By Jameson Paige
The legacy of abstraction carries codes that have historically delimited whose work is the right brand of formalism. Unsurprisingly, straight white men are largely those lauded with pushing the limits and language of abstraction in art history. This is due to a complex cultural matrix weighted on multiple sides by the increasing marketization of art since the 1980s, staid museum collection practices which have only recently begun to fissure, and the limited scope of the art historical canon, which is structurally prone to establishing a margin and center. All of these phenomena fall under the volatile constellation of race, gender and sexual politics in American society, which plays out in the art world just as they do elsewhere. History tells us the concerns of abstraction are typically limited to this cultural schema, prioritizing formal inquiry while distancing the body from their frame and inviting only some folks to the party. Art historical colloquialisms further limit abstraction’s bounds—terms like “hard-edged,” “color field,” “geometric” and so on conjure painting, defining what media can and cannot be abstracted.
All of this is to say, abstraction has a lot of baggage that leaves little room for reconfiguring its boundaries. What to do with all the artists who do not fit neatly into the narrow monolith that abstraction has become, yet certainly use its language? The ambitious, multi-site exhibition “Out of Easy Reach” reminds us that abstraction’s capacity holds much more than the successes of its white male forebears. Expertly curated by Allison Glenn, newly appointed associate curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and staged throughout Chicago at the DePaul Art Museum, Gallery 400 and the Stony Island Arts Bank, the show brings together twenty-four female-identifying artists from the black and Latinx diasporas who push the bounds of abstraction. Just like the unforgiving hard edges of abstraction, identity’s presence in the field of art has long been characterized as rooted only in modes of figuration and representation. “Out of Easy Reach” contests this notion by presenting artists who investigate the politics of identity yet bypass imaging the body directly.
Though integral to its conception, race is just a starting point for “Out of Easy Reach.” The show presents a complex, reparative reading of abstraction that not only encapsulates our contemporary moment of artistic activity but also situates it within a historical constellation. Glenn links three generations of artists to build a lineage that traces tactical affinities across time. The venues are also thematically organized and gather artistic approaches in the following groupings: landscape, the body and the archive at DePaul; spatial politics, mapping and migration at Gallery 400; and, process, time and material culture at Stony Island Arts Bank. These thoughtful clusters create exciting juxtapositions, such as Howardena Pindell’s iconic video “Free, White and 21,” with Juliana Huxtable’s print “Untitled (Casual Power)” at Gallery 400. Locating power in avatars, their overlap demands complicated dissections of how the politics of race and gender move through nuanced, personal experiences. Pindell doubles herself as the archetypal ignorant young white girl, while Huxtable notes her penchant for playing as video-game power-femmes Chun-Li and Princess Peach. These works do not present binary conceptions of self and other. Instead, they attend to the body’s mediation by the systems we are forced to inhabit by mapping complex landscapes of desire, dismissal and self-determination.
At DePaul, Ayanah Moor’s “Good News” appropriates a 1980 issue of Ebony magazine with ads from women seeking men in cities across the United States. Printed in black-and-white on newsprint, Moor sneakily alters the dating summaries to focus on women seeking women. The prints are arranged in a neatly ordered, Modernist grid that is subtly subverted by the artist’s hand and the inherent messiness of relationships implied by the idiosyncratic details in each sheet. Names and genders are playfully altered to manifest a queer landscape of desire which so often lacks any grounding in mainstream media. Not far away is Maren Hassinger’s “Fight the Power,” which takes works on paper in a different direction. Contained above viewers’ heads, the sculpture consists of papers inscribed with “Fight the Power” that have been tightly wound into a hive-like structure. Their twisted orientation denies legibility of the text that has been written on them, yet gestural black stripes can be seen snaking around their contorted shape. While Moor’s prints unfold uninhibited across the walls, Hassinger’s ink drawings have been restrained and concealed—the power of text replaced by the potency of form.
Though expounding on what constitutes abstraction, paintings are not omitted from “Out of Easy Reach.” Large lyrical works by Caroline Kent chart sound and language through formal inquiry, while Brenna Youngblood explores the eeriness of memory, place and everyday materials. Still, one might look at many of the works in the exhibition and question their inclusion in a show about abstraction. To this point, curator Allison Glenn says, “this exhibition asks the viewer to move beyond what we might traditionally consider abstraction through the three different groupings that categorize the gestures of the artists included.” One of the central tenets of the show, Glenn says, “is the abstraction of the body through language, image, text and material.” This dislocation of the body allows us to read these works through abstraction’s lineage while holding on to the politics of identity operating in each. Although extremely accessible through thoughtful didactics, curatorial pairings, and an affordable catalog, the exhibition is built on a foundation of theoretical investigation. Glenn constellates Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s oft-cited notion of intersectionality, Edouard Glissant’s conceptions of rhizomatic identities and the demand for opacity, and Fred Moten’s blurring of the subject and object boundary through attention to black radical politics and artistic practice, among others. These theoretical perspectives emerge throughout the exhibition in conversations between works or in individual pieces.
The Stony Island Arts Bank venue generously lends its massive hall to just three artists, granting them room to stretch out. Shinique Smith’s sprawling “Forgiving Strands” reaches above and around the central gallery with braided, knotted and tied individual fabrics conjoined into one expansive web-like network and draped throughout the space. In the north gallery is “Bale Variant No. 0022,” a similar collection of fabrics condensed into a neatly formed totem which reads as anthropomorphic yet melancholic. In the south gallery are gems by Sheree Hovsepian and seminal sculptor Barbara Chase-Riboud. Chase-Riboud’s fantastic “Little Gold Flag” sits in the corner, tautly wrapped cords and plump bundles of silk cascading out of its punctured and polished bronze body. Hovsepian’s combined photogram print and nylon works perhaps best represent the complex bodily dimensions of this exhibition. Just as much as these pieces resound in abstract painting, recalling Ellsworth Kelly’s simplistic shapes, they also reference Senga Nengudi as the cut and stretched nylons hint at a bodily presence. Perpetually in tension, the nylons slowly curl from losing elasticity while holding the cutout prints in place. They are simultaneously time-based and materially bound.
Tension adequately describes “Out of Easy Reach” in all its intricacies. It rubs against tradition while pointing back to a lineage of political abstraction that is often forgotten. Pushing abstraction into expanded registers allows us to more complexly consider bodies, identities and objects. This essential exhibition points out the methods contemporary artists are using to shroud themselves in opacity without completely leaving the body behind. Yet it also shows that these attempts have been an ongoing effort, an endeavor that won’t stop here.
“Out of Easy Reach” shows through August 5 at Gallery 400 (400 South Peoria), DePaul Art Museum (935 West Fullerton), and the Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 South Stony Island).