Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals

Ruins and Rituals at the Brooklyn Museum

Today I saw the exhibition Ruins and Rituals, work by Beverly Buchanan at the Brooklyn Museum. I was not familiar with her work, but after reading the description of the show, I knew I needed to see it: “Beverly Buchanan explored the relationship between memory–personal, historical, and geographical–and place. Engaging with movements such as Post-Minimalism, Land Art, and feminism, Buchanan created her own mode of abstraction by investing it with political and social content.”

I was especially interested in the site-specific land art pieces because of their simplified geometric formal attributes that were laden with complex meaning. Contrary to the work of other land artists, these pieces refer heavily to narrative and history, more specifically stories of violence and resistance. These stories become embedded in the pieces through the materials used and their geographic placement.

“These hybrid concrete/clay forms sculpturally reiterated what Buchanan saw as a continual process of ruination. Literally or phantasmically suggesting black subjects unmade by the very processes of subjugation, Buchanan's work exists in the uncomfortable space between object and thing, and in their current states—decrepit, forgotten, overgrown and broken—continue to question the social promissory limits of sculpture...Broadly, ruins signify a temporal in-between-ness, at once confirmation of a past long gone and the suggestion of an entropic future far away. In this reading ruins are a compression of time, an enfolding of a tensile continuum; but ruins, as they are apprehended, actually belong to that neglected and fugitive tense: the present. 'Ruination,' the present continual verb form asserting ruin as a condition, may be the most apt way of understanding what Buchanan's Georgia installations enact.” (Andy Campbell, "We're Going To See Blood On Them Next": Beverly Buchanan's Georgia Ruins and Black Negativity”)

Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). © Beverly Buchanan. from Rhizome.

Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). © Beverly Buchanan. from Rhizome.

For example, “Marsh Ruins (1981), in the Sea Islands of Georgia, resembles the Mississippian temple mounds at Ocumulgee (1000 c.e.) in the Macon Plateau. Constructed from poured concrete with an outer layer of tabby, a material used to build plantations in the region, it is located near the commemorated site where the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier wrote his elegiac “Marshes of Glynn”. To the east is St. Simons Island, where in 1803 a group of Igbo people sold into slavery collectively committed suicide by drowning. The site has no historic marker.”

Another group of works that was interesting to me conceptually was her “Black Wall” work. She had begun making paintings of an imagined black wall and was obsessed and fascinated by the idea and the subject, but had never actually seen such a thing. Then one evening while driving through SoHo, she saw it and it stopped her in her tracks. She wrote, “It was just there. Being unnoticed. It had all the appropriate gradations in surface: different textures, darker areas, lighter areas, soft and hard areas. The feel of it, the essence of it was immediately perceivable and I sat unable to move because of the rapid interchange or transmittal of this essence from the wall to me...Its inner self or core was noble and black and haunting and strong, and intelligent and MAGNIFICENT.” In the show, there was a photograph of this black wall, as well as some typed writings by Buchanan about it and some works in a sketchbook.

Beverly Buchanan, “Three Families (A Memorial Piece with Scars)” (1989) wood with paint, charcoal, and metal. from Hyperallergic

Beverly Buchanan, “Three Families (A Memorial Piece with Scars)” (1989) wood with paint, charcoal, and metal. from Hyperallergic

The last room contained small sculptures of shacks that she had made based on dwellings she had come across. One group was noticeably charred, and she wrote, “Like burnt clothing, remains carry the smell of danger, past and present, covering or patching does not remove the memory. These 3 structures, after being painted, were set on fire, left to burn and extinguished by friends. These shacks are a metaphor for what then, as now was a tactic of enforced despair…”

Dispatches

Over the Christmas break, I went to see Dispatches at SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art) in Winston-Salem, NC. The exhibition proved to be a timely and topical investigation into how artists interact with and process the news. From the exhibition introduction:

Dispatches gathers and generates artistic responses to the news by 34 contemporary artists and photojournalists. The exhibition includes a survey of works from 2010 - present and launches a series of commissions, or "dispatches" on current events and the critical issues of our time.

The art works emerge from within and in defiance of today's media landscape, ranging from real-time coverage to deliberately slow and analog forms. They enlarge our collective capacity to sensitively receive stories delivered in today's unevenly regulated and fast flow of news. They decelerate the speed of information. Or, they organize collective efforts toward a more humanizing interaction.

