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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Torkwase Dyson: Closer (Bird and Lava)

Torkwase Dyson, <em>Close, Close, Closer (Bird and Lava)</em>, 2023. Wood, steel, acrylic, 105 x 145 x 47 inches. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.
Torkwase Dyson, Close, Close, Closer (Bird and Lava), 2023. Wood, steel, acrylic, 105 x 145 x 47 inches. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.

On View
‘T’ Space
Closer (Bird and Lava)
June 4–July 9, 2023
Rhinebeck, New York

Architect Steven Holl’s gallery at ‘T’ Space inspires exhibitors to focus on essentials. With the installation of her sculpture Close, Close, Closer (Bird and Lava) (2023), situated at the crossing of the ‘T’, Torkwase Dyson brings the entire building into focus, elucidating her concept of Black Compositional Thought—a bodily balance of space, scale, and power relations. There’s an echo of Vladimir Tatlin in the vertical thrust of the central work’s geometry and a Russian Constructivist rhetoric to its flat, geometric planes, but it avoids monumentality. For Dyson, sculpture interrogates architectural spaces, reinforcing subjective awareness of scale, resisting confinement, and encouraging playful exploration. Rather than impose a structure, her black-painted plywood panels and cold-pressed steel establish a dialogue of severe frontality with smoothly articulated inner connections. Steel supports extend from a square base on the floor to a circular arch, which accommodates in its hollow interior the ascending point of a triangle; their hollowness relieves the elements’ weight and invites viewers into the narrow passage they frame, in a progressive compression that culminates in thin slits on the closed ends of the forms, luminous windows that focus attention on the undefined spaces beyond. As the steel armatures respond to the gallery’s elevated mezzanine and its ascending staircase, the alternation of open and enclosed elements acknowledges the surrounding windows and skylights. Related metaphorically to birds and lava, the elements play with compression and release.

Torkwase Dyson, <em>Black Scale, a Revolution (Bird and Lava)</em>, 2022-2023. Wood, steel, cast glass, graphite, 54 x 26 x 10 inches. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.
Torkwase Dyson, Black Scale, a Revolution (Bird and Lava), 2022-2023. Wood, steel, cast glass, graphite, 54 x 26 x 10 inches. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.

Dyson, a thinker, refers to her work as “discursive”; it involves intellectual as well as artistic effort. In notes and interviews Dyson deploys lists and exhortations. Words, like “bird” and “lava” play an important role in poetic conjuring, instructing the artist as well as the viewer in the daily discipline of drawing, in joining Abstract Expressionist mark-making to Minimalist geometry. There’s an echo of Dorothea Rockburne in her combination of dark material surfaces and mathematical concepts, but Dyson cites the politically informed work of another romantic minimalist, Ronald Bladen, who began as a painter among poets in San Francisco; Dyson’s shapes and surfaces, like his, evolve into large-scale architectural compositions in which spatial construction takes on emancipatory momentum. On the overall trajectory of “Bird and Lava,” Dyson has commented, “I’ve found an overall form that speaks to the history of Black spatial liberation strategies.” At ‘T’ Space she combines three “hypershapes” forged from histories of Black liberation: the square, referencing the box in which Henry “Box” Brown had himself shipped north; the triangle, referencing the garret in which Harriet Jacobs hid from her master; and the circle, the curve of the ship’s hull in which Anthony Burns stowed away. If the overarching crest of the piece also suggests the rocking arm of an oil rig, it might be because the “Bird and Lava” series began in the Persian Gulf, with I Belong to the Distance, a 2019 installation at the Sharjah Biennial, which linked the slave trade and oil extraction to the surrounding sea.

Installation view: <em>Torkwase Dyson: Closer (Bird and Lava)</em>, ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck, New York, 2023. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.
Installation view: Torkwase Dyson: Closer (Bird and Lava), ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck, New York, 2023. © Susan Wides. Courtesy ‘T’ Space Rhinebeck.

Dyson extends her interaction with the architecture of ‘T’ Space on the mezzanine, where Black Scale, a Revolution (Bird and Lava) (2022–23) takes advantage of a window balcony to incorporate distance, her central concern. Anthropomorphic, like a sentinel, this open steel structure supports an elongated black crest, like an eyelid, that frames a small square opening at the center of its base, through which we glimpse a sliver of outdoor light. But filling most of it is a translucent blue, from a brick of blue glass concealed behind it. Elevated against the wooded landscape beyond, with the sense of a gaze, it shifts the focus of the building to spaces beyond, evoking phrases from the poem Dyson read at the opening—“a liquid horizon,” “a blue black indeterminacy”—that render the entire building sensate. Densely worked surfaces on neighboring pieces evoke “the Black expanse”: Force Multiplier #1 (Bird and Lava) (2023), a recessed circular plate, is animated by the delicate tension of a string stretched across its interior, while Umoja (Bird and Lava) (2022) consists of a drawing of a domed structure on a warped panel. Both structured and improvisatory, the restless torsion of the surface, like a tortured body, resists resolution, into either an object or an architectural diagram. Dyson seems willing to live with such open-endedness. Her poetry is informed by the transformative vision of Arthur Rimbaud and of Caribbean poets like Aimé Césaire. Her poem begins, “I paint with a hole in the middle of my hand. / A forever space. / Black and scalar / Except for the bit of blue light at its rim.”


Hearne Pardee

Hearne Pardee is an artist and writer based in New York and California, where he teaches at the University of California, Davis.


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