Stir is a visually cohesive, materially investigative group show at M Squared Gallery as part of Print Matters. Rabéa Ballin, Lovie Olivia, Delita Martin and Ann Johnson also showed together last year with The Roux at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. This year, the catalog sold out right away so hopefully what this post lacks in specificity it conveys with the message: go see for yourself!
In a visual culture over saturated with images, how can printmaking still speak and even resonate? Stir’s best approaches suspend the prints in thoughtful dialog with their substrates, their history, and their material poetry.
Most of Stir is multilayered in both material and message, but Delita Martin’s work is the most straightforward printmaking. The series repeats its message about hair forthrightly and persistently, so while I looked at all of them, I did not feel I had to spend a lot of time with each of them.
photo by Marlon Fitzjerald Hall
It’s no surprise that I gravitated towards Ann Johnson’s work with its tension between fixing and ephemerizing the past. She prints images of family members on feathers and on handmade paper made from dehydrated vegetables like those her grandmother cooked. The perishable, nourishing material is frozen in resin on dishes. Her installation collapses the creativity of the kitchen and the studio onto a shared stage.
One of the most visually beautiful and conceptually elegant works is the burnt apron. Johnson describes it as representing the black woman’s experience of caring for two sets of children at once, her own and that of a white family. This work strips all the intermediary ingredients and lets heat, time, and pressure imprint using the iron, a passive tool to straighten out the clothes and lives of others, to leave a mark of one’s own.
Her stack of likeness feathers are so delicate and personal that they immediately made me ask her how she feels about selling the images of her family members. She explained that the transaction is usually personal, involving the transference of that person’s name, personality, and memory to the degree that unrelated collectors show them off with a story saying “Oh, that’s Great Grandma Betty.”
Across the space is Lovie Olivia’s work. Her back lit peephole boxes are printed with lyrics and house collaged images of figures. Viewers peer into a domestic, private lens to perceive line drawn gestures.
Olivia continues the ricocheting compositions in homages to historic lesbian figures. A plaster letter between the partners is fractured and contained in a glass vial. The background to this assemblage is vintage screen printed fabric that layers history and uses the common thread of transference to span time.
The centerpiece of her work, as well as the whole show, is Olivia’s assemblage of two rose plant roots imbedded in plaster discs flanking a pendulum. The pendulum, used for leveling, is not suspended from the ceiling but gently teeters on the wooden anchor beneath. This detournement is a fitting focal point for Olivia’s play with symmetry, space, and mirrored language.
Rabéa Ballin’s pillows are hand sewn by her mother and printed with beautifully graphic designed text inspired by Hemingway’s six word poems and the history of plaçage in New Orleans. Reminiscent of flour sacks, and soft, domestic, familiar, and inviting, the pillows are emblazoned with unfamiliar words. This is the point, says Ballin, these histories are stories slept on, not in the history books or common vocabulary. She also features a series of progressively bleached prints titled with their hexadecimal codes for black to white. I don’t have an image that does it justice, but as a series they are quite arresting and worth a good look in person.
photo by Marlon Fitzjerald Hall
Stir‘s expansions of printmaking are anchored by sensitive installation, thoughtful lighting, and a cohesive aesthetic throughout. From excavation of family, to considerations of language and the visual witness of hidden histories, Stir as a featured show in Print Matters leaves its mark much deeper than paper.
Stir June 26 through July 8
Gallery M Squared | 339 West Nineteenth Street | Houston, TX 77008
Wednesday through Saturday 10am – 6pm | Sunday Noon through 5pm