Dispatches is divided into five thematic zones: Post-9-11 Realities; Borders and Migrations; Ecological Justice; New Forms of Social Action; and the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Doug Ashford, Next Day (2015-16)

Doug Ashford, Next Day (2015-16)

There was one piece in particular that stood out to me as it relates to my current project and thinking: Doug Ashford’s Next Day (2015-16), which takes the entirety of Section A from The New York Times on September 12, 2001 as the ground for abstract forms and fields of color. “Reworking image and text, Ashford harnesses the affective power of color and composition to hide, reveal and amplify the newspaper’s content.” The piece was 28 pages, laid out on a long table in the center of the room. It begged close inspection–the colors and forms attracted at first, and then the reality of what you were looking at hit. The headlines, the images, all created a sense of déja vu, but the screens of color and the interruptions caused by the shapes forced a new perspective or interpretation.

Doug Ashford, Next Day (2015-16)

Doug Ashford, Next Day (2015-16)

I was interested in the date of this piece, and that it was created 14 years after the event. The wall text states, “In his reappraisal of the press coverage of the 9/11 attacks, over ten years after the event, we are given an opportunity to feel, to reflect on the artifact of the newspaper and the trauma of 9/11, and to consider what has and has not changed since then.”

The idea of these abstract forms as a tool of empathy, feeling, and consideration resonates:

“In his recent work, Ashford explores the power of abstraction as it relates to our encounter with crisis and current events, combining formal approaches to painting with found images and gestures of re-enactment. He has said:

‘What I have been trying to think about...is something quite simple–how the relationship we have with art can make us more human when it shows things beyond what society allows us to experience...This production is awakening questions that I have long held on the relationship between abstract art and the feeling we call sympathy or empathy.’

While abstraction is often seen as non-naturalistic, non-representational and therefore antithetical to the human or empathetic, Ashford’s work combines arresting images of people in crisis and traumatic events with abstract element to find a language that renews our ability to feel these events.”

Most of the other work in the exhibition interacted with or reflected upon much more current and recent news, so what stood out to me about this piece, in addition to the striking formal visual language at play, was the artifact nature of the work. The fact that it was using the passing of time as a part of the structure, part of the reason for being made. This idea of the “gesture of re-enactment” is intriguing to me. How applicable that term is to my project, and how many different ways that can be used and interpreted!

The Art Part

All I want is to get into the studio (now that I have one again!), and so I am using that space as a place to play and process all of this historical reading and research while holding on to the visual vocabulary that I have been developing for a while now. This visual vocabulary probably reached its most distilled and pure form last year in my “drawing a day” project. In that project, I was still thinking about and referencing the stuff I always am thinking about (architecture, place, memory, etc.), but the forms and marks became the most abstracted that they have been—a kind of shorthand notation of form, material, and composition for the ideas and thoughts I was having on a daily basis while I didn’t have studio space to work things out more fully and completely. There’s something very rich and powerful for me in these small notations and drawings, and I am looking through them regularly to spur my thinking towards new directions in the work.

I realized I needed help figuring out what this visual language I was using meant for me and how it could be tied to the topics that are starting to envelop me with the 1844 project. How do you combine what on the surface looks like geometric abstraction with a deep dive into historical events and personal history, not to mention contemporary social, political, and environmental concerns?

I’ve been trying to go see some exhibitions and learn from other artists and see how they deal with these kinds of dichotomies.

The first exhibition that stood out for me in this vein was this one at the Guggenheim Museum: But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art from the Middle East and North Africa.

In the wall text, the curator Sara Raza writes:

“...[The work in the exhibition] focuses on geometry as a tool for the illumination of creative, historical, and philosophical enquiry. While rooted in the mathematical “thinking sciences,’ geometry is used here as a conduit for theories around logic and the origin of meaning...The geometric theme also intersects with the museum’s unique architecture to emphasize the circulation of ideas between different societies, cultures, and political systems, providing an enriched visual, psychological, and intellectual context for our current global situation…

The artists whose work is included...are attentive to the migration of ideas and peoples in an age of anxiety that has witnessed civil liberties and freedom of movement come under repeated attack. Architecture—whether formal, informal, or monumental—is framed as an ideological tool and used to evoke the former colonial powers responsible for defining the region’s territorial and economic status. Contained within the exhibition’s artworks are proposals—we might think of them as “conceptual contraband”—that counteract the mass media’s highly politicized treatment of the area. These diverse threads are interwoven with questions around the ways in which contemporary art has developed in the Middle East and North Africa and its diaspora, producing a nuanced survey of the region’s creative landscape as inflected by history and tradition, recent events and current thought.”

