Malin Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition of recent work by the Brooklyn-based artist Sylvia Maier. Featuring a series of large-scale figurative paintings, the works in About Sangomas and Soothsayers and Mischief depict the environs of the Flatbush and Prospect Park areas of Brooklyn where the artist lives and works - powerfully evoking the unique ethnic and cultural plurality of her community.
Many of the paintings feature friends and neighbors who sat for the artist, and the works are imbued with intense psychological complexity and occasional phantasmagorical elements. Maier combines a naturalistic approach to figuration with tones of magic realism. Working extensively with live models, Maier applies classical sensibilities regarding form, composition and the rendering of light to contemporary - often intensely personal - subjects. A recurring theme throughout the exhibition is the artist's engagement with the Haitian-American community of Flatbush and its diasporic culture.
A lifelong New Yorker, Maier was born to an Argentinian mother and a father of combined African American and Native American (Cherokee) heritage. After the age of 9, Maier's childhood was divided between two major cities on different continents, where she was exposed to a heterogenous mix of cultural and artistic influences. In New York, Maier was shaped by the cultural milieu of her mother - a classically-trained pianist. Summers and holidays were spent with her grandmother in Argentina, where she attended Catholic Mass with her grandmother daily. While Sylvia's grandmother played a major role in raising Sylvia, their relationship was complicated by Sylvia's bi-racial background. It was during summers in Buenos Aires as a child that Sylvia first developed an incipient sense of racial identity that she perceived as distinguishing her from those around her. The cultural dictates of the community (and a degree of language barrier) required Sylvia frequently to remain a silent observer. Hours spent quietly watching her grandmother and friends interact entailed the scrutiny of body positioning, expressions and non-verbal interactions. Daily visits to the cathedrals of Buenos Aires yielded prolonged exposure to the votive depictions of saints and religious figures rendered in paintings and glass windows and imbued with stillness, poise and gravity. Maier sees in these formative experiences the genesis of her life-long devotion to portraiture.
The core of paintings in About Sangomas and Soothsayers and Mischief encompass a series of individual portraits and tableaux depicting mostly intimates and acquaintances from Maier's community. Taken as a whole, the works in the exhibition encompass two layers of narrative. The portraits of individuals evince a bracing level of psychological engagement, with subjects seeming to interrogate the viewer's gaze directly. In these works, Maier utilizes portraiture as a means of attempting to the access the "inner landscape" of the subject. Maier often paints those whom she knows well, and her subjects tend to sit for prolonged periods - thereby allowing Maier's own relationships with her subjects to deeply inform her depictions of them. Maier describes her approach as serving as a "witness to the personhood" of her subject.
From a more macroscopic viewpoint, the renderings of individuals in these paintings fuse into a series of vignettes illustrating the rich racial, ethnic and cultural milieu of Maier's Flatbush neighborhood. Over generations, the character of the Flatbush area of Brooklyn has reflected the influence of successive waves of immigration. Today, the area is home to the largest concentration of Haitians outside of the Caribbean nation and is an important seat of the Haitian diaspora. Maier weaves a broader narrative tapestry from the individual locales depicted, such as the local tattoo shop and neighborhood bodega. Scenes from Prospect Park, where members of the local Haitian-American community gather for festivals and ceremonies, feature prominently, as do scenes from Brooklyn's annual Afropunk festival. Maier intends these images to flow together in a quasi-cinematic fashion - yielding an immersive portrait of a vibrant, culturally-syncretic community.
About Sangomas and Soothsayers and Mischief is anchored by two massive canvases: Mambo and The Beheading. While the term "Mambo" connotes a specific Afro-Carribean dance tradition, in Haitian Creole "Mambo" is also a proper noun referring to a high priestess of Voduo. Haitian Mambos are known for their leadership in elaborate ceremonies of healing, worship and mourning in which song and dance are often employed to summon loa, or spiritual deities, into the physical realm. In Maier's painting, she depicts herself engaged in a flurry of dance movements and also inhabiting different characters - echoing both the manner in which ritualistic dance serves as a means of mediating the physical and spiritual realms and the sacred role of Mambos in channeling loas or Voduo deities. The implications are intensely personal for the artist, who began to study Mambo in the wake of her mother's passing. During this period of mourning, Maier utilized her interest in Voduo, the "dance of the ancestors," as a way of engaging with her own grief and also contextualizing the memory of her mother. Maier describes her performance of the repetitive, ritualistic movements of Afro-Carribean dance during this time as an experience both cathartic and redemptive. Mambo's role as a conduit for story-telling and covert communication resonated deeply with the artist: "The tribal dances intrigued me," she notes, "particularly the ways in which the drumming served as a means for slaves to communicate and as an instrument of rebellion. The, once the oppressor caught on, the slaves began to use their feet to make beats and employ call-and-response."
In The Beheading, Maier fashions a contemporary depiction of the Haitian Bwa Kayiman ceremony fused with a fantastical re-imagination an iconic scene from Western art historical canon: the slaying of Holofernes by Judith. The Bwa Kayiman ("Alligator Forest") ceremony commemorates the nocturnal meeting on August 14, 1971, when the slave revolt that ultimately led to the Haitian Revolution was planned. Part of the founding mythology of Haiti, the Bwa Kayiman is remembered as having been inspired by the divinations of a Voduo priestess. During the war that followed, over 1/3 of the Haitian fighters were women - now remembered as Fanm Vayon or archetypal female warriors. In the second half of the painting, Maier depicts the figure of Judith in her own image - thus portraying herself as an inheritor of the Fanm Vanyan legacy. In fusing images of the Bwa Kayiman and Judith slaying Holofernes while giving herself the role of protagonist, Maier lays claim to the legacies of both cultural traditions while envisioning herself as a revolutionary spirit.
Press release courtesy Malin Gallery.