I first visited Havana in November 2016, a few days after Fidel Castro died, and just under a year before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba in September 2017. Since then, much has changed, including the hand-painted signs that punctuate the journey from the airport to the city centre, which today do not celebrate the revolution so much as the 'Unidad y...
The exhibition Beyond Boundaries at Somerset House in London (12 March–2 April 2019) marked the historic contributions of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA) and the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, on the occasion of their 100th and 150th anniversaries, respectively. Spread across several rooms of Somerset House's...
The National 2019: New Australian Art features work by 70 contemporary Australia-based artists split across three venues: the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) (29 March–21 July 2019), as curated by Isobel Parker Philip, curator of photographs at AGNSW; Daniel Mudie Cunningham,...
Ebony G. Patterson, Of 72 (detail). Exhibition view: Ebony G. Patterson, Of 72, Institute for the Humanities Gallery at the University of Michigan (11 January–9 February 2018). Photo: Sarah Rose Sharp.
In 2018, artists and curators across the United States have been crafting brilliant exhibitions across the US, exploring themes of identity and community in innovative ways. Ebony G. Patterson made a maximalist tribute to victims of violence in her home country of Jamaica, while Joel Otterson crafted work recalling his parents' professions as a seamstress and plumber. Indigenous artists took the stage at the Anchorage Museum's Unsettled and Jeffrey Gibson's This is the Day at the Wellin Museum. The enthralling official Obama portraits, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, were revealed at the National Gallery in DC, putting Black fine artists into the national consciousness. This list is an insight into the tastes of our US writers and the shows that moved them.
Born in 1973 in Columbus, GA, and now based in Baltimore MD, Amy Sherald documents contemporary African-American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly portraits. Sherald subverts the medium of portraiture to tease out unexpected narratives, inviting viewers to engage in a more complex debate about accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate black heritage centrally in the story of American art.
Among her influences, Sherald has cited photographs that W.E.B. Du Bois compiled to be displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1900, depicting African-American men, women, and children in ways that countered discriminatory representations of the day. In particular, Sherald is drawn to the way in which African-American family photographs served as intimate, personal portraits, during a time when only white individuals or groups were being iconised in paintings.
While her subjects are always African-American, Sherald renders their skin-tone exclusively in grisaille – an absence of colour that directly challenges perceptions of black identity and seeks, in the artist’s words, ‘to exclude the idea of colour as race.’ Sherald offsets this against a vibrant palette: eye-popping clothes and ephemera float in tension against abstracted backgrounds. The depth created by the pastel backgrounds are not confined to any specific time or space, but seem to exist beyond the facts of recorded history and national borders.
She defines the subjects of her portraits simply as ephemera float in tension against abstracted background to American identity. The individuals in her paintings are deliberately posed, dramatically staged, and assertive in gaze. Their expressiveness, and the variations in their gestures, clothing, and emotional auras reinforce the complex multiplicities of African-American existence. But the persistent sense of privacy and mystery maintained in Sherald’s work requires viewers to ponder the thoughts and dreams of the black men and women she has depicted.
Sherald was the first woman and first African-American ever to receive first prize in the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.; in February 2018, the museum unveiled her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Sherald has also received the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta GA. Alongside her painterly practice, Sherald has worked for almost two decades along-side socially committed creative initiatives, including teaching art in prisons and art projects with teenagers.
Jack Whitten was a painter and sculptor known for his innovative manipulations of acrylic paint and explorations of materials not commonly found in art. Combining his interests in materiality, light, artistic traditions, Black figures and socio-political events, Whitten pushed at the boundaries of form and human perception.
Born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten grew up in the segregated South and was a teenager when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. In 1959, he enrolled in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, before transferring to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a year later. Although Whitten believed in the principles of nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King Jr, whom he had heard speak in Birmingham in 1957, he decided to leave the protests and the South after experiencing white hostility during a civil rights march in 1960. He moved to New York, where he was mentored by abstract expressionist artists Norman Lewis and Willem de Kooning. As a result, Whitten's early paintings from the 1960s show abstract expressionist influences; in NY Battle Ground (1967), for instance, clouds of black paint and colourful spots seem to be exploding from a volcano-like pink shape at the centre of the canvas. During this period, Whitten also began to develop an interest in process-oriented art.
