[Editor’s note: this article was written in December 2020, post-Donald Trump election defeat and prior to the Capitol Riot—foreshadowing, perhaps, at its finest]
We watched as it was happening. The rhetoric, so fanged and vitriolic, amassing as not just a pillar, but the brick and mortar of a Presidential re-election campaign. While not a new methodology (this goes way back, though was most shamelessly popularized in the modern era by Richard Nixon), in 2020, said rhetoric amassed at a moment when the disparities and inequity that crystalize the United States’ complex identity were more optically evident than any one time in recent memory. We watched and we witnessed: We’re being left behind. Our safety isn’t what it was. They’re bringing diseases, they’re bringing drugs. The violence, the disrespect for history, the ill-intending news. This is what it’s coming to, so “stand back and stand by.”
White grievance, as a manipulative political tool, makes a certain amount of sense. We’re a nation that drills individualism into you from birth, and the most logical way by which we’re taught to individuate is by defining what we are not. Said Michael Gerson of The Washington Post a couple months in advance of November’s ballot day on this American identity deconstruction in recent Red/Blue politics: “These are the three elements of the modern Republican ideological triad: identity, opportunity and community. Contending that the last two are discredited or irrelevant is a ploy by Trump’s supporters and Trump’s liberal opponents to reduce Republican ideology to identity alone. The appeal of opportunity is never spent because it is the economic expression of human creativity and institution building. The appeal of civil society is never finally exhausted because it emerges from our need for belonging and love. You might as well declare that the human kidney or liver is outdated.”
White grievance scalpels out the formerly Republican-flouted values of opportunity and community and repurposes them as conditions of scarcity or compromise—circumstances actually faced by minorities. Gerson writes that the US population is currently 72% white, compared to the 88% of Nixon’s era, and more minority children are born each day than whites. Inequity, in fact, now just includes more people. Still, white grievance’s victim complex (employed no better than its Commander in Chief) sees an identity in a process of natural dilution as an identity under threat.
At the commence of our assembling The Wishes Issue, I received a communication from the New Museum regarding its ambitious group exhibition, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”, opening in the new year. The show, which features 37 artists and was originally conceived by the late, iconic curator, Okwui Enwezor, seeks to explore the “the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.” Sub-themes in the show, the release material espouses, aim to examine “the intertwined phenomena of Black grief and a politically orchestrated white grievance, as each structures and defines contemporary American social and political life.”
Art reflects life, as they’ll tell you, and life reflects… injustice?
So how do you land on grief as a point of consideration in the context of wishes? Grief—a process of sorrow associated with loss—is the inverse of a wish which we understand as an object of desire or hope. Or is it an inverse? Can we experience loss if we’re not longing for its being made whole? Does wishing play into grief? There are the five famous stages of grief, as the Kübler-Ross model defines, whereby stage three—bargaining—could very well house under the act of wishing. In the end, neither loss nor desire are capable of non-binary binding. Unlike the political tactics referenced above, a disassociation is impossible.
“My primary sensation is awe,” Naomi Beckwith, Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago—one of four individuals who’ve taken the curatorial reigns on the show in light of Enwezor’s passing—tells me when asked about sentiments experienced in aiming to further his vision for the exhibition. “Awe for a man who was perceptive enough to see the relationship between emotions and politics; to create an argument around the centrality of anti-Black violence to American history and politics; and who was prescient enough to see that, because the US has not worked through these issues, would be acute time after time. He just didn’t know that the next flare-up would be so soon, though his entire point was that the 2016 election was bound to scare up something.”
Comprised of works of video, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, sound, and performance made in the last decade, the exhibition is joined by several historical works and a series of new commissions created in response to the concept of the exhibition. Big ticket names like Basquiat, Bradford, Walker, and Mehretu are peppered throughout, but the show also boasts a decisive and telling mix of rising voices, three of which are featured here. Three artists whose assembly came about because who better to champion a modern take on wishing than a generation that still remembers wishing you could see the face in real time of a distant family member or lover via technology, that remembers where they were when Rodney King was beaten in South Los Angeles, that will be filling the galleries, biennials, and museums in our straight ahead and periphery for the next decade to come?
