East City Art Reviews—Breathe: Embracing the Uncertainties of the Human Condition

By Phil Hutinet on February 22, 2022

The Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery is currently exhibiting the works of seven artists who have responded to the pandemic and the impact the coronavirus has had on our lives. Titled Breathe: Embracing the Uncertainties of the Human Condition, the group exhibition was curated by DC-based artist Cheryl D. Edwards.  The selection of the space for this exhibition is by design. The Smith Center, where The Joan Hisaoka Gallery resides, provides free wellness programs to assist cancer patients and their families during diagnosis, treatment and recovery.  The gallery’s exhibitions seek to provide a “connection between creativity and healing” explains Lindsey Yancich, the gallery’s manager.

The seven exhibiting artists selected by Edwards include Jase Clark, Tim DeVenney, Nestor Gil, Mary Welch Higgins, Curlee Raven Holton, Faith Ringgold, Lisa K. Rosenstein and Michelle Talibah.  Edwards intentionally brought together a diverse group of artists working in a wide range of mediums to demonstrate that despite their differences in background, each artist has experienced the pandemic in similar ways and each touches on universal themes such as loss and isolation. Edward’s curatorial goal was  to reveal these common threads which bind us as human beings during this time of unprecedented upheaval.

Breathing is something that we take for granted and do not even have to think about.  It is part of the autonomic system which also controls our heartbeat and digestion.  Yet, breath is life itself—it’s the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die.  Air, like water, is mostly invisible, odorless and amorphous.  Water and air wreak havoc when uncontained and both can carry diseases like polio or COVID-19.  Drinking water and breathing air is what we all have in common, not only as human beings, but with other living beings as well.   COVID-19 has made breathing potentially deadly since this virus is transmissible by air and if contracted, in some cases, can suffocate and kill.

While several artists have expounded on the exhibition’s theme of breathing, others focused on the theme of uncertainty. Overall, most works offer a glimmer of hope as humanity reckons with the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, recognizing opportunities for renewal and a path to a better future.

Faith Ringold, Henry Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True. Serigraph.

The first works seen upon entering the gallery are Faith Ringgold’s prints.  In a way, they offer the viewer a preamble to the exhibition by telling two different stories which call attention to the importance of breathing in our daily lives.  In Henry Tanner: His Boyhood Dream, Ringgold offers a more figurative notion of breathing.  She postulates that artists breathe life into their art.  In this print, she recounts how the young Henry Ossawa Tanner began his artistic journey. Ringgold depicts the moment he encountered a landscape painter in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and decided that he too would become a painter. Tanner would eventually become one the first Black painters recognized for his talents both in the US and in Europe.

Faith Ringgold, Wynton’s Tune. Serigraph.

The second print, titled Wynton’sTune, illustrates the importance of breathing more obviously to the casual viewer than Henry Tanner: His Boyhood Dream. Here, with the exception of the bassist, pianist and drummer, the majority of the men in the work consist of musicians playing wind instruments to a racially diverse crowd led by Wynton Marsalis, a contemporary musician from New Orleans, who stands out in his red jacket.  In this print, breathing is not only essential to creating music but essential for gathering, like attending concerts or other live performances. Like breathing itself, we took this for granted until the pandemic forced us to rethink how we connect with others.

Curlee Raven Holton and Jase Clark, two other artists in this exhibit, worked together with Faith Ringgold to pull her prints at Holton’s studio in Easton, PA.  Of all the works in the exhibition, Holton’s paintings capture the themes of breathing and uncertainty most explicitly.  While a majority of the work in the exhibition was created by the seven artists in isolation between 2020 and 2021, Edwards included two of Holton’s pen and ink works which he drew in 2019, before the pandemic. Classically trained, Holton’s mastery of pen and ink is evident in the two drawings Memories of Two Moons and Release.  Both relate to the other invisible and essential element—water—but peripherally touch on breathing and uncertainty. Though both drawings portray the destruction, disruption and misery wrought by deluge, the parallel between flooding and disease can be drawn so that the works are not completely out-of-context with Edward’s curatorial intent.

Curlee Raven Holton, New Adam & Eve. Acrylic on board.

In contrast, Holton’s two paintings created while in quarantine unmistakably relate to breathing and uncertainty.  New Adam & Eve and Mors Negra were previously exhibited in the summer of 2021 at Michelle Talibah’s New Door Creative gallery in Baltimore as part of a larger exhibition that addressed destruction and renewal.  In New Adam & Eve, an unclothed, interracial couple embraces without the ability to kiss as they are forced to cover their faces as a required precautionary measure against COVID-19.  The couple wears what looks like gas masks or the kind of mask worn to protect the user from dangerous chemicals. While seemingly overkill and inaccurately depicting the less obtrusive N95 or surgical mask we have all had to wear, that is entirely the point. Holton’s dramatic conveyance of mandated mask wearing alludes to our inability to find intimacy as friends, as relatives and as lovers, no matter who we are or what we look like. The rising moon in the painting’s background bears witness to the lovers’ attempt find romance despite their predicament and offers hope for a return to the way things were many moons ago.

