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…”