Janet Taylor Pickett: The Middle Passage Series
In anticipation of her one-person show, Janet Taylor Pickett: The Matisse Series, opening in the Fall of 2016, at the Montclair Art Museum, Imlay Fine Art is revisiting a pivotal body of work the artist created earlier in her career.
The works in this exhibition, created between 1998 and 2007, poignantly demonstrate Taylor Pickett’s visual language of color, collage, symbol, and layering to illuminate ancestral memory. In this work the artist explores the legacy of slavery in America, along with what she terms, “the deep passages of identity” throughout a lifetime.
Employing the garment as her master template, Taylor Pickett imprints the story on and through the body, as the witness. Her brilliant colors and luscious paint application draw the viewer in to address a very charged subject matter. Imagery, color, materials, and their placement in her art is precise, and highly significant.
In both Cotton Dress and Melon Dress, the dress has been superimposed on a field of cotton and is filled with melons, cotton, and collage elements, including pejorative playing cards and fragments of racist ads. All these elements work in harmony to create powerful historical and personal narratives. In Cotton Dress a familiar label rests on the nape of the neck: Cotton the fabric of our lives, is an ironic play on words. Cotton was king, yet its production demanded backbreaking labor. The commerce of cotton formed the fabric of an unjust society through a system of dehumanizing one race in order to support the greed of another. The imagery of the cotton boll is particularly emotive for Taylor Pickett whose father picked cotton as a boy and vowed never to do it again once an adult. Her message is reiterated by the inclusion of the ace of spades that appears in the four corners of the painting referring to the opprobrious phrase “as black as the ace of spades.”
The bold, larger than life works from The Middle Passage Series recode major symbols of the iconography of racism in America, and speak to deeper memories that persists underneath the conditioned perceptions that have become our history.
Taylor Pickett’s vision is informed by a process of addressing the past in order to redress the present by creating a space for awareness. Racial consciousness is a fluid concept for the artist, expressed through color, and light, or lack thereof, presence and absence, and the deconstruction of codified structures of power.
In many of the works from the Middle Passage Series, Taylor Pickett uses a hand carved slave stamp. The stamp signifies not only the mark that was literally seared into the skin of enslaved people by slave masters, but also illustrates how slavery was inflicted upon her ancestors and encoded in the very structure of American democratic ideals. The slave stamps are without distinct identity, mirroring the aim of slavery: a process of obliterating culture, language, beliefs, tribal and familial connection, to break the spirit, in order to dehumanize the person.
The dress form in Hagar’s Dress, becomes the vessel of transport to the New World, bodies crammed one on top of the other inside the dress, while others are disposed of, outside in the deep blue Atlantic. Hagar was an Egyptian enslaved woman, given to Abraham by his wife Sarah to bear him a son. Hagar’s Dress is another instance of Taylor Pickett’s transforming the notion of “slave” from an identity to a circumstance. Hagar is both protector of her people as they cross the Atlantic, as well as progenitor; carrier of ancestral wisdom into the new world.
Taylor Pickett remarks that there is no single translation of the work -- “that is left to the viewer’s discernment.”