August 1 – 9, 2020
East Hampton, NY
The rigor of Torkwase Dyson’s intellectual and pictorial practices was fully on display in Studies for Bird and Lava, a set of 11 works in Pace’s new, light-filled East Hampton space, but the compelling aesthetic appeal of her project was also evident. The paintings and drawings are products of her present residency at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts that will result in an installation in Columbus in early 2021. Dyson’s four cabinet-sized acrylic paintings, four gouache and pen on paper drawings, one large eight-foot high composition, and two sculptural wall works, continue the artist’s effort to evolve an abstract language and symbology to communicate ideas, histories, and new modes of thinking. These come out of a complicated effort to reimagine abstract imagery through Black history and Black experiences of space, intertwined with sensations of nature, in an attempt to forswear links to the traditional, exclusionary histories of art.
This is abstraction that demands close looking and rewards formal analysis. Both, All and Everything (Bird and Lava) (2020) is a 40 × 30-inch, portrait format acrylic painting. Its tonality is largely black but divided by a horizontal demarcation about a fifth of the way down the board. The line perfectly bisects a circle that is inscribed in silver marker and whose form does not quite extend to the top edge. At its far right, a small silver triangle juts out from the curvature and rests on the horizontal line: per the title it reads as a beak, the circle now forming a head. In the expanse below and slightly left of center is a narrow triangle pointing downward to the right; also in silver, it is open in form but its tip is colored in. It suggests a tiny wing. Paint is scraped across the formerly smooth surface of the board and calls up contradictory associations, both topographical: as the sharp edges of distant mountains or escarpments, and also as crests of waves or percolating lava. It is one of the many pleasurable sleights of hand to be derived from careful considerations of Dyson’s facture. In the upper half of the circle the paint is slick, varnished, and glassy. The rest of the picture is matte by comparison.
The buoyancy implied by the seemingly bobbing-on-a-horizon avian disc in this work is continued in a series of three adjacent but less referential 40 1/4 × 48-inch landscape format canvases on the featured rear wall; they are the showstoppers. In Space as Form: Movement 4 (Bird and Lava) (2020) the disc and horizon line recur, but now only a quarter of the circle rises above the horizontal, and lines carry off the curvature on either side down and outward to a further horizontal towards the bottom, forming a triangle whose peak has been replaced by the upper arc of the circle. Or a trapezoid with a sphere pushing through the top edge. It is as if the great sphere within Rome’s Pantheon decided to defy gravity and make a break for it into the sky, stretching all those confining rectangles and squares in its wake. Themes of expansion and containment proliferate. The lower horizontal, closer to the bottom edge than its cousin above, continues off the canvas in either direction. The changing natural light of the gallery reveals the true color of the grounds of these pictures—they glow midnight blue when the sun is in the mood. The unprimed edges of the canvas supports are streaked with aqua-inclining-to-green stains—the one instance where the artist has relinquished her powerful control. In this triad of pictures, Dyson employs three levels of gloss in her acrylics: a dry upper zone, which reads as sky; a shinier area below, which suggest a horizon line or sea; and a more liquid, glistening section within the disc in the part that pushes into the upper zone.
The largest and most commanding work in the show, an eight and a half foot high drawing, Liberation Scaled (Bird and Lava) (2020), bears a compendium of Dyson’s symbolic vernacular, made with charcoal and acrylic and oil stick and graphite and collaged elements. Art historians will think of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black) of 1918 or Joan Miró’s Birth of the World (1925) at MoMA when appreciating Dyson’s darkling circles and background scrim of variegated tones. Physically akin to Richard Serra’s large and more monochromatic oil stick drawings, in this work Dyson overlaid the surface with drawn trapezoids and Vitruvian (or James Nares-esque) body-sized arcs and potted plants in a free-form mural. But overall, her designs most strongly call to mind the muscularity of Jack Whitten, especially in his darker memorial paintings, and his predilection for celestial centrifugalism.
The two sculptural works, I Am Everything That Will Save Me (Bird and Lava) and Scalar Test #1 (Bird and Lava) (both 2020), are intricate creations at three and one foot in diameter respectively. String is employed to bifurcate and cast shadows, and they expand suggestively into space. In them, Dyson continues her stated project of aiming for an abstraction that derives not from a European tradition, but that is redolent of the Black experience in the Plantationocene, an era encompassing heritages of capitalism, colonialism, and racism. Most potent and moving is her connection of abstract forms to the lived histories of Black bodies and the built spaces of slavery, giving her work a considerable ballast: a triangle symbolizes the attic crawlspace where Harriet Jacobs hid from slave masters in antebellum North Carolina; a square references the box in which Henry Brown concealed and posted himself from slavery in Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. The potency of this project is undeniable. Like another abstract artist working outside a strictly formalist mode, Hilma af Klint, Dyson has pursued a language of abstraction that is personal and original in its totality. But unlike that Swedish abstractionist of a century ago, Dyson’s works are richly and convincingly historical in their reference, without the Scandinavian artist’s pursuit of an esoteric spiritualism. It is radical in practice, social, political, deeply researched and felt. The pictures are controlled and strong, leaving one eager to see what Dyson produces for the home of the Buckeyes in early next year.