Over a decade ago, artist Ebony G. Patterson adhered to standard modes of portraiture, depicting her subjects either in full-length form or from the shoulders up. Despite interrupting traditions—perching her figures against highly patterned grounds with flesh often decorated or even obscured by ornamentation—she depicted unabridged subjects, their limbs and heads intact. But over time, Patterson’s practice has increasingly refused straightforward figuration. The body as a whole has been lost and her subjects are richer for it.
Parallel to her aesthetic strategies of bodily dismemberment and obfuscation, her picture planes have become less contained and less uniform. In the four large-scale artworks, replete with intricate detail, which anchor her current installation, “she is land…she is the mourning…” at Monique Meloche Gallery, an assortment of faux flora and fauna appear ready to spring out of compositional planes, propelled by an unruly array of textured paper, embroidered appliqué and costume jewelry. While ill-fated insects and blades of grass creep toward the edges in her two works on paper, encased in oversized shadow boxes, a lone specimen has escaped. Heed the sly iguana roosting atop the picture frame, her neck craned upwards and triumphant. Patterson’s tapestries similarly threaten to unravel in the effortless drip of fringe, tassels and beads that pool onto the floor in lugubrious piles.
The beauty of Patterson’s recent work lies in her ability to depict personhoods as complex and expansive ecosystems. No single body can hold all of the life that she lays claim to. Lived experience bursts at the tattered seams of her tapestry and paper collage reliefs. Patterson’s bodies are free from the confines of direct representation—flesh and form are subsumed by vibrant textiles and explosive paper. There are striking moments where a fully formed figure threatens to appear: in a tapestry titled “…the wailing…guides us home…and there is a bellying on the land…,” an acephalous feminine body poses with arms stretched high and hands clasped to form a void. In this headless space, leaves sprout, a white floret blooms and a hummingbird begins to flutter by. This space could have held the trace of bodily trauma, but Patterson instead imbues the cavity with life, elation and new beginnings.
Patterson’s work often deals with tragic narratives around murder, violence and the curtailed lives of Black youth. Her work still operates within a visual idiom of mourning, recalling vigils and memorials, as manifested by a black funerary ribbon reading “Beloved,” as well as a wake of glittering vultures crowded at the floor. For all these icons of grief, her recent work is overwhelmingly a celebration of Black life and Black joy. Through signs of spring and signs of resistance, her flourishing compositions challenge what a portrait of a life can or should look like and offer a jubilant eulogy for all that the eponymous “she” is. (Alexandra Drexelius)
“she is land…she is the mourning…,” through June 12 at Monique Meloche Gallery, 451 North Paulina.