Some places just plain make art look good, she thinks, throwing her red hood back as she peers into the shadowy depths of the gallery’s faintly Brutalist space. The walls are painted black, floor to ceiling and front to back; in the penumbral gloom, the spot-lit art stands out, like actors in a play. The art is mostly black itself, and crafted-- with exquisite attention to detail and composition-- out of hair, both real and artificial: braided, twisted, coiled, or fluffed into objects that invoke science fiction, rituals of mourning and even celebration.
Some rounded shapes, strung on more strands of soft, kinky hair (Unidentified Grieving Objects) are the size of a head of finely frizzed curls. Rendered in black, they hover before a spot-lit wall, casting shadows as dramatic as their own suspended forms. In platinum-blonde-white, a line of them hangs near the wall emblazoned with title of the show: “When and where I enter,” excerpted by the artist, Angela Hennessy, from the words of black scholar and activist Anna Julia Cooper:
Only the black woman can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'
The words seem to Red to talk about a time and place dreamed of but not yet entered, for anyone other than certain (mostly white) men. Except, she thinks, in this dark, church-like place, where the words have a tingling power, conferred on the objects as well.
As time slips by, the light cast through the high front windows slides deeper in the room. It seems whiter than the nearby frizzy puffs; whiter, even, than the words on the wall. But nothing seems as black as the twists and braids that form a ring, a portal, a gate—a massive Mourning Wreath of hair, mounted on a steel pole and standing in the middle of the grey concrete floor. She remembers seeing Victorian jewelry plaited from the hair of lost loved ones, intricately woven and braided like these cascades of gleaming strands. But this is no delicate pendant, no brooch. Its immensity demands attention and respect.
Peering through its circle, she can see something more. In an alcove in the back, a low rounded form sits directly on the floor.
Wider than outstretched arms, its surface is wrapped with braids that sink, as if sucked in, into a central void. That hole reminds her of the way spinning water drops in the middle of a draining pool—on its way out, or maybe-- in. Stately, elegant, radiating power, Black Hole’s blackness soaks up the light, giving nothing back.
Does this place: with its industrial ambience, its matte black walls-- help make this art’s meaning? She stops to think. She remembers a room she saw long ago at SFMOMA, in its former home, the old beaux-arts building on Van Ness.
It was 1994, a ‘New Work’ exhibition by David Hammons. The walls were covered with deep purple patterned with gold, framing a spare installation of African couches – low, curved planks of hand-shaped wood, resting on three legs, intended exclusively for male relaxation. Punctuating these were three mysterious sculptures that seemed like nothing else so much as colonies of alien weeds: clumps of black hair (salvaged by the artist from African American barbershops), glued at intervals along (black) wire stems.
Near the middle of the room, a single patch of dead white powder (Chalk? Clay? Cocaine? No, just flour) covered much of one couch, like a cartoon spotlight. Visitors, getting just a little too close, had abraded the edges of the spill, leaving prints from the toes of their shoes.
In photographs, the room looks brightly lit. She thinks that was for pictures, and remembers it as quite a bit darker. Not as deep in shadow as the place she is now, but still pleasantly twilit, the purple crepuscular in the corners, the gold gleaming faintly. But she also remembers thinking that, without those walls, the objects would have had a much harder job of telling the story they wanted to tell. It was all or nothing.
The hair, the wire, the recumbent chairs needed a place to be together. A place that was not the art world, as it was constituted then, or twenty years earlier, when Hammons had first started using hair-- or even now, in 2017, the era of uncertainty in which Hennessy has chosen to paint her walls black. A world still unsafe, still with different rules for everyone except (white) men.
Do all fairy tales begin and end the same bleak way? Red closes her eyes. The rooms—one real, the other, remembered, both fade to black…
She's at another show. Once upon a time (I could write this phrase fifty times and never get tired of it), the building that houses this gallery was a Masonic temple, and the maple floors warm the light that comes in through windows high and low. Everything looks good, Red thinks, in this honeyed, pleasant space. The dealer and her family live here, around the art she shows and sells, making it possible for visitors to imagine the work in their own domestic space.
Like the walls, the sculptures on view are white. The artist, Nancy Mintz, makes armatures of perfectly soldered brass wire, building them like drawings, line by line. She paints them black and covers most over with a skin of gampi, a soft handmade Japanese paper. Elegant, translucent, some shapes evoke nature, others culture.
Their names are poetic; some, like Rotifer or Radiolaria, allude to the microscopic marine life forms beloved of the natural scientist Ernst Haeckel, who believed in the unity of all living things.
There are hollow bodies with slender waists (Strobe, Conjoined); many-petaled flowers (Ganoderma), and vase-like enclosures (Tunicate, Vortex). They are, in other words, everything that, traditionally, sculpture is not: organic, delicate, made of wire and paper rather than steel or stone. Of course, those sculptural traditions have been eroded by a century of experimentation, but Mintz’s current works are still gendered by association.
Like Hennessy’s circular holes and portals, these are either all about sex, or not at all, depending on what one wants or needs to see.
Mintz’s elegant formality is part of what makes her papered forms strong. Their scale, relatively modest, makes them feel like something one could take in one’s basket to grandma’s house, live with, and love. Rather than larger-than-life declarations, they’re quiet incantations. Even the family of slender shapes that make up Processional 1-6 feels like friendly ghosts, leaning in to listen.
There are all kinds of magic, she thinks to herself. These beautiful objects have a place in the world. But is it the same place where Hennessy’s mourning monuments demand to be seen and heard? She imagines, as she has so many times before, a Venn diagram. Some parts overlap, but at left and right, the circles remain separate, distinct from each other.
Back out in the world, night has fallen. She walks the streets through pools of light, from white to black to white again, threading her way through a minefield of ideas. Both of these spaces: alternative and commercial; city and suburban, are frames for the objects encountered there. Both, she thinks, represent a way of being in the world, an attitude towards both art and life. And both, interestingly, are run by women. She stops, puts down her ever-present basket (yes, this is still a fairy tale) and checks the internet on her phone. The gallery in a temple represents ten women and three men, the opposite of the usual gender ratio. All make exquisite images and objects, often highly-detailed and crafted. She taps some more keys. The alternative space pays a stipend to all the artists who show there. In the past year, many of the exhibitions and events held there have addressed issues of race and politics. Not all the art presented is beautiful. It has other jobs to do.
The color of death is white in some cultures. Black can stand for mystery, power, authority. The color of death is black in some cultures. White--threateningly, ominously unmysterious, holds onto power and authority. She walks, she thinks. The basket is heavy. She’d really like to leave it beneath a street light, but someone would surely call the bomb squad. There’s nothing in it but words, since that’s her job—she’s the Village Explainer. She sighs, hoping that everyone will understand her tale, as she wanders off into the quiet dark.
In homage to Lynn Tillman.
Angela Hennessy: Where and when I enter, Southern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco CA, 10/6-12/2/2017
Davd Hammons: New Work, SFMOMA, 1994
Nancy Mintz: Field Notes, Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley CA, 9/9-10/28/2017
All photographs of Angela Hennessy and Nancy Mintz's work, with the exception of Ganoderma, are by the author. Pictures of David Hammons New Work exhibition are courtesy of SFMOMA, SF CA. Thanks to the CCA Wattis Institute for information on Hammons, an elusive subject.