And, like another former President said, “Change won’t happen overnight”, so, too, must we understand that despite a culture of frenzy and fixation on hurriedness, exhibitions like “Grief and Grievance” are laying the necessary bricks. “I’d forgotten how insistent we are in the States on having grieving and mourning be temporary and short-term episodes: five-stages-and-done,” continues Beckwith on what she encountered in organizing this show that she hadn’t previously expected or considered. “Long-term mourning is seen as pathological. But this show reminds me that it’s important to recognize that repeat loss and trauma will lead to perpetual mourning and that state is a normal reaction. When you see so many contemporary artists—Carrie Mae Weems, Mel Edwards, or Dawoud Bey, for example—evoking violence and loss, then we can see how giving shape to mourning is a powerful motivator for artists too.”
Indeed, we are a culture accustomed to repetition, everything in waves and cycles… yet we’re closing out a year where the word ‘timely’ and ‘critical’ have been seemingly exhausted. Beckwith responds to the idea of the show’s timeliness in the context of 2020 events, and the history that lead us here: “The show has Okwui’s timeless cosmopolitanism running through it,” she says, “both in terms of its art and its political concepts. It’s important to remember that certain historic events may happen in a particular place and target specific people but can still re-order how the world functions. Think about the way the Nazi genocides altered the entire international legal system. Okwui is asking: what global repercussions have come of the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the States? Okwui was also particularly astute at reminding people that important art objects are in the world that may never hit the international market. We have to always look past the loudest, shiniest objects to find other messages artists leave for us across the world.”
The other messages are evident, even if their absorption and application may require a puncturing through of the sheaths and seals that seek to repress them. Here, then, are conversations with three contemporary artists, all framed by a global pandemic and hours in the studio that may have at times not felt so elective, all wishing for something in their own complex ways, or fulfilling a wish that’s been cast upon them by the ripples and spontaneity of fate.
Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas is a New-York based conceptual artist working with motifs related to identity, perspective, media, history, and popular culture. Thomas uses photographs, sculpture, video, and public art projects to consider the role of popular culture in instituting discrimination and how art can raise awareness for social justice and civil rights. Thomas’s body of work constructs dialogues around the stereotypical images of African Americans that media outlets seek to exploit and profit from in film and television as well as advertisements for alcohol, apparel, food, hair-care products, and cigarettes, among other items.
You say you’re juggling multiple projects. What are you currently working on?
One of my collaborations, “For Freedoms”, is focused on creative civic work, and we also have another one which focuses on civic joy. In this election season, we’ve felt a lot of need to be highly engaged on both platforms. The different collaborative projects have been very active this election season. As you know, it’s not over.
How’d you feel about the civic joy surrounding Biden becoming president?
I felt a sense of relief, less about him becoming president, more about who is not going to be president. Nothing against Biden, it’s just I don’t know for how much of the future he’s planning for.
What can you tell me about your civic joy project?
I’ve really seen myself as a part of a generation of artists, and that our function, or our ability to live and work outside of the studio, is just as important as our work inside the studio. I’ve realized that public space and public discourse is really what defines a lot of what we want to explore in the art. More and more artists should be invested in and engaged in shaping those conversations from an earlier point.
Do you feel like that perspective has been culminating over time? Is there a catalyzing event?
For me, it’s been culminating over the past 20 years. There have been artists like the Guerrilla Girls, and Larry Sultan, and the framework of social practice, but the launching of “For Freedoms” first within the election of our president has been an eye-opener to the power of creative storytelling and narrative change and impact.
This civic space has been challenged by shutdowns and restrictions. What are you looking forward to when things get back to normal in the civic space?
I’m most excited about trying to imagine how we emerge from this. It’s like this thing came out of nowhere and changed our lives overnight, and I feel like our return to normal will be like this. Can you imagine the first concert? I’m anticipating there’s going to be some real moments of gratitude that we formerly took for granted. Looking into that future, I’m hoping to survive and that I can be a part of one of these welcoming home events, and the return events happening in the next couple of years.
