a half, the New York-based Bahamian artist has traversed dusty archives and distant lands to uncover marginalized histories and confront the limitations that structure our experience of the world. In 2004, Strachan followed in the footsteps of the Black polar explorer Matthew Henson (1866–1955) with an expedition to the Alaskan Arctic, where the artist excavated a 4.5-ton block of ice that he then FedExed to his elementary school in Nassau. More recently, he collaborated with SpaceX on a poignant tribute to the first Black astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. (1935–1967), who died in a training flight before ever leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. Strachan finally sent him to space with ENOCH (2018), a satellite sculpture of a canopic jar topped with a bust of the astronaut.

A key to Strachan’s variegated practice is The Encyclopedia of Invisibility (2018– ), a 2,400-page compendium of facts on overlooked pioneers, including Henson and Lawrence, as well as myths, rare species, and assorted arcana that pop up in other artworks. Yet the fruits of Strachan’s extensive knowledge-gathering come with paradoxical conditions of access: the contents of the encyclopedia are presented in many forms except as a readable reference book. The elegant leatherbound tome exists as a sculptural work, typically installed in a vitrine like a precious artifact. Barely legible snippets appear in Strachan’s collages and paintings, and excerpts were spoken by roving performers at his exhibition In Plain Sight (2020) at Marian Goodman Gallery in London. These intentionally restrictive modes of dissemination and display force the audience not only to walk but to think around the work, considering alternative and pluralistic ways of acquiring and processing information.

One of the recurring figures in Strachan’s oeuvre is the Jamaican activist and entrepreneur Marcus Garvey (1887–1940). An advocate of Pan-Africanism who was influential between the First and Second World Wars, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in Kingston before relocating to Harlem in New York City, where he also published the widely circulated Negro World newspaper and ran the transatlantic Black Star Line. It is a 1920s flyer for this shipping company, exhorting Black working men to “DO and BE,” that gave Strachan’s current show its title. The phrase appears again in a glass-beaded curtain, spelled out in pendulous azure baubles that distort the letters as they sway—a whimsical subversion of the grandiloquent source material, which employs aspirational rhetoric to equate the purchase of Black Star Line shares with the fulfillment of individual and collective potential.

Works such as this curtain and the published format of Strachan’s Encyclopedia exemplify an approach to language as sculptural material, although the idea of textual manipulability is also explored via other artistic mediums. The Jet series is an exercise in editing and omission involving painted copies of the titular magazine. In What Image (2022), actress Diana Sands (1934–1973) is almost completely obliterated by sapphire nebulae; unpainted circles allow parts of her coiffure and rose-pink outfit to peek through. The cover line is similarly concealed with the exception of the words “WHAT IMAGE,” which can be interpreted as both a joke and a provocation—let’s see what you can find in this colorful chaos. Changes (2022), by contrast, foregrounds cover star James Brown (1933–2006) but blots out the original backdrop. The only text that remains besides the magazine’s name is the word “CHANGES” in slime-green font, floating ominously amid fiery cosmic swirls.

The breaking and reformulation of associations between image, text, and context become overwhelming in large-scale paintings such as Self Portrait: Loyalty to the Past (Blue Guro Mask) (2023). The diptych is a who’s who of the Strachaniverse, alluding to longstanding artistic preoccupations through overlapping elements that span an astronomical chart, pages from The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, a French-colonial postal stamp depicting a Togolese woman, and a leopard-print bust of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913) sculpted by the artist. On the left-hand panel is a photograph of him in a spacesuit, taken during his cosmonaut training in Russia for an earlier project titled Orthostatic Tolerance (2006–2008). His face, though, is hidden under a superimposed picture of a Guro mask. With its profuse and complexly layered clues, the painting evokes an infinite puzzle. Tonally, too, it is hard to decipher, with the brutality of racism and slavery colliding with the wonders of space travel.

Strachan’s aesthetic and conceptual methodology is inherently resistant to straightforward and objective solutions, being directed instead toward undoing presumptions of how and in what contexts we may perceive and represent a given person, entity, or phenomenon. This extends to how we encounter the artist and the art. Strachan’s designation of his teeming self-portraits as such marks an expansion of the genre stemming from his belief that “the manifestation of oneself happens in ways we don’t always understand,” as he explained during preparations for this show. “I think about the idea of the self-portrait as representation, but I also think about it as an extension of the hand or the brain.” How can a single portrait encompass the fullness of a person’s life, all that they have dreamed, encountered, and produced? Strachan’s eclectic self-portraits seem to be an experiment in recombining elements from his formidable body of work in ever more challenging and unexpected ways, evincing the many modes of doing and being that have galvanized his practice.

Despite this personal remit, the new series demonstrates the same outward-looking ethos that has defined his career, which is perhaps why so many of his self-portraits disguise or omit his visage. The tondo painting Self Portrait as Galaxies Together (2023) depicts a dense scattering of stars with circular insets of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), jazz musician Miles Davis (1926–1991), and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The particular significance of these characters to the artist is beside the point. They are symbols of shared civilizational legacies—evolution, culture, spirituality.

Strachan’s ceramics practice similarly reflects his desire to explore broader perspectives on planetary life that can account for the vastness of time. Our ancestors, who built homes and wares from the earth, could not have predicted that the same material would one day insulate space shuttles. “I’m fascinated by the simplicity and complexity that exists within that,” Strachan remarks, “and going back to the idea of understanding oneself and one’s relationship to the environment.”

Like his paintings, the ceramics express the artist’s distinctive conception of self-portraiture. While his composed face is rendered in clay on the lids of several jars—ensconced in a space helmet in one, decorated with circular Adinkrahene symbols in another—Self Portrait (Polar Bear) (2023) collapses interspecies division, replacing Strachan’s head with that of the roaring animal. The base of the container is painted an inky blue, and constellations of white and rust conjure the refulgent splendor of the heavens.

Ophelia Lai

View of Tavares Strachan’s solo exhibition Do and Be at Perrotin Seoul, 2023. Photo: M2 Studio. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

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