Yesterday I ventured out to Chelsea to see Howardena Pindell's (1943-) installation at the G.R. N'Namdi Gallery (526 West 26th Street #316). (Pindell, who teaches at SUNY-Stony Brook, delivered a gallery talk last Wednesday, and had I known about it, I would certainly have attended.)
I've followed Pindell's work for years, and have always been intrigued by her negotiation between formal abstraction and conceptualism on the one hand, perhaps best represented by her colorful hole-punch pieces of the 1970s, and outright sociopolitical polemic on the other, which she distilled in her 1980 video short "Free, White and 21." The N'Namdi gallery show, "In My Lifetime," which is up until August 31, featured more of the latter works, culled from the last 35 years of her oeuvre. The majority of the pieces were wall-mounted mixed-media constructions and installation pieces, though there were also some drawings, the video, and a series of quiet, brightly colored photo collage-paintings that Pindell created after recovering from a life-changing car accident around 1980.
I especially enjoyed the dialectic that the show engaged, and which is emblematic of Pindell's work itself, between the less overtly political and more conceptually oriented works, which included examples of quite beautiful delicate, elaborate map-like charts drawn on handmade paper, as well as drawings on videographic images, and the larger, less subtle and sometimes less technically polished polemical mixed-media pieces. (I should add that Pindell's career itself, as a Black female abstractionist pioneer, has always represented a political statement in itself.) What came through in some of these larger and more direct works was the utter insistence, the sheer stake that Pindell felt the political topics and subjects were proposing. In the face of the first Iraq War or this second one, they appeared to be saying to the viewer, or children dying from HIV/AIDS, or inequalities in the labor market, or the effects of the slave trade, would and could a seamlessly brushstroked surface or perfectly aligned stencils possibly be the point?
This isn't to say that these larger pieces were not well-made, but they were rawer, less elegant; their entreaties were evident in and articulated by their craft. I also don't want to imply that polemical art isn't compatible with and representable by and through formal abstraction and technical polish, but rather that it was clear after viewing the larger works where Pindell's overall focus and aims, the screams and shrieks that the injustices, the history, the narratives she was trying to pass on to the viewer, actually lie.
(I cannot find my notes with the artworks' titles, so I'm going to post the pictures and then post the titles when I locate them.)
The Big Lie: this mixed media work developed as a critique of the Gulf War in 1991. The record, though not broken, keeps on spinning into the present.
One of the Cibachrome and acrylic works that Pindell began to make after her accident.
Another one of the Cibachrome and acrylic works.
Ancestors: Memorial/Slavery (93 x 71.5 in. Mixed Media on Canvas): one of the more beautiful and most moving pieces in the exhibit.
This wall installation, showing an array of laminated imagery featuring labor costs, was an interesting commentary on low-wage, especially female, labor.
Separate But Equal Genocide : AIDS (Parts I and II) (75.5 x 42.5 in. Mixed Media on Canvas): from a distance, I wondered what these flags were calling attention to. They draw the eye from across the room. Up close, it's clear that they feature the names of people who've died of AIDS, and the tension between their material beauty and their critical commentary was palpable. The video monitor, which was off, is visible at bottom left.
I believe this piece was titled Slavery Memorial/Lash. Pindell drew upon sources on the slave trade, Black inventors, and the recreations of the reconstituted Black family in the New World.