Mining the Archive @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 18 works by 9 artists, variously framed and matted and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller project room. The show was co-curated with Racquel Chevremont.

The following artists have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, processes, dates, and edition sizes as background:

  • Sadie Barnette: 1 archival pigment print and Swarovski crystals, 2018, sized roughly 31×41 inches, in an edition of 5
  • Alanna Fields: 2 archival pigment print and encaustic, 2021, sized roughly 40×30, 40×50 inches, in editions of 2
  • Todd Gray: 2 sets of three archival pigment prints with UV laminate in artist’s frames, 2021, sized roughly 56×40, 61×51 inches, each unique
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 1 Ghanaian cloth, dye sublimation prints, and ephemera, 2019, sized roughly 62×75 inches, unique
  • Leslie Hewitt: 2 gelatin silver prints, 2012-2017, sized roughly 38×33 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 5; 1 chromogenic print, 2020, sized roughly 31×31 inches, in an edition of 3
  • Dionne Lee: 1 single channel video, 2016, 7 minutes, 19 seconds, in an edition of 5; 3 collages of gelatin silver prints, cut paper, transparency, with graphite, 2020, sized roughly 15×11, 17×15, 17×20 inches, each unique
  • Wardell Milan: 1 ink, colored, pencil, and cut-and-pasted paper on paper, 2016, sized roughly 21×17 inches, unique; 1 cut-and-pasted printed paper, charcoal, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 2019, sized roughly 17×14 inches, unique
  • Deborah Roberts: 1 mixed media on paper, 2021, sized roughly 48×33 inches, unique
  • Mickalene Thomas: 1 color photograph, mixed media paper, acrylic paint, rhinestones, Swarovski crystal fabric, fiberglass mesh, 2021, sized roughly 65×52 inches, unique; 1 color photograph, mixed media paper, rhinestones, and acrylic paint on hot press paper, 2021, sized roughly 64×52 inches, unique

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the warm weather of the summer months settles in more fully and the art world starts its seasonal slow down, the summer group shows emerge from hibernation to make their annual appearance. Very rarely do such shows merit much critical attention. Most often, they are one-of-each surveys of new work from the gallery stable, or easy going thematic constructs that mix gallery artists with those from the outside.

But unlike the vast majority of these filler shows, Mining the Archive actually digs into a thoughtful observation – an unusual number of contemporary African American artists and photographers are experimenting with collage techniques, often incorporating different kinds of archival materials. In some cases, these exercises are inwardly focused, intent on unpacking layers of identity and personal history; in others, the efforts are more outwardly oriented, interested in deconstructing and recombining the cultural and social realities found in the images of the recent past. What connects the diverse set of works in this particular group show is a willingness to explore (and embrace) physicality in photographic artmaking. The recent Off the Record show at the Guggenheim (reviewed here) came at this same idea from a slightly different angle, centering on the active reinterpretation of historical materials and their varied “truths”, so there is clearly something in the air.

Like the anchor tenants in a shopping mall, a summer group show functions best when it has a few powerhouse works to hold the story together, and Mining the Archive has several. Two standout works by Mickalene Thomas use female nudes featured in the monthly calendars of Jet magazine as their starting point, breaking the bodies up into visual shards and remixing them with layers of textures and colors, including semi-transparent mesh, rhinestones, and pixelization. The works reconsider nuances of Black beauty, while simultaneously offering an impressive display of compositional verve and sophistication. Lyle Ashton Harris contributes the other foundation work. Anansi begins with Harris’s evocative studio wall assemblage of gathered imagery (Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Nefertiti, the Virgin Mary, a Polaroid list of boyfriends, graphic letter forms, and other carefully arranged items), doubles it into an overlapped and realigned pair of images in tinted metallic blue, and then surrounds it with the patterns of Ghanaian funeral cloth. It’s a personal dive into nested histories, influences, and ancestral connections, wrapped into a smartly constructed and layered form.

As an artistic strategy, layering takes several forms in this show. Leslie Hewitt builds up telescoped layers of flooring, books, and archival images in her studio, and then creates final photographs that collapse the layers from the top down, creating interactions and juxtapositions of time, history, and personal resonance. Todd Gray’s works physically layer framed prints on top of one another on the wall, mixing images of formal gardens, carved plinths, and cosmic starscapes into uneasy meditations on the legacies of European colonialism. And Alanna Fields sources images of Black queer life from the 1980s from the Internet and then builds them into grids and repetitions, which she then veils with layers of encaustic, amplifying the sense of being both seen and unseen.

More traditional cut-and-paste collage techniques are employed by many of the other artists included in Mining the Archive. While the Black body has frequently been the primary location of interest for these artists, Dionne Lee turns her attention to the land. Her video “Drafts” finds her hands placing magazine images in stacked piles, which she then rips, tears, folds, and reorders, creating a constantly shifting reinterpretation of vistas, mountains, and landscapes, while her physical collages use rough cuts and layered reversals to explore the marks and textures of rope typing and fire starting. Deborah Roberts and Wardell Milan return to the body, assembling multi-faceted faces and bodies from fragmentary parts. And Sadie Barnette embellishes her own photograph with sparkly pink rhinestones, transforming her father’s copy of Malcolm X Speaks with an overtly feminine touch.

What I like best about this show is not so much that it assembles an engaging group of artistic evidence of a contemporary collage trend, which it does. Mining the Archive leaves the viewer with the much more interesting and complex question of why this is happening. Why are Black artists deciding to mine archives and reinterpret materials to tell their stories? Why do these artists feel it is necessary (or cathartic perhaps) to go back to older presentations of Black life and rethink or reimagine them? And where do these inspired reinterpretations leave us, in terms of our understanding of both past and present? This new version of Black photographic collage consistently feels like an exercise in wrestling with embedded traumas (of many kinds), and perhaps it is the process-centrism and physical touch of collage that are central to why it is being actively rediscovered.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by artist, with several already sold:

  • Sadie Barnette: $11000
  • Alanna Fields: $11000, $17200
  • Todd Gray: sold, $40000
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: $120000
  • Leslie Hewitt: $10000 (black-and-white), $15000 (color)
  • Dionne Lee: $6700 (collages), $8000 (video)
  • Wardell Milan: sold, $16000
  • Deborah Roberts: sold
  • Mickalene Thomas: sold, sold

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Read more about: Alanna Fields, Deborah Roberts, Dionne Lee, Leslie Hewitt, Lyle Ashton Harris, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Todd Gray, Wardell Milan, Yancey Richardson Gallery

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