“I imagined ‘Mirror Flower, Water Moon‘ less as a sequential narrative, and more of a series of vignettes. A scavenger hunt where you get lost, lose track of time and stumble upon moments of discovery,” says Anisa Olufemi. Unexpectedly experimenting with form, material, texture and emotion, the curator provides insight into R. Treshawn Williamson’s work—screenprints, concrete sculptures and photographs now on view at the Chicago Artists Coalition—the Japanese proverb that inspired the title and the exhibition’s magic as an essential element of the human experience.
You’ve been working with R. Treshawn Williamson for years. What is the story you’re trying to tell and the themes you and the artist are touching on as you bring “Mirror Flower, Water Moon” to life?
The first time I curated R. Treshawn’s work was two years ago for “Dreamscapes: Imaginings of a Black Pastoral.” He was in the company of other Black American contemporary artists and world-builders, also looking to the land as a site of daydreams, discoveries, and boundless Black being. We worked closely on that exhibition as he created new work for it. “Untitled Iteration 1” (2021), along with its site-specific installation, came to serve as a grounding focal point within the space. Since then R. Treshawn and I have also collaborated as co-curators for “Kickin’ The Can,” a group exhibition that was inspired by playgrounds, pastimes and the sublime within Black American leisure.
With “Mirror Flower, Water Moon,” we are definitely still engaging our shared interest in “Dreamscapes” and the “Black Pastoral.” However, with this being my first time curating his work outside the context of a group exhibition, I felt it was important to hone in on R. Treshawn’s aesthetic interests rather than my own, and curate the exhibition in alignment with the distinctive ethos behind his studio practice. I wanted to help open up the world as he sees it—as a voyager, a painter, a grandson of the Great Migration, and a maker guided by slow looking and deep feeling. From its inception, I imagined “Mirror Flower, Water Moon” less as a sequential narrative and more of a series of vignettes. A scavenger hunt where you get lost, lose track of time and stumble upon moments of discovery.
Can you talk about the title and the ways it relates to the exhibition?
Mirror flower water moon, or “kyoka suigetsu,” is a Japanese proverb that R. Treshawn had come across in his research during the months leading up to his solo debut. Its meaning translates to, “something that can be seen but not touched, like a flower reflected in a mirror or the moon reflected on the water’s surface; something that is beautiful but unattainable beyond dreams, a mirage.” He shared it with me, and “Nightshades of Ladova 3/3” (2023) immediately came to mind. I knew those poetics perfectly encapsulated the dreamy and temporal effect of his latest work.
A mirage is any fleeting vision conjured by atmospheric conditions, sure to vanish as our gaze shifts. I think in many ways his monoprints conjure a similar viewing experience by drawing attention to one’s own vantage point. From a distance, the land textures appear with full clarity, inviting you to look closer and enjoy the finer details. Yet the closer you get, the more the image blurs until there is no landscape to be found, only black dots. To relocate that image, you must reorient your body. Like the water moon ruptured by ripples, the beauty of those works can only be fully admired at a still distance. As a whole, I think this exhibition’s magic lies in the curiosity it sparks and the patience it demands.
“Mirror Flower, Water Moon” exists at the intersections of drawing, screenprinting, photography and sculptural objects. How do different mediums inform each other within the exhibition as well as the artist’s trajectory?
We decided to present an intimate survey of R. Treshawn’s journey, so I wanted to be sure the exhibition reflected each of the fundamental aspects of his practice. All of the exhibited screenprints, concrete sculptures and photographs are connected through source material and site specificity. Much of the imagery in his screenprints and concrete sculptures are mined from the land textures he photographs. Shot in Maryland, these scenes also capture the white oak he harvests to produce charcoal printmaking inks, paints and drawing ephemera for the monoprints. The excrement of that process is then used to produce the erosion liquids that will slowly eat away at the concrete surfaces, ensuring the impermanence of the work and its eventual return to the earth. All of this occurs within a shared cycle of creation.
Moreover, R. Treshawn’s implementation of these interrelated mediums calls attention to areas of overlap between abstract gestures, referential rendering and critical inquiry. The photograph “Untitled (in this magic circle~),” (2022) reveals the sky in lush color and a delicate tonal range, textures offered by the brutalist concrete surfaces introduce tactility and topographic study, while the charcoal monoprints lend themselves to footnotes and subtle gestures that evidence the artist’s hand. In conversation, their formal contributions deploy the fullness of sensorium and embody R. Treshawn’s guiding questions: what do these materials carry, where do they come from, who are they important to? These are the concerns that will likely continue to inform his practice, and his relationship to art-historical traditions and craft-based practices.
What are you hoping the viewer will get out of the exhibition?
I’m not sure one can talk about R. Treshawn’s practice without ruminating on both natural beauty and aesthetics, and how integral they are within the human experience. We felt the exhibition’s sightlines should prioritize viewing pleasure, giving the eyes room to breathe and wander across each image and surface with ease. Even down to the selection of matte boards and frames, we considered ways to establish a warmth and slowness that invites viewers to build up their own atmosphere of thoughts, reflections and projected emotions around the works exhibited.
Our hope is that viewers find wonder, meaning, and moments of reflection in some of the many gestures offered by “Mirror Flower, Water Moon”—leaving the space more porous, and curious than they were when they arrived.
“Mirror Flower, Water Moon” is on view at the Chicago Artists Coalition, 2130 West Fulton, through June 8.