"Surface Traces" at Yashar Gallery, Brooklyn NY

Art Shape Mammoth
Jan 12, 2018 2:30PM

A review by Erin Gleason

Guess who’s coming to dinner, or rather tea III, Fired decals on vintage porcelain, cup 4” x 3” x 3.25”, saucer 5.75” x 9.5”, 2015

In many ways, the title of the exhibition “Surface Traces” is an ironic misnomer. The traces of cultural signification revealed by artists Oneika Russell, Sharon Norwood, and collaborators Jeanne Proust and Sandra Stephens, engage with a deeper level of meaning than what lies on the surface. In a clever twist, the artists – women who all have roots in Jamaica or Guadeloupe – compel the viewer to contemplate deeper meanings of selfhood and identity by taking a closer, and slower, look at the surface of things.

Upon entering the gallery one hears a punctuated breath projecting from speakers in the back of the gallery. Without yet seeing the visual part of the artwork the breath belongs to, the sharp exhales playfully haunt the gallery space, leaving their intangible impressions on the other artworks in the exhibition that adds an additional layer of personification to the works. Almost immediately after noticing these distinctive exhales, one takes in the exquisite aesthetic of the show – artworks that are mostly black and white with simmering gold or skin-color accents that catch beautifully in the light.

This playful engagement between imagination, personification, and object narratives is seen throughout, including in Russell’s piece “Study for Beach Life,” a beach-towel size artwork on felt complete with goggle-eyes and a golden sunset that depicts a scene of dancing figures and personified landscape in a ritualistic, dream-like setting. One of Russell’s strengths lies in using everyday materials such as felt, paper plates, spray paint, and pom-poms as an accessible surface to engage the viewer in new interpretations of old stories in idealized locations such as the idyllic Caribbean beach. Her engagement with play in both materials and figuration draws the viewer in beyond the surface level of idealized identity.

Using a different technique to reach a similar contemplative state, Norwood’s drawings of hair on both porcelain and paper create a kind of tromp l’oiel effect. Complimenting Russell’s narrative landscapes, Norwood examines what happens when a body that is inscribed within a racial language is abstracted to a line. Her landscapes of hair challenge notions of racial purity, sexual ‘place’, and beauty. The most striking pieces are the “Split Ends” series, black line drawings of hair as fired decals on vintage white porcelain plates with gold trim. They are beautifully grotesque, challenging traditional cultural definitions of appropriateness with body (hair as a surface for ingestion), feminine and racial identity, and craft/fine art.

The collaborative video installations of Proust and Stephens compel the viewer to dwell on the marks of surfaces, marks that reveal both the inner and outer life of the self. One can’t help but to slow down while watching these pieces, a beautiful overlay of photography and video, skin and environment, stillness and movement. While dwelling, one may eventually come to the conclusion that surfaces are merely porous envelopes with no definitive distinction between inside and outside, whether that surface is skin, a geological layer, condensation on glass, or the floor of the gallery itself. Like the name of the piece from which the haunting breaths originate, “Condensation and Displacement”, Proust and Stephen’s works remind us that behind every surface haunts another surface where our psychological identities are shaped.

“Surface Traces” is curated by Sandra Stephens and presented by Art Shape Mammoth and Tide Rising Art Projects. The exhibition is on view December 15 through December 31, 2017, at Yashar Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.

Art Shape Mammoth