Phyllis Stephens: The Movement of Material
On ViewAlmine Rech
The Movement of Material
January 12–February 25, 2023
Phyllis Stephens (b. 1955) starts each new series in prayer. From there, the Atlanta-based artist delves into research, investigating whatever topic moves her. The Movement of Material, on view at Almine Rech New York from January 12 to February 25, 2023, is no exception. Stephens, a fifth-generation quiltmaker, prayed and subsequently investigated the art of dance to bring her ten-work exhibition to life. In each tapestry, Black men and women dance, either alone or in pairs, indoors or outdoors, always fully engaged with their surroundings and emotions.
The exhibition name came to Stephens after happening upon the quote “dance is the movement of material,” and the artist set out to showcase the emotional, spiritual experience of moving one’s body. She promptly made the connection between dancing and quilt-making—both activities are physical, founded in space and texture—and began to weave the two together. The artist stands firm in her belief that the phases of dance are similar to those of quilt-making: the first step is to gather the so-called movement of material, and then to develop movements into dance phases before finalizing the work’s structure. And so The Movement of Material came to be, reflecting the expressive nature of dance via character-driven storytelling—the translation of a feeling into movement.
Each work features unique characters that capture the art of dance in a bold new fashion. Feel it in my Soul (all works 2022), reminiscent of Malick Sidibé’s Qui danse le mieux (1965), shows a couple dancing on their quiet patio, dressed in vibrant print fabrics, eyes closed; hanging lights decorate the space as a lone butterfly moves toward the tree-lined backdrop. A self-proclaimed old soul, Stephens cites this tapestry as her favorite in the series: the subjects—a man and a woman—are individually in their elements, so to speak, and immersed in the freeing sensation that only dance can bring. Balancing Act shows another couple in an urban setting—New York, if the cityscape and hint of a yellow cab are any indication—again dressed in lively prints, this time interacting more directly with each other. The subjects touch, their faces close together, as they take to the streets and dance. The female subject bends over her male partner, who arches his spine and leans back. “Dancing and movement, like love, require a balancing act,” Stephens elaborates.
The two subjects in Work It make eye contact with the viewer, showcasing their confidence as they take to the city streets and dance after dark; a well-lit Chrysler Building stands erect behind them. This Leads to Love is more subdued and features two subjects who are just getting to know each other, dancing formally in the street, midday, in hopes that their connection might ultimately lead to love. This may well be foreshadowing The Rest of Forever, which depicts a man and a woman in wedding attire; the former twirls his bride happily, surrounded by stacks of books in a library, highlighting the anticipation of a future together. “There’s nothing like a slow dance,” Stephens muses, or “hearing your song and being able to dance to it.”
Alone or with a partner, Stephens reveals that dance is instinctual. This is apparent in Upward Bound, which shows a woman seemingly mid-flight as she dances near an aboveground train; the city has come alive behind her, and she too is dressed in lovely fabrics, her limbs moving in all directions. The idea, Stephens explains, is to believe in yourself—to know that you are moving in the right direction. In Party Planner, a woman carrying three balloons and a wrapped gift leaps as she crosses the street—reinforcing that even going about her daily life can be a form of dance.
Each scene is clear and compelling—each tapestry is a moment frozen in time. Whirlwind depicts a mother-son duo laughing together; the mother spins her child around a lush garden, the vegetation in full bloom as they move their bodies. The viewer can sense their laughter, the child’s glee as he begs his mother to continue. Bailaora and Limbo Leigh are more serious, the works’ thin, vertical formats and mirrored figures creating pendant portraits.
In each work, the viewer takes in Stephens’s attention to detail, paired with her love of dance and fabrics. Selecting the right material is essential. The artist shares that she has a reputation each time she visits Ghana—not for being an artist, but for buying the best hand-painted fabrics around, “because high quality, sustainable fabrics, I believe endure the test of time.” Because ultimately, dance, like quilting materials, has power and influence; it is beautiful and joyous, and rife with the ties that bind us. The Movement of Material is evidence of this.