SITE Santa Fe celebrates 20 years
SITE Santa Fe celebrates 20 years
Little is known of the life of African-American artist Mary A. Bell, a maid to the sister-in-law of sculptor Gaston Lachaise. Bell, a devout Catholic who suffered from schizophrenia, worked menial jobs throughout her life, all the while making intricate figurative drawings of people of mixed race in crayon and colored pencil on thin tissue paper of the type used in dressmaking. In 1940 she was committed to a Boston mental-health facility, where she died in 1941. She was what might be called an “outsider artist,” working at her craft while at a remove from established art scenes and without any formal artistic training. Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, a collector of African-American art, came to know her work, possibly through Lachaise, and collected her drawings. So, too, did author Gertrude Stein. Multimedia artist Deborah Grant commemorates her legacy, and builds upon it in Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy!! , a series of mixed-media paintings on birch panels inspired by the idea of a fictional encounter between Bell and Henri Matisse. Crowning the Lion and the Lamb , a large-scale piece in the series, contains biographical content connected to the two artists. “It relates to Matisse’s life and Mary Bell’s life, including her ending up on a psychiatric ward and eventually dying,” Grant told Pasatiempo . “Through her and Carl Van Vechten’s letters, I was able to put together the concept for Crowning the Lion and the Lamb . I came up with this idea of who would be the lamb and who would be the lion. Yet, it has some biblical ramifications as well. I wanted to combine Judeo-Christian ideology into the mix of this.” Smaller works from the series share the same theme of blending religious imagery with modernist references.
Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy!! was first shown at the Drawing Center in New York in 2014, curated by the center’s Claire Gilman. Selections from the installation are on view in SITE 20 Years/20 Shows:
Spring , the first in a three-part exhibition series com--
memorating SITE Santa Fe’s 20th anniversary. For the first iteration, six artists who have exhibited with the institution in the past were invited to present either new or recent work, or older pieces not previously shown at SITE.
Mary Reid Kelley’s film You Make Me Iliad was in SITE’s 2010 biennale The Dissolve . Her new works are the films The Syphilis of Sisyphus , made with Patrick Kelley, and Swinburne’s Pasiphae , inspired by an unpublished work by English poet Charles Swinburne and part of a trilogy of films about the Greek myth of the Minotaur. A selection of objects from the films and a number of related pigment ink prints, caricatures of Swinburne, are also on view. Roxy Paine, who had a solo exhibit at SITE called Second Nature in 2003, presents bastard octopus ,a monochromatic diorama of a wrestling ring and sta-inspired dium, absent of people. The diorama was by French philosopher Roland Barthes’ writings on the sport as staged spectacle. Rose B. Simpson had a collaborative project with Nora Naranjo Morse and Eliza Naranjo Morse in the 2008 biennale Lucky Number Seven. In the new show, she is exhibiting large-scale ceramic and mixed-media figures that form part of her investigation into spiritual states of being and personal transformation. Jessica Stockholder, first included in SITE’s fourth biennale Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism , in which she had a room-sized installation, is now showing smaller-scale sculptural constructions made using recycled materials and common household items. Gregory Crewdson had a solo photography show at SITE in 2001. He is known for his atmospheric photos made on elaborate sets built on a scale like those used for movies. SITE is showing more than 60 black-and-white images from Crewdson’s 1996 photo series Fireflies (printed in 2006), images of the luminous beetles taken in his home state of Massachusetts. Crewdson introduces Brief Encounters , a documentary about his work, at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Tuesday, March 17. He also discusses the Fireflies series in a lecture at SITE on Wednesday, March 18.
Grant previously exhibited at SITE as well. Her work was included in 2012’s group exhibition Agitated Histories , in which she showed another large-called scale painting and collage construction Suicide Notes to the Self . Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy!! is an outgrowth of Grant’s ongoing project Random Select , a sort of mash-up of different artists, writings, and histories that reveals correspondences among them. Initially, University of Cincinnati art historian Theresa Leininger-Miller, who had researched Bell, wanted to do a show of her works for the Drawing Center. “She was working at Yale in 1995, I think on her Ph.D.,” Grant said. “Mary Bell was someone she examined at the time. The Beinecke Library at Yale has a number of Bell’s works. What ended up happening was Claire Gilman, whom I had met at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, remembered my work and the concept I had come up with, Random Select .” Gilman suggested Grant do an exhibit based on Bell’s life and work. “There’s no information on her that you can really find online. What comes up usually when people search for just Mary Bell is the killer from London. I had to do the research and find out if I really wanted to work on her. From the information I got from Theresa Leininger-Miller I was able to put some things together. I thought there was some connection between the fact that she likes to cut out things and also the relationship between Matisse’s ‘painting with scissors.’ Bell was a staunch Catholic, and Matisse had done a number of pieces for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. I was looking at those images and wanted to put them in a different context. Little details in the paintings are part of the experience. Even
Bell’s women that she drew kind of have a ring of Gone With the Wind . There’s always subtle things that point to something exact.”
Among the Crowning the Lion and the Lamb’s many details are portraits of Stein and Van Vechten, as well as references to Gone With the Wind and Christian iconography — all rendered in varying degrees of intricacy that range from a spare style similar to the simple compositions of both Bell’s drawings and Matisse’s scissor paintings to meticulous illustrations.
The installation’s smaller works include pieces from the series God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours , in which Grant makes even more sparse use of imagery, rendering some figures in silhouette against plain, undetailed backgrounds. “In this series, I’m kind of meandering through scenarios that have some sort of biblical reference, but in a different context. For instance, St. Sebastian Venable is based on a character in the movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Suddenly, Last Summer .” In the film, the face of the character Sebastian Venable is never shown, but he is recognizable by his white suit — with a flower in his lapel — and his shoes. Grant’s St. Sebastian is depicted as a suit with a similarly flowered lapel and a pair of shoes. The suit is based on artist Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit from 1970, but it’s white, like the one Venable wore — only riddled, like the martyred saint, with arrows.
Much of Grant’s works are filled with a type of enigmatic script of her own invention that is similar to hieroglyphics. Crowning the Lion and the Lamb bears those marks. “When I was in college, I was looking at African texts and Asian texts. I was also looking at texts in Hebrew and getting a sense of mark-making — how mark-making becomes its own sort of dialogue. Whether it has meaning or not is not important. It’s free association.”
Deborah Grant: right, Crowning the Lion and the Lamb ; top to bottom, Kiss and Betrayal ; Daniel in the Lion’s Den ; Expulsion of Adam and Eve ; Pilate Washes His Hands; all 2013, oil, acrylic, enamel, and paper on birch panel Opposite page, top, Mary Reid Kelley: Swinburne With Flowers, 2014, pigment ink print; right, Rose B. Simpson: Warrior , 2012, ceramic and mixed media
Roxy Paine: bastard octopus (detail), 2014, maple, aluminum, steel, cable, and enamel