Monday, December 17, 2012

A Visit with Nathaniel Donnett

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

There must have been a good reason for the frustrating program schedule, but Nathaniel Donnett’s ZZzzzzzz exhibition closed just a few days after it opened at Art League. The video, sculpture and performance he showed probed black artistic imagination and creativity, alliteratively reaching beyond institutional barriers and commercialism into divination and dreams. Prior to the opening Art League issued a press release that said Donnett would access black imagination by “searching for a space that exists outside of the physical and conscious realm, possibly outside of the universe.” When I read those words I contacted Donnett.

“Sugar, it’s time for one of our visits.” He comes over, I serve him tea, and we have the kind of talk that isn’t likely to take place around a crowd, or curators or gallery owners, during which he easily articulates the impulses that drive his art. He was busy with installation, Donnett told me, but promised to see me soon, which he did the day after his opening.

Because I’ve written about him in the past, I know that dream states, fracturing of time and space, and shifting between realms are significant components of his art, and that he is extremely comfortable working with metaphysical concepts, which add complexity and reveal the intellectual fluidity that collectors respond to. I wanted to hear him speak about how the metaphysical aspect flavored the art he presented at Art League, as well as other new works.
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: I’m confused about a few things I saw at Art League, for instance the installation’s wall mounted “tape” and electric fan. It looked like audio cassette tape. Tell me its meaning.
Nathaniel Donnett:  The “looping” fan-blown tape, in circular design, referenced Jung’s “active imagination” theory in which imagination or visualizing, or art like music or dance, brings up unconscious thoughts, just like dreams do. It’s comparable to the shamanistic rituals in African culture, which direct one inward. The video and beds nearby related to it. Part of my conceptual scheme was to have four volunteers, two artists and two collectors, spend the night on cots in the gallery and record their dreams when they woke up. Their interviews by a psychologist were captured on video.  
VBA: Other videos in that exhibition signaled the dream state. That figure with the unicorn head was decidedly other worldly.  
ND: I know it looked like a unicorn, but it has broader meaning. I was thinking of African ceremonial ritual masks, and a reference to Jung's archetypes, also Black Imagination, and the subconscious. The black unicorn also symbolizes dream visitors, the real, hope, the magical, also our whole self.

Nathaniel Donnett, Lucid, 2012, Video still

VBA: I’m not sure why it unsettled me to watch that creature move so purposefully through the urban landscape. His THIS IS BLACK ART - inscribed sign and the intermittent banjo player and straw hat share cropper imagery made an eloquent statement about stereotypical representations in black art. The manner in which he strolled through the crowded street was somewhat reminiscent of Carrie Mae Weem’s video of her phantom-like walk through Rome to negate black female marginalization by asserting a ghostly corporeal presence. Both videos seem to allude to invisibility, but yours was more powerful because the fantasy element was weirder. And it was funny. He freaked out the people waiting for the Metro bus near Macy’s. I was moved by the video, and even more so by last night’s performance. Where did you find the drum stick unicorn?
ND: The unicorn was me.

Nathaniel Donnett,The Visitor, 2012, performance
VBA: Shame on you child, you fooled me. Last night while I was watching the performance I kept wondering when Nathaniel would show his face in the gallery. The two performers alternated between sleep and activity, the woman (your wife) obsessively made the bed while the unicorn guy (you) slept, and the unicorn made music while the woman slept. It was obviously a dream narrative. What does it mean?
ND: The performance was called The Visitor, and it was open to interpretation and had several levels of meaning, but one thing it represented was how a person suffering emotional trauma, the loss of a loved one for instance, behaves abnormally as a result. While the woman dreamed of her deceased loved one, the guy existed and was physically active. While the guy slept, the woman engaged in the repetitive behavior of tidying the bed. I was inspired by the story of the recurring dreams of Stanley Clayton, who survived the Jonestown massacre by hiding and heard the protests of those reluctant to drink Jim Jones’ cyanide juice. Clayton’s wife died at Jonestown. Dreams are an important part of non-western divination and ritual, and can bring traumatic experiences from the unconscious to the conscious.
VBA: You shifted time and space in that performance.
ND: The two performers were not in the same space, they were in two different universes, two physical locations.
VBA: I noticed you recycled some elements from the past.
ND: Yea, they told us to reference past art.
By “they” Donnett means Robert Pruitt who organized Stacks, his five-part curatorial project dealing with black creativity and interruptions to it, of which Donnett’s ZZzzzzzz was second in the series. It was undoubtedly Pruitt’s intention to present Donnett and the other Stacks artists concurrently with CAMH’s Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, an important exhibition that surveys black performance art by looking at the work of three generations, and includes heavyweights such as David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Xaviera Simmons and Carrie Mae Weems. Although the history of performance art is well documented, black performance art has generated little scholarship, which is surprising given how prevalent performance is in black art. In filling the critical gap, CAMH’s Valerie Cassel Oliver once again breaks art historical ground.

Nathaniel Donnett,The Visitor, 2012, performance

Echoes of Donnett’s past works were spread around the gallery. The black plastic bags he uses to construct his figures’ hair and facial features, a metaphor for cultural baggage and negativity which also denote multi-dimensionality, the universe’s energy, and aspects of human consciousness such as memory and identity, covered Art League’s walls. One video presented a striped shirt figure from a painting exhibited in Black Plastic and tha Paper Bag Kids in tha Soulecistic Playground, Donnett’s 2010 Colton & Farb Gallery exhibition.