The work in the exhibition was powerful, and it was revealing to see and understand how this idea of geometry, and even of architecture, could provide an armature to hold these incredibly heavy and often difficult topics. What was also really instructive was how so many artists used the structure of the “archive” as a vehicle to explore absence (absence of the image, absence of the body, etc.).

Two pieces that particularly stood out to me in this vein were Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Monument (2013-16, Bronze and cotton) and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, 177 Days of Performances (2015).

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument, installation view

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Monument, installation view

From Akhavan’s website:

Study for a Monument, detail view

Study for a Monument, detail view

‘Study for a Monument’ (2013 – ongoing) is an act of commemoration, and also an attempt to archive plants belonging to regions around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the title hinting at the legendary gardens of Babylon. Plant taxonomy thrived as a scientific discipline in the colonial period, when 19th-century researchers gained access to new areas and organised expeditions around the world gathering species, thereby becoming the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. Akhavan has traced botanical species such as those held at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in particular endemic species that grow in present-day Iraq, such as Iris barnumae, Astragalus lobophorus and Campanula acutiloba. Damage to their habitat, firstly by the destruction of salt marshes by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government to quell the marsh Arabs’ resistance and then by the effects of the Iraq war, has made tracing them a difficult task. Rooted in the funerary tradition of commemorating the dead, monuments often record public figures or landmark historical events. They demonstrate strength and attempt to stimulate forms of nationalist or collective memory despite the inevitability of shifts in power. Sculpted from photographic documentation and cast in bronze, these flowers, stems, leaves and roots are displayed in groupings which rest on the ground, resisting the verticality and singularity of traditional monuments. Enlarged to a human scale, they are displayed on simple white sheets, as if captured while being transported.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, 177 Days of Performances (2015)

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, 177 Days of Performances (2015)

Hadjithomas and Joreige “explore the archive and the document as tools for representing the construction of imaginary and historical narratives, concerning in particular the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil Wars. In this installation of 354 books that were read and performed from over the 177 days of the Venice Bienale, the artists make reference to the biography of a fictitious photographer named Abdallah Farah, a witness to the economic, infrastructural, and political transformations of Beirut from 1997-2006. Each book contains rolls of undeveloped film. We do not see the rolls’ visual content, but are instead presented with meticulous written descriptions of each shot, contextualized as having been taken from the invented photographer’s notebook.  They explore the evocative power of the image by rendering it absent from the work.” (from exhibition wall text, Guggenheim Museum)

These two pieces, as well as several others, gave me a glimpse into the potential of using (and perhaps subverting) existing structures and vocabularies (such as geometry, the archive, abstraction) to create a dialog with the historical research I am doing.

Topics and Considerations

As I re-read the journals and letters from the 1844 trip, I am paying attention to the thoughts that come into my mind. What are the questions? Is there a mention of an event or a person that causes me to want to investigate further? At the moment, I’ve come up with this list of topics that stand out as points of comparison between then and now:

Topic Considerations:

  • Political History vs. Political situation now
  • Population (then and now--refugees?)
  • Borders (How they’ve changed: for example Germany then was a confederation of countries and free cities, formally unified into the German Empire 1871, and now the borders are seemingly so open that there is populist backlash against immigrants)
  • Environmental changes (climate change–do the plants that Octavia collected still exist in same locations?)
  • The idea of the monument, souvenir, artifact and archive (visually and conceptually)

Some keywords that might frame or shape the direction of my thinking:

  • Psychogeography
  • Mapping/mental maps
  • Mediated space
  • Perspective
  • Relics
  • The Grid (potentially as a metaphor for rigidity, architecture, edifice)
  • “Gesture of re-enactment”

Introduction

I was awarded a 2017 Traveling Fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is enabling me to dive into a project I have long wanted to do, and which is quickly proving to be a sprawling and fascinating research endeavor. Here is the description from their website:

Created in 1894 to encourage post-graduate work and travel, the Traveling Fellowships remain one of the most important and enduring gifts given to support alumni of the SMFA. Through independent work, exploration, and exhibition opportunities, these awards help launch individual careers.

