Convergent Evolutions: The Conscious Body of Work
New York CityPace Gallery
September 10 – October 23, 2021
At stake in the new Pace group exhibition Convergent Evolutions are the questions of who gets to be seen, when, and how. The exhibition of 17 artists who range across 60 years, multiple media, and assorted styles brings together poignant contemporary concerns about representation. The reason for a show around the way that artists use “various instruments within their practices to grant or deny viewers the agency of viewership while also surveying the body’s response to the visual plane” is partly due to an insistent surveillance culture that has made us keenly aware of who gets seen, how, why, and in what context. Rarely in history have we been so cognizant of issues around representation, socially or artistically. This is not a show about surveillance, but rather the way that artistic concerns about representation are expressed through various practices of abstraction, figuration, materiality, and emergent digital forms.
Caitlin Cherry’s Quaternion (2021) is the first work in the gallery and an anchor for ideas around identity, science, visuality, and form that appear across other works on view. Quaternion is a convex oil painting lifted off the floor by rounded aluminum stretcher bars, exhibiting the mathematical concept its title references (that is, the quotient of two direct lines in three-dimensional space). Those supports for a painting, just barely past human scale at 4.1 × 8.6 feet, also recall the bow of a ship, introducing a subtle but powerfully historic allusion that makes this a masterwork and stunning for such a young artist. The painting holds you. The eye flits from one hyper-mediated depiction of a woman to another, even referencing Getty images. The psychedelia of Cherry’s color and line work cites the hallucinogenic blur of much online engagement all in the context of the calculating usury borne by the Black woman.
This is in direct contrast to the more intimate depictions of Delphine Desane, whose celebration of Black women is deeply relational. La Source (2021) recalls a Venus rising from the sea, but here accompanied by two women on either side facing the sky, all three banded together by a richly textured and curving black wall. A sun rises, a radiating halo behind the central figure. The same appears behind the two figures in Love, Cherish, Rest and Live (2021). One leans into the other, protected by a partial embrace from the woman whose stare acts as another barrier. Our gaze is an invasion. Despite the labor required of being a protector, producing a space for repose brings to mind the work of The Nap Ministry, a Black womanist liberation movement emphasizing rest as a tactic to dismiss the demands of insistent capitalist production.
The spindly legs of the stool covered in scrap textiles by Sonia Gomes would seem to suggest a similar invitation to repose, except its fragile legs and the yarn winding around it are cautionary. Untitled (2004) is unsettling, a sudden disturbance in a quiet corner of the gallery. An interest in materiality is apparent in the works by RJ Messineo and Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola as well. Akinbola’s two works are both placed across from works by Richard Pousette-Dart, whose presence as the force behind the acclaimed New York School establishes the importance of abstraction for the show. Sam Gilliam is another major figure present with More Than Water (Assissi) Subtle Jungle (1997) whose work is a clear influence on Rachel Eulena Williams.
Such groupings coalesce the variety of works. Figuration is another key element, appearing in the paintings of Zhang Huan and Adrian Ghenie, but also Kiki Smith’s installation Untitled III (Upside-Down Body with Beads) (1993). Six paintings of ghostly figures, the surface etched, the marks and gestures produced by Chibụike Ụzọma are enclosed for the duration of the show with a glass pane for viewers to confront their own desire to gaze. It forces the spectacle nature of art, the way we consume it voraciously rather than patiently observing its impact upon us.
Anna Park’s use of stock photographs in the designs of her charcoal on paper drawings explores the strange aesthetic of generic imagery. They represent generalizable occasions, in nearly identifiable scenes, shadow figures layered in streaks almost like blurred photographs or the snapshot memories of a drug-induced haze. Lucas Samaras’s several photographs from the Sittings series (1980) and the cut-up assemblage of Panorama, 2/23/83 (1983) present early important work that foreshadows a visual culture we now associate with social media. Samaras started creating “Photo-Transformations” in the early 1970s by manipulating the wet dyes of Polaroids. The artist who shifted from painting and sculpture to this multimedia work is also the one offering NFTs of his archival prints.
In choosing Convergent Evolutions as the title of the exhibition, the curator Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle invokes a concept from biology about how a common environment will lead to similar adaptations in distantly related species. This invites us to reflect on the conditions of possibility that allow varied art practices and concerns to converge in our own moment as we see in this exhibition but also in myriad conversations about post-medium art. Examining the works in Convergent Evolutions leads to questions about the recent conditions of our world that compel these convergences, these encounters. I also find myself looking forward, wondering what this convergence may show us about a future whose current possibility remains precarious.