With the New Museum show, it’s called “Grief and Grievance,” and explores the idea of grief in artwork. I think there’s a crossover in our lives and I wanted to ask how you relate to grief in your own artistic process?
My mature artistic practice was born out of grief. My cousin was murdered at gunpoint, and I had to come to terms with a very personal part of my life becoming a cliché American statistic. Mourning gun violence and going to movies and watching television that glorified gun violence, and recognizing that I might be a part of the problem culturally that I oppose. Throughout my work, I have constantly navigated this kind of double-awareness of how I know we participate in systems that work against us, and how to bring greater awareness without judgment to the public.
Is that something you need to remind yourself of? Or did you make that determination and not look back?
I feel like it’s definitely something I need to remind myself of. You’re not holier than thou, you’re a human being, and that’s how you can make work that relates to others. Racism or interrogating the notion of the truth is always what I’m thinking of myself as also being implicated in the things I’m trying to consume.
Has that led to lifestyle changes or more in the studio space?
I feel like there’s an enlightenment aspect of it and more of worldview changes. I’m not participating in a non-judgmental place where I need to be highly aware. You have to at least face it for yourself to be put in the contradiction.
Acceptance that there is some role playing time and again?
The way fish feel when they poop in the ocean.
There’re stages of grief that have been normalized of how people relate to grief: Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Do you feel like in your artistic practice there’s stages of grief?
I feel like I’m working on acceptance.
What does that look like internally and externally?
Implicating yourself and the process of taking accountability and action, which might include lifestyle changes. That’s the state I find myself in, until you accept you can’t take rightful action. You’re probably in a state of reaction.
I think a lot of people would characterize the contemporary art space as reactive. Would you agree?
In what ways?
Responding to cultural happenings, reacting to inclinations to express oneself. Maybe not?
I feel like perhaps in responding to trends that are internal within the art world, market-driven trends. I would say under the current President, people are in more of a reactive space. I don’t know if prior people were in as much of the same space. Does that make any sense?
The social conditions that gave rise to this year are not new. Do you ever have reservations being a part of group shows?
Do you ever feel like your practice is kind of bolstered by participating in group shows?
Yeah, because it puts me in a greater relationship or connection to artists who I might not otherwise have known. So much of my own practice has changed by seeing myself in relation to other artists.
The curatorial lineage on grief and grievance is inclusive of some big names. Is there anyone in particular you’re excited about being aligned with?
Okwui Enwezor is a friend I never really worked with. I wasn’t in any of his exhibitions, so I think that is a huge honor, that I was on his mind. It’s pretty awesome.
Is there anything you feel you’ve learned about yourself this year?
I definitely feel I’m more resilient than I thought I was. I think in all ways, this has been a huge test for every single person to understand what it’s like to live and face adversity regularly.
Without cease right?
Yep, it’s actually pretty astounding.
What’s something you’ve observed in people close to you that’s resilient?
The capacity to love. I feel like there’s a really great ability to embrace. People that are there when you’re in need but also to be generous. This is a time when a lot of us are being asked to fare more than we have before, to put ourselves second.
Adam Pendleton is a New York-based artist known for work animated by what the artist calls “Black Dada,” a critical articulation of Blackness, abstraction, and the avant-garde. Pendleton’s conceptually rigorous and formally inventive paintings, collages, videos, and installations have been the subject of solo exhibitions across the United States and abroad at numerous renowned institutions.
Pendleton’s work is held in numerous public collections. He created the cover of the Wishes Issue.
You are participating in”Grief and Grievance” at the New Museum, which opens in the new year. The exhibition states that it aims to present “artists working in a variety of mediums who have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.” How do you relate to grief or grievance in your recent work, be it what’s showing in this particular group show or otherwise?