In August, a jury composed of Lucas Cowan, Public Art Curator of the Rose Kennedy Conservancy in Boston; Amanda McDonald Crowley, cultural worker, curator and facilitator for the National Alliance for Media Art + Culture (NAMAC); and Dina Deitsch, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Interim Director at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, awarded 10 fellowships from a pool of more than 200 applicants.

This is my original proposal for the Traveling Fellowship project and application:

Destinations: France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland

A page from Octavia Jones's 'Book of Relics', which includes pressed plant specimens from the places she visited in 1844

A page from Octavia Jones's 'Book of Relics', which includes pressed plant specimens from the places she visited in 1844

In 1844, my ancestor Calvin Jones traveled from Tennessee to Europe with his daughter Octavia. They each kept a journal, and Octavia also kept a “book of relics,” in which she pressed plant specimens from each of the locales they visited. My project will take these artifacts as the beginning of an investigation into place, memory, and the ways that souvenirs shape the experience of both. My work has enduringly pursued these themes, specifically through the places we inhabit, often using personal family history, homes, and artifacts as inspiration. The pieces emerge from the careful observation of the architecture built up and falling down around us and explores how we live within it: how we decorate, the repairs we make, the things we neglect, the shapes of a rug’s pattern. My work demands an intense immersion in spaces and places, and this process spurs a fascination with the myriad ways of remembering—journals, photographs, souvenirs, relics—and how these cues inflect and affect our memories. It is particularly interesting to have two very different takes on the same journey– that of an older man traveling with a lens towards business, farming, and economics, and the more innocent outlook of his young daughter.

My project aims to physically and imaginatively retrace the steps of Calvin and Octavia’s journey. Using their journals as my travel guide, I will revisit the sites they encountered 170 years ago, for example:

Baden Baden (Germany), 14th July

Winding up the mountain, at each angle a changing picture. The immense ruins, old trees stretching their broad arms through the broken wall, moss covered towers, banquet Hall, wine cellar, balcony, view. . . climbed the mountain, grand, romantic, each turn increased in sublimity.

How many of the buildings they wrote about still stand? Can I find the same plants that Octavia pressed into her book of relics? How will the filter of time, of contemporary media such as Instagram, and the lens of Octavia and Calvin’s interpretations affect the way I construct the meaning and memory of my own journey? Throughout my travels, I will make paintings, write a journal, and take photographs that enact a dialectic between my family’s history and the environmental, political and social changes that have occurred in the interim 170 years. I will make additional larger works based on the experience, and the result will be the creation of a new and updated archive of a journey.


This project could be very straight-forward: I could literally just go on the journey and retrace their steps, take pictures, pay attention to what moves me and the details I notice. Then I could make paintings from and about my experience. But there has been a nagging feeling that that isn’t and won’t be enough. It could be beautiful and moving just on it’s own, just at face value. These two people went on a journey through cities and countries that they did not know. They had experiences, they wrote journals and letters home about those experiences, they collected plant specimens and saved all their receipts. All of those artifacts were somehow saved so that I could read them 173 years later and decide that I would like to go on a trip like that. And now I have this amazing opportunity to do that: to go on a trip through several European countries to have new experiences and revisit their journey through a contemporary lens.

I can’t go blindly, though. Part of reading a diary from 173 years ago is the desire to contextualize it. You want to understand more than just the words on the page before you. You want to know what events were happening in the world at the time it was written; you want to know about the author’s situation that allowed him/her the luxury of a trip like this in 1844, and so you start reading more and doing research. And then once you start learning more things, you wonder what it means to recreate this trip 173 years later.

So that’s where I am right now. I am in the beginning stages of research. I am reading history books, I am reading letters and journals written by my ancestors, I am looking at old documents (receipts, ledgers, sketches). And simultaneously, as a painter, I am trying to figure out what kind of work I can and will make based on not only my trip, once I take it, but also the results of my current research. And how does the visual language I am using fit into this narrative? Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe I will figure out that I will need to make different work, but that’s all part of the process. I am excited to dive in, explore, experiment, and share as I go along.