Staring at “Night Flight,” a canvas torn apart, stitched together, painted in tropical blue. Stitches heave back and forth: a surgery-prophecy giving soul to the inanimate. “Flight” swirls organically from the outer edges, tightening together and shrinking to a small hole in the canvas at center. Pink, purple, green, blue dots spot across, fish in a whirlpool. Staring at “Night Flight” and you reach the edges like sailors falling off the flat sea onto a white wall of gallery space.
Imagine, though, when sailors circled the globe and found their home again. Imagine: peel those white walls away. More blue, more swirl, more movement. More life. Imagine: try to grip the walls at the painting’s border, digging your fingers into building material, bleeding your nail beds until the museum’s Avant-Guard pulls you away. Imagine: you’re escorted off the premise without having ever seen the truth behind “Night Flight.” Possibly arrested for damages to property. “If I can’t afford bail,” you think, “at least let me break those walls.”
“Flight” is Howardena Pindell on the third floor. On the way up, I made the mistake of pausing after the first two flights of stairs to look at some blackened broomsticks, pieces of tack stuck to them, attempting to persuade one towards the illusion of night sky. They dangle and swing with the slightest provocation, a gust produced by the casual purveyor. Next to the brooms, a gallery whose centerpiece is a space age bed made of chrome pillows. A sign reads “For the safety of the artwork, please do not sit or touch.”
The bed is a trampoline. It flirts with a material and child-like joy and invites us all to look at it and say, “Silly we can’t lie down on that, huh?” and then we go get a beer in the basement. Are the mediums more important than what they channel, the ways they will us to act and observe?
The third floor doesn’t let you walk away like that.
The third floor asks more of us.
~~~~~ stare at a person and try to imagine what they’re experiencing right now~~~~~
“Your body is the instrument.”
Nobody ever said the inverse though: the instrument is your body.
The phrase echoes from classroom to classroom in performance training. Imagine: plucking heartstrings. Imagine: sculpting arms and legs like animate clay. I think about my body, its muscle fibers and the belly like a drum. We learned about anatomy in high school and some smaller amounts in college, the deep complexity that teems underneath all bodies. Cells have organelles, cilia on their outsides to help them sense the world beyond their “skin.”
If you asked me why I started acting, I could tell you a few things. I found that it was possible to enjoy taking up space when I acted. It was good to make people laugh, even if it was at my own expense, good to inspire anger or fear. Good to affect, to offer. This is one thing. Then, for example (and I didn’t know this), I could give shape to imagination.
Move your body, say these words. Something happens. Most people attribute this event to the radical act of empathy when you Shakespeare well enough to do believably like Viola or Hamlet or Puck. Ta-da, fine acting. And empathy is a crucial piece of it. It demands that you believe in others’ experiences and accept the validity of feelings, a reality with no material grounds to anchor it down.
We read plays, we watched people, broke conversations into tactic shifts, wants and needs. Theory of social dynamics, of metaphor, of image, senses. What’s my main objective? Practice, practice. Practice to exude our insides to our outsides, to make the process of consciousness and humanity visible. In the process, it’s easy to forget the shadows: our teachers are excellent and give us strategies to succeed in the industry beyond our school in a basement. When an actor performs, they perform empathy. It’s the visible, previously invisible.
When one pretends what it means to be this person, emulate and enact their pains and vitalities, the people crack open like eggs and everything is then… different. It’s subtle, sure, but a tree is both just a tree and, then after empathy, not just a tree. And then I have to ask if there’s just empathy. We accept the reality of emotions because it’s an everyday experience.
The mask can fit the face too well and we forget the tension between mask and wearer. The magic only exists because these seem separate; humans don’t think the singer is their song (for some reason). The humyn is only part of the song: the instrument of the word. The magic comes from accepting both sides, right?
Obsessively at first, Pindell finds patterns and meditations, contemplations and handiwork. She numbers paper hole-punches 1 to 6031, she keeps tallies and records, charting, graphing, connecting. Pindell seems to remember everything at the beginning of her career, she finds connections between pastel dots and pluses and minuses. How structure and shapes can give life.
Strange pedestrians in strange landscapes; they extend up and down and left and right in a sterile white that is so totally unnatural, it almost curves to become supernatural, punctuated by animals and plants designed to live in the artificial ecology. We, wanderers through the field, inhabit and enliven the zoo. It does not live without us. Shadows live behind the white, preying on the imaginations of the ingenues, the insecure, the liberated. Images, shapes, colors, lines, curves: these are their entry points and I am both their prey and their nest.
The title of her retrospective: “What Remains to Be Seen.”
Halfway through, things change abruptly. “Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts),” 1988. Hard to quantify. Stitched together canvas, different shades of blue though. An arm’s shadow here, a stray leg there. Thick tallies of paint scrawl in lines all over the canvas. At the center, almost a full humyn silhouette that stretches their arms up like they’re falling in the ocean. At the center, a scrappy face. Eyes. Eyes all over the canvas. At the bottom right, an article detailing how a slaveowner has the right to rape a slave’s wife and the right to kill the slave if they attempt to resist.
The body becomes the canvas and the canvas suddenly connects the body to history and pain and to the shadows behind the painting. The artificial ecology thrives, evolving from crinoids and trilobites to octopi and consciousness.
This is something that I didn’t understand about that shadow, those shapes between the mask and the face for a long time and I think it’s difficult to understand if art is perceived primarily as entertainment or frivolous. James Baldwin clocks it all the time and he holds artists responsible for it.
The world unseen is in symbiosis with our own world. It is not a world that cares about morality, but it responds to our own viciousness with viciousness and it responds to kindness with kindness. If we try to confront and unwind history from within art, we can maybe remedy the pains we've dealt.
"Night Flight." The world peels away from the wall and I'm staring at a sea of canvas. I can fall into it. I think about tree roots and schools of fish. "Autobiography: Water." The walls fall apart like rancid flesh and the deep history of cruelty drags me into the eyes.
It is impossible to understand another person's experience. All the art tricks you like that: perspective can't be fallen into exactly. But we can see and try to understand experience like throwing out a fish hook and waiting for a bite. Or going to the same forest everyday and trying to understand the birdcalls.
I wrote this essay over the course of two months. I lost my train of thought many times while writing it and the voice I used shifted from my own to something colder and more condescending. But I think the basic observations remain important. That this spirituality many white and privileged artists discover and heighten in art is very real. But we often avoid addressing how we decide to isolate the spiritual, the craft from the political. The tools that brought me closer to the world also brought me closer to the deep pain of the world, confronting myself and my history as both a queer person and a yt person.
I think there's more to this, but I'm bored of this voice.