The art of Howardena Pindell makes for an explorative journey of the difficulties she encountered as an artist of color in the US, yet this is all wonderfully retraced in her current retrospective held at MCA Chicago.
Entitled What Remains to Be Seen, the exhibition shows how her artistic experimentation is deeply rooted in the interaction she observes between dots and grids, two elemental forms she has used since the Space Frames she started with as an artist in the late 1960s.
Perhaps strongly inspired by her father who as a mathematician and teacher carefully recorded his calculations on lined papers and ledgers, her artworks are very formally organized and methodical.
Some of her earlier pieces may seem therapeutic experiments in automatic writing, but to me, they show a mechanical recording of Howardena placing her emotional life coordinates onto a graph. An attempt to stabilize the shifting forces around her.
Perhaps devising a framework and filling it with much-loved circular elements was a way to find peace of mind. Or rather it was a way to battle against the anger she constantly felt in a society where racism remained (and still remains) latent.
Taught by her parents to never speak in anger, she used her art to channel her energy and started…hole-punching!
What a wonderful artistic metaphor for Howardena to fight back with: elegant yet forceful.
Welcoming the labor-intensive hole-punching process she pioneered, this became key to achieving a grounding force, to make sense of how she – and we all – fit as small pieces (small hole-punched dots) within the wider universal frame we live in.
This preoccupation for the wider universe and interest in the outer space of stars and planets never really left Howardena Pindell’s mind since she was a child, and this shows in many ways .
Visible in the dots and ovals of her early works, such motif becomes even clearer with her breakthrough signature technique from the mid 1970s.
She started stenciling small dots over large canvas, almost in a street art version of Seurat’s Pointillism.
Varying colors sprayed over these stencils, she also brought additional texture by gluing the residual hole-punched dots from her stencils.
If you look back, aren’t you immediately transported to a faraway galaxy by this myriad of colorful confetti? Yet if you look up close, can you see how her artworks are fully made of the same cloth? The punched holes and the stenciled patterns are all formal elements belonging to the larger entity of her art.
My personal interpretation is that the stencil represents the societal framework of our world which excludes (punch-holes) various elements judged inadequate; yet, Howardena shows both the significance and insignificance of what us humans are made of: made from the same stars, the same cloth, the same stencil.
We are atoms and void in the Epicurean sense. We all carry our different colors and as such, Howardena Pindell’s art is a reconstructive attempt to abstract differences.
As Pindell’s new painterly technique veered towards pretty abstract paintings, colors and dots took precedence over her original grids (barely visible in the example below), as if she relished this new found freedom of expression through the technique she made hers.
Building on heavier texture gave further artistic direction. Howardena Pindell got rid of the “grid” that a conventional canvas could represent and started cutting and sewing her artworks on unstretched fabrics.
She achieved a renewed artistic materiality by cutting and reattaching stencil pieces, building up layers upon layers of punch holed paper confetti, sometimes threading in glitter, makeup powder and perfume. As such, demonstrating femininity and tenacity that abstraction could not express before.
Sometimes, a subtle grid reappeared but really not until she decided to cut and sew her dots on her canvas. Her interest in “making” via a laborious process is evident in the thick build-up of her artworks, only partially alleviated by the perforation elements of her applied materials.
In a sense, Howardena Pindell presents a feminine version of the social push / pull effect I also witnessed in Mark Bradford’s collage and decollage technique.
Pindell’s punch-holing and layering is an attempt to make all the pieces fit despite the still intense social pressures to make them very much separate.
1979 was a watershed year when everything changed. Victim of a car accident leaving her with partial memory losses, Pindell turned back to figurative art, with a clear autobiographical and activist angle.
The “making” became reconstructive, or perhaps a way to show her scars and newfound vulnerability.
Her art is filled with outlines of bodies from past and present (hers but also the social victims she takes heart to champion): she is still trying to make sense of the world around her but is much more vocal in her art.
One detail I find particularly striking is how she seems to constantly reattach parts of herself within her world post-accident, but also within her art.
Looking at this large scale canvas in baby blue, the suture lines are clear and everything is held together tightly.
Yet she also declared travels to India and Japan, amongst other destinations, becoming an essential way of life: making new memories but extracting herself nonetheless to re-learn how to fit in.
Look how she uses travel postcards or photographs as memory triggers, cut them in thin bands and spread these apart.
Only then does she proceeds painting and filling the gaps in between, matching the photograph’s pattern and colors but clearly expanding reality slightly in the process.
In a way, as Pindell feels cut from the world, this is her way to reinsert herself or to rebuild the world around. She is separate and within at the same time. Visible but trying to blend in, despite her separateness. Her techniques make this emotionally draining process ever so elegant.
As the show is almost reaching its end, I think of the title again What Remains to Be Seen…and then Howardena’s most recent works hit me fully.
We are back in space, searching the world of astronomy and science she discovered with her father as her canvases lose their loosely rectangular framework.
The grids are gone, the spirals are in…is she letting go? Relinquishing? Still searching for what remains to be seen?
This retrospective is on until May 20th, 2018 at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and will travel to the Virginia Museum of Art afterwards. Go get hole-punched!
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.