At the New Museum, I am showing a new wall work and a number of works on mylar. The wall work consists of a field of materials prepared in the manner of the mylars—drawings, sketches, and marks, often collaged with images—and arranged in a loose grid. For this installation I have been incorporating language from this summer’s anti-police protests in the U.S., largely language sprayed on walls and windows, and combining it with images of art objects (sculptures and masks) as well as my own fractured language. So I am applying this language to the walls of the museum’s lobby, translating it from the streets, with which the lobby functions as an interface. I am interested in how these expressions of not only grief and grievance, but also rage and determination, are undergirded by the real presence of history and by the real necessity of abstraction. The uprisings point to a pressure placed on language itself, compressing it in some cases into the barest of forms, simple sequences: “ACAB,” “1312.” It is tempting to regard this pressure as poetic.
Concerning grief, the “stages of grief” (anger, denial, bargaining, etc) have become very popularized in psychology. Could you cite works you feel invoke any particular emotion connected to a “stage of grief” and why you feel it connects?
The stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model, “DABDA,” imply to many people a linear progression, at the end of which is acceptance, which means that the stages are supposed to lead to a resolution of the tension created by the loss. In this view, each stage preceding acceptance, while “valid,” is also insufficient and unsustainable, and to remain within one of them for too long is considered unhealthy, almost pathological. I would like to think of the work as far less linear, neither remaining within any stage nor moving toward a resolution of tension. So, I would rather think of all the stages layered at once.
Grief or grievance is very much associated with loss. The phrase “we are not” has been thematic in previous works of yours. I’m curious if you feel any parallel in these concepts as both have to do with an absence of something... or do you see them as polar ideas?
“We are not” is not the mourning of a lost object. It might seem to be closer to melancholia, in that the “what” that “we are not” is never given or understood—it’s unspoken, unvoiced. But I like to think of “we are not” as a much more ambiguous fragment, one that admits a statement of non-being just as it admits a kind of joy or love or freedom, the freedom to not be anything in particular, to be free of predicates and of subjecthood (which is often only just predication). We do not necessarily want to be anything. So there is certainly absence, but there is a different orientation, one that has to do with the autonomy of saying “we are not.” This is critical to what I have been calling, in my work, Black Dada.
How do you feel your relationship to your canvas works has changed in the course of the pandemic, or has it?
One of the spaces I missed most during the lockdown was my painting studio, which is to say I missed the space of my paintings. It took me some time to find a mark that was both liberated and distinct again when I returned to the studio after things began to open up. I love the noise of spray paint and the happenstance nature of painting with it, both of which accumulate in my paintings. I think that when I returned I began to see a chorus of voices, rather than a single voice, trying to negotiate the potential of the collective. In their accumulative quality, the works on canvases are always bringing forth this potential.
I read about your preservation effort of Nina Simone’s old home along with artist Julie Mehretu and others. Beyond the more obvious reasons of preserving cultural heritage with this project, what else about your work do you feel is preservational, if anything? Would you consider your recent ny times magazine cover, for instance, a preservational work?
I consider the work of preservation, in the case of the Nina Simone home, to be very separate from my artwork, which is usually engaged in a process of abstraction and transformation—extracting forms and materials from their contexts and juxtaposing them with other forms and materials. On the contrary, it is of course important that the Nina Simone home does not undergo transformations, that its connection to a specific history and place remains intact. But, in my work, there is no doubt an aspect of preservation within the process of transformation—sometimes it’s the preservation of previously submerged or underthought affinities, things which can only be preserved by being, in a sense, radically disrupted.
Your show at David Kordansky in Los Angeles recently opened. Do you feel there is anything specific in the show that might resonate differently with Californians than, say, an East Coast viewership?
California, historically, has a relationship to utopian (and dystopian) fantasies that sometimes feels more pronounced than that of the East Coast. I am not sure how exactly this relates to my show, although there may be something of the utopian in the We Are Not paintings.
Have you any newer influences, say from the last couple of years?
I’m increasingly interested in the constructed space artists like Jean Dubuffet and Norman Lewis are able to achieve. Oddly enough, they were both born in July, about 8 years apart. Peers, really.
The theme of this issue is “Wishes”, for which you’re creating the Art Cover. How do you personally relate to wishes? Do you find yourself wishing for things or happenings at times? What do you feel your artworks say about wishes or wishing?
I think my work is often an attempt to work out what exactly it is that we wish for, or, more accurately, to catalogue and improvise with the many different ways to ask oneself what one wishes for. Our wishes are often ahead of us, and the work of art occurs largely in this prior space.
What do you feel is most often misunderstood or wrongly assumed about your artwork?
There is sometimes a need to read my use of the color black as negative, as negation. Of course, I am not only or primarily interested in negation. Not to rely too strongly on an opposition, but I often find the work to be joyful.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to the unexpected places to which painting daily in the studio will lead. To following the undeterred necessity of a single mark or gesture.
Kevin Beasley is a New York-based American artist working in sculpture, performance art, and sound installation. Beasley is known for sculpture that incorporates found materials—especially clothing—and casting materials like resin and foam. Many of his sculptures also contain audio equipment or are used in sound-based installations or performances.
Beasley was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial in 2014 and MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition in 2015. The artist has been steadily showing at reputed galleries and institutions around the US for a little over a decade.
What do you feel has been your key focus in 2020—artistically, mentally, physically, or otherwise?
My son was born in late February so raising a kid has been the most important thing for me.
You’re participating in the New Museum’s “Grief and Grievance” show in January. How do you relate to the idea of grief or loss in your artworks?
Grief as a subject is something I am navigating in my studio process quite frequently, because it can be a generative one for considering complex relationships to people, things, and circumstances. They’re fraught with adversity and pain yet filled with love and rejuvenation if we can find our way there. It is important for the work to embody this reconciliation. It is multi-generational, and I can’t help but feel the grief of my ancestors.
Some of your work of course has been known to explore history, ancestry, and migration. Much of these journeys correlate to grief or grievance, but also the inverse—accumulation, love, togetherness. In what you’re seeking to explore in the coming seasons, is the journey balanced by both ends of the spectrum? Or do you feel things are lopsided in one direction or the other?
I’m not sure what is being asked here, but I’m not really privy to recognizing inverses as much as they are compounded conditions. I prefer to think of our experiences of various emotions as simultaneous occurrences. It is all happening at the same time, but it’s really a matter of our own individual ability to process and perceive them.
Performance is a key aspect of your artistic output, an aspect that could be said to most often require an audience. Audiences are not permissible in many parts of the country at present, of course. Post-pandemic, what role do you foresee the audience playing in prospective performative works, or do you? What do you miss about audiences?
Well I think this is really a question about presence and who is necessary to be in the room. Many performances are taking place and there are many different kinds of audiences now—the Kitchen, for instance, hosted a really compelling series of performances by Autumn Knight and they were fit for video-streaming. Watch them. The most common performances that we engage with are cinema and television performances—really crafted for audiences watching through a screen. Another example is Steve McQueen, who I really consider to be a performance artist first, who was able to engage the spectrum of captive audiences through film and video—the nature of the performances really do not depend on the audiences as much as they depend on the core principles of the work. Many great performance artists have utilized video and film in order to reconcile the performance space and its audiences—sometimes, you don’t want the audience in the space you are performing because the performance is not about them. With that said, it is a difficult and challenging time for both audiences and performers. If we think we’re “comfortable” watching things without a collective reckoning/witness, then as an audience we are not doing our work. It is not entertainment and screens that give us this dopamine hit which can confuse the sensation of being moved by something, and artists need to be careful about this.
What sort of arts media has moved you this year that surprised you? Any particular shows, films, books, albums?
Lafawndah’s album, The Fifth Season, floored me and I have that record on repeat, but there are so many things folks are doing on a consistent basis, and I appreciate this more than surprises because it is just harder to do. I’ll just name a few “can’t go wrong” folks: Jennifer Packer, Richard Kennedy, Legacy Russell, Kelsey Lu, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Caitlin Cherry, Eric Mack, Nikita Gale, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Garrett Bradley, Abigail DeVille...
The theme of the issue of your featuring is “Wishes”. Do you ever make wishes? If not, how come? If yes, what’s something you’re currently wishing for?
Sometimes I wish folks just would not, but they do and here we are.