For the past year, video conferencing with our families, friends and colleagues has been the norm. We’ve relied on the magic of technology to connect with others, and considering the potential of video conferencing as way of “conjuring” others, artist Delita Martin has taken advantage of this tool to connect virtually with her sitters, and rendered their likenesses onto 21 new works. The portraits and her installation The Dinner Table (2016) are now on view in her solo show Conjure at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas (AMSET) in Beaumont.
The two main galleries feature charcoal portraits, which dazzle against the museum’s white walls with all of the layers of colors, patterns and textures Martin applies. The base charcoal portraits feature Black girls and women of varying ages; some subjects make eye contact with the viewer, but most eschew our gaze and appear lost in a pensive pause. Some subjects are dressed up, while others are more casual, including the new work-from-home uniform of tank tops and shorts for sweltering southern summers.
Martin’s work celebrates the everyday woman as well as her family. A tacking stitch, a simple sewing technique, connects fabric and paper in her portraits. Martin developed an appreciation for a patchwork aesthetic from the quilts she watched her grandmother make, and the artist even passed this skill on to her teenage son, who for these works lent his hand in finishing the stitches. Just like her grandmother would piece together scraps of fabric, reflecting on its previous wearer and crafting a story, Martin pieces together compositions from scraps of colorful, patterned paper and fabric to create complex portraits that embody the spirit of the sitter in addition to their physical appearance.
Martin’s elaborate mixed-media technique of painting, printmaking, and sewing creates layers of complex portraiture that demands closer viewing. One of the large-scale portraits installed at the entrance of the exhibition features a girl sitting in an undefined space, her body delineated in charcoal and white acrylic. The girl’s hair, face and upper torso is washed in a light blue, and her shirt is embellished in a dot pattern created from cut circles of decorative paper, and hand-stitched to the paper. The dot pattern repeats throughout the entire mixed-media work, appearing in the girl’s hair as circular flower motifs, and in the background as saturated, imperfect dollops of yellows, greens and blues. To the left of the girl is a birdcage holding two birds posed in flight while a couple birds fly above it, and towards the bottom of the picture, several more gather at the feet of the girl.
These portraits not only depict their sitters, but also allow for a personal iconography gleaned from Martin’s memories and generational storytelling. A Gathering of Birds (2020) and several other portraits in the show propose the bird as an icon, its flight outside of the cage allegorical of freedom. Vessels are another important motif in her work, both as a way of recalling her grandmother’s habits of storing miscellany in mason jars, and suggesting the symbolically charged potential of a vessel. Offerings (2020) features a woman sitting on a golden stool, her right leg propped up on a second golden stool and her left leg relaxed, and her bare foot crossing the threshold of the paper’s border. The background includes the repetition of a tear-drop shape, filled in with both solid blues and blue striped with black. Spotlighted against the blue backdrop, the woman’s skin and casual dress appear in different shades of yellow, with a circular pattern repeated throughout her hair and body. The central circle is delineated by dashes of hand-stitched golden thread and float immediately above the woman’s hands, which are crossed and balanced on a black-and-white printed bowl.
Martin’s works in the show tend to “conjure,” and she maximizes the sacred potential of the color blue, inspired by folklore and beliefs in its spiritual power. Deep cobalt and aquamarine to robin’s egg blue are rendered in patterned fabrics and paper as well as printed directly onto the works in circles, oblong forms and other shapes. Consider, even, Martin’s process of video-conferencing with her sitters — their semblances glow in the blue light of their computer or phone screen.
The show also includes Martin’s installation The Dinner Table, which has traveled to different galleries since 2016. In previous iterations of the piece, art spaces have used a table and chairs, or a couple of tables and chairs, with Martin’s 200 plated portraits hung on the wall. At AMSET, the installation includes two chairs (no table) and invites viewers to sit. The exclusion of a table transforms the meaning of the work. With a table on hand, the installation appears in conversation with artists like Carrie Mae Weems and her Kitchen Table photograph series, as well as the sentiment in Solange’s album title, A Seat at the Table (not to mention Judy Chicago”s The Dinner Party). At AMSET, the two chairs facing each other, with the displays of plates behind the chairs, lends itself to an Instagram-worthy selfie of the viewer’s interaction with the piece.
The cloud-like shapes formed on the wall by the plate portraits similarly conjure the spirit of Martin’s friends and family members. Here, rather than express the individuality of the portrait’s model through paint and hand-stitching, Martin delicately renders their likenesses on secondhand plates in varying tones of white — no two plates are from the same set. The artist accepted plates gifted from loved ones, for an additional layer of meaning on how we’re shaped by those we keep close to us.
Through May 23 at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont.