Sunday, December 30, 2012

Pan Art Writing Contest

Robert Boyd

Calling all would be art-writers! We live in a world that is hostile to art writers. Artists simultaneously--schizophrenically--love to be written about and complain about how we fail to understand their work. Collectors apparently ignores us (Don Thompson said that art writers and art magazines were the least important determiner of art's monetary value, while Sarah Thornton spoke of people who read Artforum for the ads). Newspapers have been eliminating the art critic position for decades. The art world has become so odious that some writers are leaving it.

On the other hand, you have the proliferation of art blogs (including this one). Two Coats of Paint, Hyperallergic, Art Fag City,, etc., are all excellent venues for lively art writing. And you have Creative Time | Warhol Foundation, who give lots of money every year to art writers. The Great God Pan Is Dead can't give grants to art writers (because we are a no-revenue operation), but we can give prizes. Hence the first annual Pan Art Writing Contest.

OK, here's what we are looking for. A blog post between 750 and 2000 words about art. The following types of posts are acceptable:
1. a review of an exhibit that is still on view
2. a review of a performance from the last month
3. a review of a piece of public art that has been installed in the past three months
4. a review of a book or film about art that has been published or released in the past six months
5. an editorial on some current issue in the art world
6. a report on a local art scene
7. an interview or studio visit with an artist
Your entry should include at least one jpeg image (with proper credits)--more than one if possible.

The work should be original, and should be previously unpublished.

The submission deadline is January 31. Winners will be announced no later than February 28.

Here are the prizes:

Nic Nicosia. This handsome hardcover published by The University of Texas Press covers the career of Nic Nicosia, an really great photographer who we have reviewed here before.

Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that this classic collection helped reintroduce America to an all-but-forgotten part of its artistic heritage. A brilliant anthology.

I Am James Ensor. This artist's book by great Houston artist Lane Hagood stars the ghost of James Ensor. It's number 44 out of an edition of 50.

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song by David Lasky and Frank M. Young. A graphic novel biography of the famous country music pioneers, drawn by David Lasky in a style that evokes early 20th century comic strips, this is a moving work of Americana.


Texas: 150 Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Alison de Lima Greene. Published in the centennial year (2000) of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, this enormous, well-illustrated book is kind of a first stab at an art history of Texas, in a way. Focusing mainly on modern and contemporary work, it's quite fascinating to see how artists who are still quite active were seen in 2000. We have two copies of this excellent book to award.

The first prize winner will be able to select one from this list. The second prize winner can select from the remaining, and so on.

Send all entries to

Writers retain all rights to their own work. The Great God Pan Is Dead may wish to publish the entry, but the writer retains the right to decline.The contest is open to everyone except for current writers for The Great God Pan Is Dead.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Art Criticism vs. the Art Market

Robert Boyd

It's an old story--one we've covered before Art critics exiting the field in disgust over the shenanigans of the art market. To me, this is all an inevitable side-effect of global inequality and the rise of the new plutocratic elite. Thorstein Veblen explained it all back in the 19th century. And Matthew Couper has channeled the 19th century in his excellent ex voto The Divorce of the Art Market and Art Criticism.

Matthew Couper, The Divorce of the Art Market and Art Criticism

This painting accompanied a satire by John Seed, "The Art Market and Art Criticism Will Divorce in 2013: An Allegory" at The Huffington Post.


Pan Recommends for the week of December 27 to January 2

Robert Boyd

It's the last weekend of the year, and there isn't a whole bunch going on artwise. So it's a good weekend to see some of those shows you've meant to see but haven't gotten around to yet. Like the MFAH's big war photography exhibit. Or The Progress of Love at the Menil. But since Thanksgiving, Houston has really been the place to see performance art (see this, this, this, and this, for example). It's been quite remarkable, really, and this weekend continues the trend.


CORRECTION: I've just been informed that this has been moved to January 4th. Autumn Knight at the Art League Houston (as part of Stacks) at 6 pm. This is the last week of Stacks which makes Autumn Knight the last artist to have a week long residency in this innovative exhibit. This really is Autumn Knight's big night--you start here at the Art League and then go to see...