Curlee Raven Holton, Mors Negra, Acrylic on board.

Unlike New Adam and Eve’s universal message, Mors Negra specifically addresses the disproportionate suffering which Black populations endured in the US throughout the pandemic both as a result of economic differences and subsequent higher mortality rates. The hooded masked figure in Mors Negra gazes at the viewer with a combination of fear, dread and anger. The blue hoodie worn by the subject is covered in white blotches which, upon closer inspection, reveal patterns that depict the coronavirus.  While works in the exhibition intentionally present universal themes related to breathing and uncertainty during the pandemic, this painting rightfully offers an important caveat.

In the last five years, Lisa K. Rosenstein has begun to break away from the smaller and medium work for which she was known. That work generally consisted of strings, linear objects or paper neatly arranged on a canvas.  The relief elements were always heavily covered with a white coating of paint to unify the composition.   However, Rosenstein’s more recent works, which I believe are a result of this experimentation, have become much bolder, demonstrating greater confidence in her ability as she has moved away from the constraints of the canvas.  In essence, she is now creating larger sculptural work.

Lisa K. Rosenstein, PORTAL. Reeds, plastic, raw silk, beeswax.

For this exhibition, Edwards selected two of these newer works titled Portal and Reconstruction. Both are over six feet in height.  The delicate, lace-like quality of the sculptures belies the extraordinarily banal and much maligned nature of her chosen medium—discarded plastic.  She transforms the environmentally problematic substance into work that is both aesthetically pleasing and visually soothing.  She has even figured out how to subtly change the sculptures’ hues by weaving in different colored plastics, like mid-tones in a painting.

More apparently, within the themes of the exhibition, her work underscores life’s fragility. What is less obvious, like the true nature of the medium she uses, is Rosenstein’s message of renewal and hope through material transcendence.

Jase Clark, Stills. Serigraph.

A master printmaker, Jase Clark has three works in Breathe.  Stills combines a serigraph print with an acrylic painting into a single work.  The brightly painted acrylic portion of the work, made up of geometric shapes in flat primary colors on the left third of the rectangular picture plane competes with the complex layers of cool colored, botanical and spherical forms which make up the right two thirds of the work.  I would not have fully grasped Clark’s artistic intention with Stills had I not seen the accompanying video titled UnseenUnseen animates many of the botanical elements and shapes found in the serigraph portion of Stills and introduces the silhouette of a human figure which occasionally gets x-rayed.  Naturally, Clark is alluding to that which is unseen in the human body, revealed only by technology such as x-rays, and by extension other forms of imaging technology used to diagnose and treat illness.

Jase Clark, Pineal Cone. Serigraph.

The third and final work titled Pineal Cone cleverly plays with both words found in the title. The background of the serigraph is composed of an image of hundreds of magnified pineal cones which are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. The pineal gland is an endocrine gland in the brain which produces melatonin and regulates sleeping patterns. Using a black stencil overlay, Clark printed the outline of a pinecone from which the pineal cones beneath are visible. The pinecone outline is attached to a stem from which branches diverge. However, the stem can also be interpreted as a spinal cord and its branches, the nervous system, all of which connect to the pineal gland.

Mary Welch Higgins, I Remember You as You Were. Color pencil and graphite on black fabriano paper.

Mary Welch Higgins has three colored pencil and graphic drawings which she drew on black paper and framed with deep black wood.  They are intended to be somber and dark; the artist is in mourning.  Many of us have lost someone we knew during this pandemic either to COVID-19 or for some other reason. Our collective isolation has made those losses more difficult and painful. Last year, Higgins’ mother, who was also a prolific artist, passed away after a prolonged illness.  While her work is deeply personal, all of us can relate to Higgins’ loss by way of her drawings.  Out of the three works, the drawing I Remember You as You Were, which takes its title from a poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda[1], illustrates this point most eloquently. The drawing arouses something profoundly spiritual and universally human—the desire to make sense of a loved one’s passing.  In his poem, Neruda evokes the human soul and fire in all four of the poem’s stanzas in describing the passing of a loved one.  Visually, Higgins interprets this recurring theme in the poem as white shapes—spirits —seemingly released from multiple, simultaneous funeral pyres, move ever upwards and away from the earthly realm.  The person she once knew and has now lost no longer appears as she did. Following Neruda’s wisdom, Higgins chooses to remember her mother as she was and encourages us to do the same for the ones we’ve loved and lost.

 

Nestor Gil, Princesa, Marinero (columna sin fin), (Princess, Sailor (never ending column). Butterflies, inner tube, fishing hook, thread.

