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When curator Ashley Stull Meyers asked “who feeds you?” the question was met by a choir of knowing “mmmmms.” Her query was part of the artist talk with Diedrick Brackens and D’Angelo Lovell Williams at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where Stull Meyers was speaking to the naming of The Quick: an exhibition of textiles, videowork, photographs, drawings, and sculptures by Diedrick Brackens and D’Angelo Lovell Williams, curated by Ashley Stull Meyers in close concert with the artists, at lumber room in Portland. Informed by the reciprocity of intimacy and care within artmaking and life, The Quick explores the tender roots of collaboration, zeroing in on how grandmothers, friends, elders, ancestors, the dead, and landscapes inform both process and the final result.
The multi-room show installed at lumber room lingers, beginning at the entrance where an image of two hands clasped together against a grassy, wooded background wraps the front door. Against the building’s baby blue facade, the lush green foliage and the brown hands pulled me into the terrain of the exhibition. The full image, Morse Herring Symphony (2021) by Williams, hangs in the gallery upstairs, and the pigment print in its entirety is formally striking. Two nude figures—Williams and Brackens—cut diagonally through tall grasses and beneath spiky trees. With Williams leading, pointing towards something beyond the corner of the frame, I can’t help but imagine what they are climbing toward. An oasis? A pasture? The sun? Home? The movement within the land captured within this image flows through the exhibition. These patterns of dancerly postures stretch across each piece, without being too “theme-y,” making evident the synergistic relationship between the artists and the curator.
Even in their self portraits, like Fade Synthesis (2022), Williams creates a requited relationship between the body and the land, between the image reading as staged and natural. The figure is not overshadowed by the immensity of nature, and the photographer’s ease in these environments makes the landscape read similar to the domestic spaces where they often make their images. Brackens, Williams, and Stull Meyers noted that exploring Oregon’s environment was an integral part of building this exhibition; the outdoors, including farms, forests, lakes, the coast, backyards, and the city, continually show up in the material and content. Brackens’s soundwork in the courtyard of the gallery, anthem (2022), with the pulsating noise of the outdoors, amplifies the feeling that you are straddling interior and exterior while viewing the show. I found myself asking what it means to return a sound to its original environment.
heavy lover (2022) and grease in the air (2022) by Brackens add levity to the exhibition and inspire feelings of flight. The single black silhouette in grease in the air stretches against a gray and sky-blue colored background made from hand-dyed cotton and acrylic. Panels of checkerboard add texture to the weaving—the way the pattern begins, ends, and elongates conjures the mathematical, yet deeply human nature of textile work. Each of these weavings is dual sided and when viewed in the round the artist’s hand becomes more visible. With both works Brackens balances the precision of production, which the artist learned from their grandmother, with the fluidity of the narrative. The loom is a computer, but also a portal to the Black women who make and made the same type of work.
Brackens continues to explore aerial travel with Untitled (feet) (2022). Inspired by a visit to Foglight Farm where the artist became enamored with chicken feet, he began casting a series of life size feet from beeswax. Displayed across a long black shelf, the golden sculptures present a departure from the kind of work the artist is known for. Like the extremities in Brackens’s weavings, the chicken feet stir ideas about migration and the possibility of returning home. It is difficult to look at these sculptures and not examine your own feet, noticing the similarities and differences of structure and purpose. Although chickens don’t usually fly, and neither do humans, the artist’s fixation on birds and mobility is a part of a long African American folklore tradition that foresees a direct path to freedom.
Williams also experimented with medium and form within the exhibition. Pitch Black 2 (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) (2022) features a weaving made from VHS tape—specifically from the 1998 film How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Hung at the top of the stairs, this work is slippery in finish and in concept. On one hand it reads a textile: the weft and the warp is visible and the fringed sides recall the finishing of a blanket. On the other hand, the semi-iridescent sheen of the material presents an opportunity for you to see your deeply distorted reflection in the blackness of the tape. With tantalizing multiplicity, the weaving acts as a mirror and a composite image of the film and its audience.
One of the most exciting works in the show is an untitled collaborative piece by both artists. Loosely based on Essex Hemphill’s 1992 poem “Commitments,” the multimedia sculptural textile reminds me of family reunions and how we return to documentation of our gatherings with greater context and deeper emotions. While Williams and Brackens have worked together before—maintaining a creative dialogue throughout their friendship—this marks something new. Photo transfers from archival advertorials and clippings from Ebony, JET, and Essence accent cherry red, cream, and charcoal checkered weavings. Grounding the piece, a pair of bronze chicken feet rest on the corner of the larger textile. Images of Black icons like Luther Vandross talking about his rapid weight loss in the 1980s and Magic Johnson announcing his HIV+ status juxtapose with transfers of a generous picnic delicately stitched to the textile. Reading the Hemphill poem while viewing the work makes the tension between nourishment and precarity tighter. Hemphill’s words “I am the invisible son. / In the family photos.” reverberate against the homespun blanket. The positioning of this work, installed directly on the gallery floor without plinth or protective barrier, contorts the boundaries of craft vs. art, home vs. gallery, provoking the viewer to get close to the material. Ultimately, the piece is unending in the manner Brackens and Williams bounce between popular Black culture, Black queer interiority, and Black familial systems, exposing the connective tissues that binds these ecologies together. Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, Untitled (2022) makes the case for reading the weaver as an image maker and the image maker as a weaver.
The gallery as a whole was quietly mitigated by subtle, but powerful additions to the ambience. The kitchen counters were covered in piles of fresh fruit at the opening. The bounty of oranges, bananas, pineapples, and apples only added to the richness of what it means to be provided for in a domestic space; lumber room is both an apartment and living, breathing contemporary art gallery. Additionally, a thick red and blue table runner by Brackens was displayed on a long dining room table. When I asked lumber room’s director Libby Werbel about the piece she noted that the artist added it before they ate dinner the night prior—as one would do in their own home. This kind of intimate proximity with the works is what makes the exhibition special. As a whole, The Quick succeeds in its embrace of Black craft and artistic labor. Both sharp and soft, the work of Diedrick Brackens and D’Angelo Lovell Williams jogs tender memories of what it means to make in community.
Diedrick Brackens & D’Angelo Lovell Williams: The Quick
lumber room, Portland, OR
April 2 – June 18
Sponsored by lumber room. Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two reviews or interviews. Read the corresponding review of Christine Miller: Syrup on Watermelon at Portland Art Museum.
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