El Diablo y El Cristo Negro by Autumn Knight at Project Row Houses at 8 pm. This performance is part of her Project Row Houses project, the performance lab Futz. (This show is still on for Friday night!)


Comeplay Comply Arraycycle by Jonathan Jindra and Y.E. Torres (with Brian Taylor, Sandy Ewen, Zubi Puente and Baltazar Canales) at El Rincón Social at 8 pm. This music/performance event includes video art, fabric art and "the art of 'chopping'" (presumably not the wood kind). It could be a brilliant Gesamtkunstwerk or sprawling mess, but it's sure to be interesting either way!


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Continuum Live Art Series - Opening Night (part 2)

Dean Liscum

...I wasn't that disillusioned. The holidays just got in the way. Here's part 2.

Next up, in the evening was Kelly Alison assisted by Emily Sloan. Allison's piece started with her stating how much she liked Christmas and what a wonderful time it was for her. Then she began to deconstruct why? As she spoke, Sloan strapped white balloons to Allison's body.

Alison revealed that like many of us, what made Christmas so joyful was the presents under the tree. In her family, that meant 40 presents decking the halls. (8 people times 5 presents or it might have been 5 people times 8 memory fails me as I'm sure any study of fruit flies--the laboratory equivalent of art bloggers--reveals is inevitable when you add alcohol to an art blogger and then give them memory tasks). Her family often waited to wrap the presents on Christmas eve out of sheer necessity (buying presents up until the last minute and\or working until the last minute). That was also the precise moment at which her father would pick a fight with her mother. Irregardless of the subject, the result would be that her mother was left "holding the bag" and wrapping the pile of presents by herself. An exhausting and Herculean task that left her mother exhausted and Alison upset.

By the story's end, Sloan had transformed Alison into a white balloon-festooned, human cross. Given the context of her narrative, I presume that the number of balloons was 40, but I didn't count them. Long white candles were distributed among the audience members, who lit them and then proceeded to pop the balloons and thus liberate Allison, who at this time bore a striking metaphorical resemblance to her mom, with the flames.

Now that's what I call putting the cross in Christmas.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum surrounding Alison's piece, Unna Bettie began circulating the room with a collection box that read "Collecting Money for My Performance". A few (Ok one) audience members tossed a dollar or two in but most of us did what we normally do when confronted by a request for money whether to support the arts or political-humanitarian causes or the youth of America or someone's meth addiction, we did a quick mental calculation donation = less money for sex, drugs, and alcohol, and then stared blankly off into the distance until Bettie and her box moved on. Then Unna Bettie took the stage, spilled the money on to the stage, stripped down to a leotard, and assumed the yoga position referred to as "plank". She held this position for minutes: 2? 5? 6? until she collapsed on the money. She lay there, caught her breath, stretched, and then repeated the process. Again. And again. 4 or 7 or 9 times. (So many so, that I actually missed the end. Her endurance "outworked" my bladder.)

It was the simplest form of work. Hold your body in a position. It was also the most Abramovic-ish piece of the night in that the artist's exploration of her own body's limitations within a certain context, in this case work, enabled the audience to re-assess their own definition of the topic.

What is work? What should it be? And at what rate (monetarily, socially) should it be rewarded?

Bettie's performance didn't answer the questions. It did emphasize the ambiguity that surrounds our definition of work in the digital age and in the context of the immigration debate and who's willing to do what kind of work for how little remuneration?

After so much work, we needed a break. Our host moved us outside to the courtyard where a large A-frame structure that could have been an over-sized easel stood. Randi Long hammered a single 2" x 4" horizontally across one of the A-frame's sides. Janna Whatley mounted it. Long then hammered another board above that one. Whatley ascended it. Long removed the first 2" x 4" and attached it near the top of the other side of the A-frame. Whatley climbed over the hinge and onto the board on the other side. Long removed the other board and hammered it in below Whatley. Whatley descended to it. The end.

Ascend, descend. Almost childish in its simplicity and yet (and probably because of it's childishness) I really enjoyed it. The right combination of elegant, arduous, precarious for me in that space-time.

The descent concluded, our green-haired, red-pantied host ushered us upstairs.

On the second floor, the audience circled around Julia Claire Wallace. Her hands were dipped in black paint and she held them up in a gesture of supplication or surrender or greeting. She slowly rotated. While spinning, she declared that she was seeking authenticity and asked the audience to help. The request was structured as a proposition. Her performance was "help(ing) you, help me; help(ing) me, help you." Then she disclosed as either a disclaimer or a rationale to help that she is of average intelligence, average clerical skills, and not the best artist. That inspired the crowd to erupt into riotous, foot-stomping applause. When the cheers died down, Wallace led us in a chorus of "This little light of mine."

Having inadvertently shifted into literalist mode, I looked for the light. None. So I'd have to take points off for continuity. That and if you're looking to me to validate your authenticity, you took a wrong turn on your existential journey.

The childhood theme continued with Zubi Puente and Y.E. Torres' work Let's Play Doctor, which sounded promising until I witnessed what type of doctor. The piece opened in a nursery with a phallic menagerie of stuffed animals: a two-foot velour cock and balls, a bear-like animal with a hole where the head of the cock fit snugly, a teddy bear with a fur-lined erection, and a ballerina princess. Zubi as the ballerina princess protagonist came to life, produced a pair of scissors, and proceeded to both dreamily and matter-of-factly circumcise her teddy bear-erectus.

The bear sat calmly as the ballerina removed the furry foreskins. I squirmed, suffered a pre-conscious nightmarish flashback, and then silently, screamed.

Her mission as mohel accomplished, the ballerina danced back to her place and then tranquilly turned back into a doll.

Freud in the house! The act of the circumcision appeared playful. But, in what context can one truly deem taking a pair of scissors to someone's genitalia a form of child's play? Given the assortment of odd stuffed animals in attendance, I opted to interpret the act as vengeful. Perhaps, it was a politically based, negative fantasy inspired by stories of female genital mutilation that are publicized in the media periodically. Perhaps, it was a personal exorcist. Off! Off! damn foreskin! Off! Perhaps, it was something in between.

The performance art drew to a close with Perpetual Dawn by Christine Cook and Sway Youngston. Dressed in black, the two artist entered the performance space with their hair tied up and black mop buckets in their hands. They placed the buckets on the floor and knelt beside them. Having let down their hair, they connected themselves by each fastening an end of a bungee cord around their necks.

Simultaneously, they dipped their heads into their respective buckets soaking their shoulder length hair with soap suds. Then they began to mop the floor with their tresses. The crowd went momentarily silent. All you could hear was the wet sound of their hair sweeping across the floor.

Our M.C. grew agitated and made a pro-feminist crack along the lines of "so all you guys are just going to watch these women do all the work." It was greeted by a few uncomfortable chuckles. Then he offered, perhaps out of jealous, perhaps out of longing, to join them.

I must admit, I too wanted to participate. His co-host cut him off, "let them finish their performance." He quieted down. My heart sank. I realized that the audience's participation would have turned it into a different performance piece altogether. It would have become communal and cathartic, instead of being the sensual and redeeming act that it was.

We remained transfixed as Cook and Youngston metaphorically cleansed the second floor of Avant Garden, the evening, and us.


According to the agenda, I realize that I missed a few events, most notably Hilary Sculane and M.R. Miller's individual performances. I stayed until the first set of Say Girl Say was over and then I turned in. It was an enjoyable experience, but an exhausting one. So rest up, because Continuum and I will do it all over again at Avant Garden on Friday, December 28 for Continuum Live Art Series, Second Night.


Robert Boyd's Favorites of 2012

Robert Boyd

Here are some of my favorite exhibits and performances from 2012. I won't say "best." "Best" implies an Olympian certainty about my own tastes that I don't have. In fact, I'm continually changing my mind. It also implies that I saw everything, which I most certainly did not. "Favorite" is better.

Of course, as you read this you may find you disagree with my choices. Indeed, I hope so! It would be a dreary world if everyone agreed with me. That's why I have a poll up that you can take: tell me what you think was the best art show and the best performance, this year.

The exhibits/performances below are listed in alphabetical order by artist or by title in the case of group shows.

Debra Barrera, Drive Me There And Back, 2012, 1986 Pontiac Firebird

Drive Me There and Back Again at the Blaffer Window into Houston and Kissing in Cars, Driving Alone at Moody Gallery, both by Debra Barrera. For her installation in the windows of 111 Milam St., Barrera created the best artwork featuring a Firebird/Camaro since the Dead Milkmen sang "Bitchin' Camaro." That was followed with a great show of photos, drawings and sculpture at Moody Gallery. The promise she showed in her Lawndale show was perfectly fulfilled with these two automotive exhibits.

William Betts, Untitled III, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 18" x 24"

Recognition by William Betts at McClain Gallery. This small exhibit blew my mind. Betts used surveillance photos from CTV cameras as the basis for his images--in short, automatic, random images made without regard for art. Then using software turns them into a spots of color that can be applied by machine dot by dot onto a canvas. Get close to the canvas and the images dissolve into dots. And despite the unartly origins and robotic execution of these pieces, there is something perversely moving about them. They really stuck around in my mind.

The Bridge Club, Medium, August 4, 2012, performance

Medium by The Bridge Club at Art Palace. People wandered in and out, chatting, clomping loudly across the floor, drinking beers in normal time. Meanwhile, The Bridge Club barely moved, sitting on chairs mounted on the wall, existing in slow time. This was a meditative, unearthly performance, and I loved it. I look forward to seeing their new project, The Trailer.

Christopher Cascio, Mushroom Mound, 2012, acrylic paint, colored pencil and toner transfers on paper

Spring Break at Cardoza Fine Art and an exhibit at Front Gallery by Christopher Cascio. These two shows overlapped so I am going to lump them together. They gave viewers the breadth of Cascio's work--large-scale pieces and installations at Cardoza with smaller collages at Front Gallery. In both shows, Cascio deals with obsessions, benign and otherwise.

Hillerbrand+Magsamen, eState Sale, 2012, video installation with random suburban detritus

eState Sale by Hillerbrand+Magsamen at the Art League. Stephen Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen are a team of video and photographic artists whose work often deals with the absurdity of modern suburban life. Perhaps because I am a lifelong resident of the suburbs (with a few years living in the country, the city, and out of a suitcase), I really relate to their work. Much of it deals with the absurd accumulation of stuff that we suburbanites manage. A video of their daughter buried in a closet-full of stuffed animals, for example. This installation was notable for its combination of four large vertical videos and piles and piles of garage-sale-ready suburban detritus.

Perry House, The Vase (Intrusion Blue), 1989, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48"

Elegant Violence by Perry House at the Art Car Museum. I had seen a couple of Perry House's shows at Nauhaus/d.m. allison, and I liked them, but his show at the Art Car Museum which covered 30 years of his work was unexpectedly full of surprises. What I really like is his rich, muscular painting and breathtaking, somewhat spooky coloring. The work, as the title suggests, has an air of menace.

Miao Jiaxin, Mom's Suitcase (still), 2012, video

Chinaman's Suitcase by Miao Jiaxin at Box 13. This collection of videos, stills from live performances, and images were hilarious and naughty and said something about the transnational world we inhabit, connected by jets and live chat with one another. The highlight was a somnolent live performance by Miao Jiaxin called I Have a Dream, in which he slept while engaging in Chatroulette. Never has Box 13 seen so much wanking.

Nic Nicosia, Four Rectangles, NuVoile scrim material, cotton rope, site specific installation, 2012

Space Light Time by Nic Nicosia at Hiram Butler Gallery. The first Nic Nicosia photos I saw were part of a group show at FotoFest, and they were photos of rooms. He continued that approach in Space Light Time, except he photographed small boxes that looked like rooms, and made room-like installations, including Four Rectangles. I like the way he constructs an environment in order to take a photograph. But the way he makes these photos would be beside the point if they weren't so strange and beautiful.

Aaron Parazette, Flyaway, 2012, acrylic wall painting, 7' x 56'

Flyaway by Aaron Parazette at the Art League. Two walls of the large gallery at the Art League became two receding focal points made of intersecting lines and planes of green, blue and black. They sucked you in in the room, and curiously recalled the most famous Art League installation, Inversion by Dan Havel and Dean Ruck. The selection of small paintings that accompanied Flyway were quite choice as well. The feeling of motion and unbalance make these geometric pieces work for me.