In 1970, Whitten was invited to Rochester, New York by the Xerox Corporation to experiment with its equipment, where he invented a signature method of layering acrylic paint on a pre-existing image and dragging a squeegee, an Afro-comb or a rake-like tool across its wet surface. Pink Psyche Queen (1973) exemplifies the blurring effect created by the combing process, which exposes parts of the drawing underneath the acrylic coating. In the later Greek Alphabets series (1976-1979), the effect becomes more distinctive, with lines made visible by using pieces of wire and thin metal sheets. Because this method revealed or 'developed' the previously established image below, Whitten likened it to the photographic process in which his squeegees and raking tools functioned as developers. He also nicknamed the artworks created in this fashion 'slab paintings', referring to the thickness of the acrylic coating that ranged from ¼ to ⅜ of an inch.
In the following decades, Whitten devised another signature method of casting acrylic paint into small units that could be organised into mosaics. Described by the artist as the 'tesserae'-a term borrowed from Mediterranean mosaics-these acrylic units represent the fusion of gesture and process of painting and are abstract painting's equivalent of the byte (a unit of digital information). His Black Monoliths paintings-a series begun in 1986-are dedicated to influential Black figures such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Jacob Lawrence, and attempt to encapsulate their essence or soul through abstraction. Works like Black Monolith X (Birth of Muhammad Ali) (2016) demonstrate Whitten's fluid use of the acrylic tiles. In the painting, the tesserae are cut into irregular shapes and oriented in irregular directions to embody the legendary boxer's energy, whose performance Whitten saw live once. Whitten's works also respond to current events such as in 9.11.01 (2006), which captures the 9/11 terrorist attack that he witnessed from his studio in New York. Positioned at slight angles, the tesserae absorb and reflect light from multiple directions, resulting in a dynamic and luminescent effect.
Throughout his career, Whitten gained a reputation for his repeated experimentation with materials both new to him and the art world. The paintings his in Quantum Walls series (2016-2017), titled after the artist's interest in quantum mechanics, all deploy Pyrisma-an innovative mica-based pigment-as the basis for their tesserae. Pyrisma mimics phosphorescence in nature and shifts colours under different kinds of light. The colours of Quantum Wall (The Geometry of Being an Octopus) (2016), for example, range from varying shades of violet to black. The painting alludes to Whitten's fascination with the octopus' ability to shift colours to blend into its surrounding environments. For The Third Entity #10 (2016)-from the series of drawings titled The Third Entity-Whitten used black graphite and Renaissance wax on a synthetic paper known as Evolon-experimenting with the material to achieve a somewhat photographic result.
Drawing from both African and European traditions, Whitten's sculptures offer a new definition of American culture with Black identity at its core. Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal) (2016), for instance, is a vertical form consisting of blocks of Cretan walnut, Serbian oak, Greek marble and the internal parts of various electronics as well as handcrafted metals from a local blacksmith in Crete. This multimedia sculpture references nkisi or African power figures, which are believed to have protective powers in west-central African lore. By merging the traditions and spiritual association of African sculptures with materials of Western origin, Whitten asserts Blackness as inextricable from Western culture. As deeply personal creations carved in the Greek island of Crete, where the artist spent summers for more than four decades, Whitten's sculptural works were less frequently shown than his paintings. Before he passed away in January 2018, however, he collaborated with the Baltimore Museum of Art to organise Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2016 (22 April-29 July 2018), a survey focused on 40 never-before-exhibited sculptures.
Selected solo exhibition of Whitten's work include More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979-1989, Hauser & Wirth, London (2017); Jack Whitten: The Sixties, Allan Stone Projects, New York (2016); and Jack Whitten, Alexander Gray Associates, New York (2015). In 2014 the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego organised a major retrospective of his oeuvre, titled Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, which travelled to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp in the following year.
Hauser & Wirth's exhibition Günther Förg: Works from 1986 – 2007 presents painting, sculpture, and photography by the German artist, whose estate is now represented by the gallery, in a new institutional setting. Förg, who died on his birthday in 2013 at the age of 61, experimented with mimicry in his exploration of mid-20th century painting,...
Annie Leibovitz is standing by a photograph she took of Pont Neuf in Paris. It's a swirling panoramic shot of the famous bridge, taken when she was a student and would roam the city's streets camera in hand. One day, with a thrill, she realised she was standing where her idol, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once stood to take his own ghostly grey picture...
Jenny Holzer was 26 when she arrived in New York. The freshman art student at the Whitney Museum had grown up in Gallipolis, Ohio, a sleepy town in America's Midwest, and had spent her early twenties jumping from place to place in search of her artistic identity. She started out as an abstract expressionist. Then she tried to capture the human form...
There is palpable momentum behind the sculptural force that is Phyllida Barlow. Her latest operatic aria for the Royal Academy, fulfils every expectation of the acclaimed British sculptor: master of paradox, connoisseur of materiality and astute interrogator of space.
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