In cynical passing moments, I find myself theorizing a deliberate conspiracy among mid-twentieth-century artists and critics to eliminate materiality from art. The formalists privileged a painting’s structural aspects to the point of neglecting its physical iteration. Formalism’s immediate usurpers, conceptualism (too brainy) and minimalism (too alienating) reaffirmed its prejudice. Only in the late seventies did artists like Julian Schnabel begin to create works that affirm materiality, a project whose continuation can be witnessed today on the Bridgeport Art Center’s fourth floor.
“Decadence of Another Kind” assembles works of twelve Black artists who work in a wide variety of media. Underlying most of its entries is a stubborn materiality: each work aims not only to designate a referent but to assert its physical presence.
Kevin Okeith has contributed three sublimely beautiful canvases, all conveying some variety of a landscape scene. The hallucinatory orange sky in “Stillness Unknown” is reflected in a slowly receding river, both of which seem to melt into their surroundings. I see in its painstakingly gradual changes in tone the fading moments of a dream when the images of the psyche fade and reality begins to seep in. Yet the regularly spaced impasto brushstrokes that make up its surface evince a physical firmness that seems to repudiate the ephemerality of the scene. It’s hard to take your eyes off this war between content and form.
Also rising to the challenge is Gabrielle Torres, whose figurative images are meshed with found materials—take “Me & My Crew Part I,” where a lineup of seated Black boys and girls has been painted onto articles of clothing and plastic bags, among other things. Torres’ figures are drawn incompletely, limbs occasionally spiral into nothingness. The ultimate effect is to render the complex processes behind memory—its fragmentary nature and its privileging of smell and touch in addition to sight—in the limits of the picture plane. Rarely is a work of art so cognizant of the constraints of its medium yet so intent upon going beyond them.
Kevin Cole possesses the same belief in art’s ability to materialize one’s personal experiences. He uses his signature necktie motif in the (painting) “Blue Sky with Purple Dream,” intertwining belts of various cool colors into an inextricable knot. To him, the necktie is more than a formal tool. When Cole turned eighteen, his grandfather took him to a tree where African Americans attempting to vote were lynched by their neckties—an event that would imbue the sartorial item with connotations of Black oppression. As such, his sculptures featuring the necktie pattern (here, “Unsung for Bob” and “Silent Fears I”) feel abject and dangerous, replete with protrusions of sharp wood or aluminum. I also sense a conspicuous morphological similarity between Cole’s work here and Frank Stella’s happy-go-lucky output of the eighties. Cole seems to ask Stella, an ardent formalist: how can you play games of paint and gesso and pictorial structure when battles are being fought in the real world? Stella lacks a meaningful rejoinder.
In a perfect world, there’d be no limit to this review. It’d go on about Ato Ribeiro’s masterful wood-sculpted kente cloth, Basil Watson’s intimate figurative sculptures, and Jamele Wright, Sr.’s playful tactile assemblages. In the realm of two-dimensional work, abundant praise would be lavished upon Freddie Styles’ biomorphic abstraction and Shirley Woodson’s efflorescent scenes of the everyday. (Between these two painterly extremes are Antonio Carreno, Frank Schroder, Michael Scoffield and Eleanor Neal—all fantastic artists in their own right.) Yet life is short. Exhibit reviews are shorter. The only way to grasp the immense breadth of the formal, ideological and intellectual project this exhibit takes on is to see it for yourself.
“Decadence of Another Kind” is on view at Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 West 35th, through March 1.