Atlanta

Howardena Pindell at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s current exhibition of Howardena Pindell’s work marks an important moment in the journey of an artist and an institution. The site of Pindell’s first major exhibition in 1972, the Spelman Museum in those years was not the sprawling 4,500-square-foot institution that it is now, and Pindell had not been established as the great artist, gallery director, curator, educator, and intellectual she is now. The return is mighty, and the Spelman Museum’s galleries open themselves wide to the glittering canvases of paint, paper, and collected pieces that have become closely associated with Pindell’s aesthetic. However, this exhibition reads more complexly than as a succession of highlights and instead reveals the rich landscape of Pindell’s interventions across a diverse range of materials, media, and conceptual concerns. Curated by Ms. Anne Collins Smith and Dr. Andrea Brownlee, Director of the Spelman Museum, Howardena Pindell empowers the viewer to engage with the resonant dynamics of Pindell’s processes and the richness of her thought.[1]

Howardena Pindell. Carnival at Ostende, 1977; mixed media on canvas; 93 ½ x 117 ¼ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Howardena Pindell. Carnival at Ostende, 1977; mixed media on canvas; 93 ½ x 117 ¼ in. Courtesy of the Artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The modest scale of Spelman’s galleries allows for close viewing of Pindell’s canvases—a complete luxury when looking at early paintings such as Carnival at Ostende (1977), where paint and paper cut-out seem to engage in a vital but smooth dance across the uneven layers of surface and tactile difference. Pindell has spoken often of her powerful encounters with the work of Eva Hesse and Rae Morton while she was completing these early works, and one cannot help but make connections between each artist’s own engagement with the fragilities and strengths inherent in their chosen materials.[2] Small gestures seen in the careful assemblage of tiny dots across long horizontal bands subvert the language of minimalism by opening up the vocabulary to something more specific, worked, shaped.

Howardena Pindell. Film Still from Free, White, and 21, 1980; color video with sound. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Howardena Pindell. Film Still from Free, White, and 21, 1980; color video with sound. Courtesy of the Artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Examining the attention and handling brought to bear on these surfaces, one is surprised to remember that much of the discourse surrounding Pindell’s work and practice revolves around her “violent” tactics and her harnessing of “black rage.” This “rage” is powerfully present, and punctures the exhibition like a blast in the side—most specifically Pindell’s powerful video work from 1980, Free, White, and 21, in which the artist recounts for the camera racism she has experienced throughout her life (from childhood to working professional), and then switches into the guise of a blonde white woman who reprimands Pindell for her paranoia and ungratefulness. Assured in vocal tone and gaze, Pindell confronts her (white) audience, pressing them into a space of discomfort that leaves little room for anyone to overlook their complicity in the ways in which society manages the behaviors of black minorities. Whether through paint or video, Pindell squeezes the spatial and temporal attributes of aesthetic experience, and finds new ways to disorganize, or at times even suffocate, the space of aesthetic contemplation.

Howardena Pindell. Untitled, 1975; mixed media on board; 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

While there is no doubt that Pindell’s practice embodies the traumatic collective and personal histories of African American life—the rough surfaces and undulating textures seem to animate the rhythms of rupture and chaos that have long structured black experience—one cannot ignore the range of other possibilities that the rich surfaces of these early works express so profoundly. Why must critics continually pin Pindell’s work to expressions of anger and grotesqueness—why is there no space for celebration or joy?[3] Looking at Pindell’s careful handiwork and the breathtaking consistencies drawn up out of the foundations of an untitled work from 1975, it seems right to align these pictures with the utopian concerns of craft traditions, processes built on mending fragments, embroidering flourishes, and suturing gaps with care that only human touch can provide. Rage not only consists of explosive reaction, but also gathers within itself a strength to overcome systems that privilege white fear over black sorrow. Think back to Lauryn Hill’s powerful anthem of black rage: “Black rage is founded on blatant denial/Squeezed economics, subsistent survival/Deafening silence and social control/Black rage is founded on wounds of the soul.” [4] Viewing Pindell’s beautiful accumulations of crinkled confetti—canvases that seem to breathe and sigh according to your proximity to them—it is clear that these works mark more than an aesthetic exercise. They are homages to a wounded soul—pictures caught in tension between celebration and chaos, spatial coverings for a community living in permanent conflict with the world around it.

Howardena Pindell is on view at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta through December 5, 2015.

[1] The writing of this piece is in many ways indebted to my conversation with the director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Dr. Andrea Brownlee. I thank her for her considerate responses to all my questions and comments about Pindell’s work and the discourse that surrounds her practice.

[2] See Pindell’s interview with Lynn Hershman from May 9, 2006, for Women Art Revolution!. The transcript of this interview can be accessed here: https://lib.stanford.edu/women-art-revolution/transcript-interview-howardena-pindell

[3] See John Yau’s review, “The Beauty of Howardena Pindell’s Rage,” for Hyperallergenic, published May 11, 2015: http://hyperallergic.com/125403/the-beauty-of-howardena-pindells-rage.

[4] Lauryn Hill’s lyrics were culled from the powerful article by the writer and philosopher Myisha Cherry’s entitled “Holla If You Hear Me: Baltimore, Riots, and Black Rage,” for the Huffington Post, published May 1, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/myisha-cherry/baltimore-riots-and-black-rage_b_7160916.html

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