VANESSA GERMANby David Carrier
The Incredibly True, Sometimes Humorous, Often Horrific Adventures of a Wacky Black Girl. Or, A Visual Ritual into the Power of The Black Imagination.
CONCEPT ART GALLERY, PITTSBURGH | JANUARY 11 – FEBRUARY 17,
A self-taught Pittsburgh-based artist and community activist, Vanessa German presents four different kinds of work in this smart exhibition. There are a number of freestanding, tall, mixed media assemblages as well as a range of two dimensional assemblages—frontal images roughly the same height as the sculptures, set on glittering brightly colored flat backgrounds—then, third, there are some small mixed media images on magazines or newspapers; and, finally, painted museum paddles. Nearly all of these works depict black female figures, many wearing headgear (frequently there are small birds attached at the top) and lavishly colored dresses or golden costumes. Many of her figures are precariously balanced, as if they were negotiating risks. And attached to the backs of the hats of some of these sculptures are small cast figures, mass-produced religious works. There is a lot to see in each individual work, and there are many large works in this crowded exhibition. You need to take your time here. But ultimately the display works very nicely for German because she is an artist who deals in the stimulating pleasures of visual overload.
In German’s art of metamorphosis, transformed artifacts enter the art world. Her mixed-media sculptures include doll parts, antique tins, cowrie shells, household objects, African beads, and all sorts of bric-a-brac artifacts like those found in thrift shops. “I surrender myself to the objects that call up to me,” she has said, sounding very much like Joseph Cornell, but how different are the results! For while Cornell reveals an American autodidact’s love of precious relics originating in French literature and theater, German, employing debris from a racially marginalized culture, creates glittering artworks.
In pre-modern European visual culture plenitude defined luxury. Within Baroque churches, for example, one hardly knows where to look—it’s difficult to focus on individual works because of the overwhelming visual abundance of the displays. German’s work corresponds to this art of excess in an interesting way, for it’s through over-abundance that she expresses joy and good feeling. Consider one of her two-dimensional pieces, After All of That, I Did Not Die, When You Wanted Me to Die (2017); it contains photographs, a large button with the slogan “I’m in the prime of my life” and a smaller one that reads, “stop,” many roses, blue and gold glitter, a star shape, an African mask, shells and lots of small buttons—an array of materials, all gathered here in an essentially optimistic, life-affirming image.
German’s titles matter; one sculpture is The Great American Roller Coaster Ride (2017), and another, Southern Belle: For The Louisiana Cane Workers; For the Pricked Fingers & The Pricked Soul—May You Be Healed (Sugar Sister #6) (2017). She lovingly celebrates populist institutions and marginal people. Often her two-dimensional images are reminiscent of sacred artworks. And her visually raucous sculptures affirm the value of her subjects.
German’s artworks—bright, shiny, almost always iridescent—are as effusive as her titles, which give broad hints about these intentions. In Defiant Show of Unity (2015) German painted copious blue tears and a halo on a New York Times newspaper coverage of a scene of an American church shooting, turning one mourner into a saint, making this secular photograph into a religious image, exalting the suffering figure shown in the photograph.
Only one feature of her exhibition puzzled me. Why call it “A Visual Ritual”? But I do see how out of seemingly impoverished resources, in an ominous, frequently threatening world, she conjures up an art of hopefulness, thus demonstrating the “Power of The Black Imagination.” And that is a singularly impressive achievement as well as, of course, a much needed political statement.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.