Emily Peacock, Teenage Couple on Hudson St., NYC, silver gelatin print, 10" x 10", 2011-12

You, Me & Diane by Emily Peacock at Lawndale Art Center. When I heard about this, I was worried that this was going to be another empty gesture of one artist appropriating another artist's work. But instead, Emily Peacock's restaging of photos by Diane Arbus with her family came off as humorous and full of heart. Instead of a cold intellectual exercise, these photos were beautiful, playful and highly personal--the best kind of homage.

George Romney, Emma Hart as "The Spinstress", ca. 1784-85. oil on canvas, 68 5/8" x 50 5/8"

Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London at the MFAH. You go to a show expecting one thing (a collection of masterpieces) and sometimes you get something altogether different (a window into 18th century English art). Seeing the Reynolds and Gainsboroughs was fantastic, but for me the real discovery was George Romney, particularly his paintings of Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), the sexiest, wildest celebrity of the late 18th century. See England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton for more.

Patrick Renner, chamber #4 (bounded operator), dirt, sand, rock, gravel, window panes, plywood, found objects, cloth, 2012

chamber #4 (bounded operator) by Patrick Renner at El Rincón Social. Patrick Renner had two wonderful shows at Avis Frank this year, but his most exciting piece was a complicated sculptural installation at El Rincón Social. The subject was time--geological time and personal time as represented by memory. It seemed to be an especially Houston piece, reflecting a city full of geologists and geophysicists. He also produces small sculptural works that are similar to core samples. chamber #4 (bounded operator) seems related to that.

Carrie Schneider, Dress (stills from the video, part of the Care House installation), 2012, multimedia installation

Care House by Carrie Schneider. This complex work about Carrie Schneider's mother used her old house in Katy as the setting. Individual pieces occupied most of the first floor rooms. Visitors could wander the room seeing videos, objects, and installations about Schneider and her mother and her mother's struggle with cancer. The superimposed videos were cleverly done and quite moving. It was the most personal piece of art I saw all year, but it was one I could relate to. I lost my dad to cancer in 2001.

Larry Burrows, One Ride with Yankee Papa 13, 1965, Photo Essay

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the MFAF. This sprawling exhibit was arranged sensitively around 26 distinct sections, including "Training," "Prisoners of War," "Refugee," "Civilians," "War's End," etc. Some of the images in this show are almost unbearable to look at, but they must be seen. Some are quite familiar, but most were new to me. The exhibit is a remarkable achievement. It's up through February 3, so if you haven't seen it, you still have time. The photo above is from a photo essay that appeared in Life--you can see the whole thing here.

Geoff Winningham, Jerdy's Barber Shop, Port Arthur, Texas 2004, Fuji Archive print (2007) from a 4x5 film negative, image size 15.25" x 19.75", uneditioned

Words and Pictures: Photographs 1971 - 2012 by Geoff Winningham at Koelsch Gallery. It's hard for me not to be sentimental about Geoff Winningham--he was my photography professor in school. But this show was a revelation to me. In the choices made, it showed a clever kind of post-modern sensibility, especially in his photographs of other people's collections of images, which I called "naive curation" in my review of the show.

Honorable Mention. there were lots of shows in the Houston area this year that I liked. Here are are some of them:


Monday, December 24, 2012

What Art Did You Like Best in Houston This Year?

Robert Boyd

One thing for sure, when it came to art in Houston in 2012, we weren't starved for choice. There were tons of exhibits and performances--so many that I don't think anyone could have seen them all. (Not even me.) I count over 500 separate exhibits or events. I've got most of them on this survey, but I know I missed at least a few.

The lists are organized by artists names, more or less (multiple artist shows complicate the issue). You can check off as many as you want on questions 1 and 2 (but you can only make one choice in question 3). Don't worry if you didn't see every show or even a majority of them--this about you telling us what you liked best of the shows you saw. If you only saw one exhibit and you loved it, vote for it!

I've embedded the survey here, but if this is hard to navigate, you can go to the Survey Monkey page.

I'll collect results until January 7, and then I'll publish the results. So get voting!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.


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.