Nestor Gil’s wide range of artistic abilities runs the gambit from works he creates using tobacco-staining on paper, to a video installation which Edwards deftly curated in the form of a miniature projection (the first time I have seen this done), a sculpture made up of butterflies and even a performance piece.  The assortment of Gil’s mediums is almost a miniature exhibition in itself.  An entire essay could easily be written about the performance piece titled El Panadero (llega al capitolio en busca de su madre para llevarle el pan) which took place on Saturday December 11, 2021.[2] For the performance, the artist walked from the Washington Monument to the gallery which addressed breathing and in particular “how breathing brings all things to life” according to the artist[3].

 

Of all of Gil’s works, the sculpture made up of butterflies caught my attention as it addressed an idea not covered by other works in the exhibition concerning disease and survival. Titled Princesa, Marinero (columna sin fin), (Princess, Sailor (never ending column), dozens of Common Jay butterflies (Graphium doson) are threaded together. Here, Gil examines how invasive species adapt to new environments in which they thrive, often displacing and replacing indigenous species.  The Common Jay butterfly was introduced to North America from Southeast Asia where they are native.  Like other unwanted invasive species that thrive in new environments, disease follows the same pattern by invading, disrupting and adapting at the expense of its host.  COVID-19 systematically adapts to its environment as evidenced by new variants that cause new surges and evade vaccine efficacy. The sculpture is artistically compelling, but its visual impact is diminished by the inner tube placed at its base.

Tim DeVenney, Near-at-Hand #16. Antique, handmade wood vice clamps and stained-glass rondels.

Tim DeVenney’s smaller scale sculptures combine antique handmade tools and circular handblown colored glass called rondels. Edwards selected three of DeVenney’s works, all of which are titled Near-at-Hand and are numbered as part of a larger series.  What I find most interesting about the works is their uniformity. DeVenney dissembles the tools and restructures them. In the process, he inserts the fragile rondels whose delicate, translucent colors add the aesthetic component. In effect, he transforms the once useful tools into art objects. Yet somehow, in so doing, he makes them appear as though they were always intended to look that way. Edwards included Near-at-Hand sculptures in this exhibition because she believes they represent the paradox between our body’s strength, embodied by the metal and wood of the tools, and its fragility, embodied by the handblown glass[4].

Michelle Talibah, Night Angel. Mixed media prints.

Michelle Talibah has two works in the exhibition. The first, Night Angel is a mixed media print composed of abstract shapes that appear to be in motion.  Upon closer inspection, some the shapes look like wings—the wings of angels—flapping in the night sky. Talibah explains Night Angel as follows: “[…] the recall of angels as Fire Beings emerged to create a landscape within which a prominent anthropomorphic presence confronts the myriad forces of darkness.”[5]  Night Angel tells a story thousands of years old—the story of good versus evil.  A greater invisible battle is taking place during the pandemic unseen by us mortals between the angels and the forces of darkness, pitting humanity—made in the image of God—and the disease—forged in the depths of hell.

Michelle Talibah, Artist and Trees. Mixed media prints.

The second work by Talibah, addresses the loss of a dear friend.  Artist and Trees is a tribute to David Driskell who died of COVID-19 in April 2020 at the very onset of the pandemic.  An indefatigable artist, curator and scholar, Driskell was among the first in the field of Art History to recognize and champion African-American art as its own genre. On a personal level, he was known and loved by many of the artists in this exhibition.  The subject matter of the mixed media print—the solitary tree which takes up most of the picture plane—alludes to Driskell’s love of trees which he often used as subject matter in his work.

While the works in this exhibition provide a real time examination of artists’ reaction to the pandemic, the theme is by no means unique. Exhibitions of this nature have been or are being mounted worldwide.  For many artists, including the artists in this exhibition, quarantining provided a forced period of isolation during which they had the opportunity to reflect and create thoughtful, meaningful work.  What sets this exhibition apart from others like it is the connectedness and diversity of this group of artists whom Edwards brought together.  In as much as the curator sought to highlight our shared sense of humanity in the face of the devastation caused by the pandemic, the exhibition succeeds. I would love to see a reunion of these artists in the near future exhibiting collaborative work on a similar theme.

The exhibition is located at the Joan Hisoaka Healing Art gallery 1632 U Street NW, Washington DC, 20009.  Breathe is on view through Friday, February 25 and gallery hours are by appointment.  Contact the gallery by phone by dialing 202.483.8600 or via email at gallery@smithcenter.org


[1] From the exhibition catalog. Go to https://allpoetry.com/I-Remember-You-As-You-Were to read the poem in its entirety.

[2] “The baker arrives at the Capitol looking for his mother to bring her some bread”.

[3] Quote from a press release about the performance issued by the curator.

[4] From a conversation with the curator Cheryl D. Edwards.

[5] From the exhibition catalog.


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