On ViewLehmann Maupin
October 1 – November 7, 2020
Family life during the pandemic plays out as an endless stretch of days unmarked by the rituals of goodbye kisses and walks to school. With no yellow bus in sight, the unremitting routines—sometimes weighted with grief, always tinged with worry—can be draining. And yet this time together is also something to be savored. Parenthood is essentially a temporary arrangement, but one that can provide an abundance of joy even in the most ordinary moments. Billie Zangewa refines this muddle of emotion in eight fabric collages that make up her current exhibition, Wings of Change, at Lehmann Maupin gallery. Working with raw silk, Zangewa cuts and stitches colorful scraps of fabric onto larger panels, carefully arranging her small shapes into detailed portraits and thoughtful representations of everyday life that document the months spent at home with her young son during global lockdown.
In Heart of the Home (2020), Zangewa’s son sits at a table in a mauve-colored kitchen, pencils, an abacus, and an eraser laid out in front of him. An iPad, his only link to school, rests on the table next to his supplies. Zangewa stands over him, pointing to his notebook. Gazing together at the blank page, their faces are serene, yet her standing posture and his pencil, poised and ready to write, speak to the transience of the moment. On the counter behind them, pink flowers bloom on a potted plant, and a blue Dutch oven sits on the stove, waiting to be put away or put to use. The intimacy of the scene is reminiscent of Vermeer’s interiors: Zangewa’s precise shaping of patches and her nuanced palette of raw silk, a luminous fabric, create a painterly sense of light playing over her subjects. Up close, her hand-stitching reveals the care with which each piece is sewn. Here is a mother, making a life for herself and her child; here is an artist, making work that encapsulates her devotion.
In Everyday Miracle (2020), a full-body portrait, the artist’s son eyes the viewer with a look of curiosity. Knowing Zangewa works from photographs, I am charmed by his expression and the thought that in an earlier iteration of the process, he was not meeting my gaze, but his mother’s. Set against a shimmering field of gold, he stands like a Byzantine icon, arms outstretched in a cruciform pose. However, his blue and white sweatshirt, camo pants, and sneakers anchor him in the present, allowing him the luxury of an ordinary life, something the artist—and the uncertainty of this time—remind us to revere.
There is, of course, a flipside to childcare, as seen in Faithfully (2020): a narrow band of orange silk holds an image of the artist clad in an oversized top and skinny jeans. A basket lies at her feet as she reaches into something outside of the collage’s boundaries. I’m guessing it’s a clothes dryer. Laundry is one of the most Sisyphean tasks that come with motherhood, but the title of the piece hints at a feeling of the sacred that can be found in ordinary tasks done for those we love.
In all but one of her pieces, Zangewa cuts away the bottom border, creating shapes in the negative space. Mostly this reads as an interesting graphic choice, maybe reminding the viewer that these are collages, each with their own distinct materiality. An Angel at My Bedside (2020) shows the artist curled up in bed, sleeping with her hands clasped together beneath her cheek. A fragment of a framed photograph is partially seen at the periphery of the piece, but the subject cannot be clearly identified. A clue may be found along the top-right edge of the work, where the cutout silhouette of a man in a brimmed hat floats over the bed. Is this a deceased loved one, succumbed to the virus or otherwise? The image is unclear, but this solitary woman speaks to the loneliness of a period in which close contact with friends and family is—of necessity—impossible.
A Fresh Start (2020) places the artist in the recessed shower stall of a bathroom, a triangle of spray streaming over her body in a beautifully rendered sequence of watery blue and grey swatches. Sink, shelf, a corner of a toilet—all are lit by an overhead fixture while the artist stands in shadow, hands raised to cover her face, in a moment of surrender. A new day begins, and while its contours may follow a too-familiar course, Zangewa reminds us that something as simple as a morning shower, a good cry, and a few minutes to oneself can make all the difference in how it unfolds.