Nathaniel Donnett,Video screen, black plastic on gallery wall

Nathaniel Donnett, I Don't See Color; It's All Clear; R.P., 2010, Conte, graphite, acrylic paint, plastic bags on paper bags, 53” x 35”

He also refashioned text-based art. In a pile of debris on the floor I spotted a wooden sign painted with the inscription “I BE,” an ebonics term that is part of his personal idiom. In Donnett’s hands a sorry excuse for grammar becomes a calligraphic evocation of actualization. “I be is action, and doing, and I am,” he once told me.

Nathaniel Donnett, Sign with I BE Inscribed, 2012, wood, paint, installation debris

Nathaniel Donnett, Poetfloflamagotruthysisms; M.K.T., 2010, Graphite, plastic bags, paper bags, 53” x 35”

Donnett frequently employs the pictorial device of a foreground figure dreaming or conjuring an imaginary background. The braided hair youth in Monkey Bidness; K.S. for example witnesses an apparition of adults from another place and era, the man wearing a straw hat and rope belt and the woman a long “mammy” dress to suggest slave or share cropper existence.

Nathaniel Donnett, Monkey Bidness; K.S., 2010, Conte. Graphite, acrylic paint, plastic bags on paper bags, 53” x 35”

Like black plastic, Donnett’s art materials speak symbolically. The brown paper bags that serve as ground for figuration for instance iterate the “paper bag test,” a type of imbecilic prejudice practiced among people of the same ethnicity. Is your skin light enough to pass the test? Just as he incorporates symbolic materials, he paints into his compositions objects that are totemic or imbued with magic, such as the “key” imagery on the figure’s chest in Lucid Dreams Don’t Have Curfews; L.K., which connotes dreams and imaginary places.

Nathaniel Donnett, Lucid Dreams Don’t Have Curfews; L.K., 2010, Conte, graphite, acrylic paint, plastic bags on paper bags, 53” x 35”

VBA: There can’t be a more potent symbolism than the key, Nathaniel, it embodies the universe’s unknown realities and the mysteries of human existence. I recall from previous discussions it connects to your childhood.
ND: When I was young I had thoughts that a key could open doors to imaginary places.
VBA: More powerful than the key is the African sculpture in the background. Along with summonsing other realms, it works magic on the viewer, similar to the gris gris in religious icons. I once compared your use of it to David Hammon’s sculptural use of Thunderbird bottles to bestow blessings on street people. It’s the most mystical object in your repertoire.
ND: I’m heavily influenced by African sculpture. In that tradition the artwork is activated when the viewer participates and engages with it.

Nathaniel Donnett, Luv the Way You Carry Your Self Love; A. J., 2010, Conte, graphite, acrylic paint, plastic bags on paper bags, 53” x 35”

VBA: I remember another object that emblemizes multiple dimensions and anticipates the content at Art League. That bag held by the figure in You Hold That Thought and Light Up Tha Dark; J.C. signifies other realms as well as connectedness and the collective unconscious.
ND: It can mean the universe’s energy, and is symbolic of ancestors, and of those yet to come, and of the mind which can be an infinite source.

Nathaniel Donnett, You Hold That Thought and Light Up Tha Dark; J.C., 2010, Conte, graphite, acrylic paint, plastic bags on paper bags, 53” x 35”

In May Donnett emailed a note to congratulate me on an article I published on Pan. Attached were ten images of new works. “Here are some new things,” he said. Below is one of the newest figurative collage paintings, and also a detail from a 2012 sculpture.

Nathaniel Donnett, Pre Pluribus Unum, 2012, Conte, graphite, acrylic paint, plastic on paper, 45” x 45”

Nathaniel Donnett, Evidence of Things Not Seen, 2012, Hollow point bullets, gold leaf foil, candy machine (detail)

Weeks before his Art League opening Donnett called my attention to a painting he is exhibiting at Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore through January 19. Queen B and the B Stands for Been Signing Checks depicts an apron-wearing black woman using a vacuum cleaner near a dining room table. It’s clear from her headdress and the imaginary background though that there’s more to that story.

Nathaniel Donnett, Queen B and the B Stands for Been Signing Checks, 2012, Conte, graphite, color pencil, plastic on paper bags, 51” x 32 “ 

VBA: Let’s talk about Queen B. Her head looks like a unicorn and the painting has a background dreamscape.
ND: The show in Baltimore is Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response. We had to choose a work from the Walters Art Museum that included a depiction of an African, as a diplomat, merchant, or a slave, and make art based on it. I chose Dinner at Emmaus by a Venetian artist who painted into his composition a black Egyptian standing near Jesus. The Egyptian is a diplomat.
That bible story says the woman was the first to see the angel at the tomb. Women were first to know the miraculous. B is cleaning after the dinner, but she is the owner of the business. The thing on her head is a Nigerian head piece. It is Benin. In Yoruba culture the Queen has magical power and can access the spiritual world. The painting’s background shows Houston’s Project Row Houses where there are programs to help mothers in the community, so my painting blends Africa, Europe and Houston.


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