Stanford Department of Art & Art History presents Freeform
Richard Jonathan Nelson
Curated by Dionne Lee and Rawley Clark
History is often understood in linear terms—one event precedes the next, and so on, resulting in a cultural memory and consciousness pin-pricked and incomplete. Memory has suffered through a successive recalling, when its true form is more abstract. Abstraction can be seen as a skewing, transforming, and reshaping of images and stories that we have always known.
In Freeform, Laneya Billingsley, Richard Jonathan Nelson, Stuart Robertson, and Sam Vernon use images—found, heavily circulated, and vernacular—and objects rendered after their own visions. At times stitching together something familiar; at other times creating something entirely new. It is in this way that the artists in this exhibition look to both the past and the future concurrently.
Reworking and morphing histories simultaneously to invent worlds anew, these artists utilize abstraction in a way that allows them to expand the canon and introduce a new line to understand, to recall, and to project through.
Richard Jonathan Nelson utilizes digital manipulation and rematerializes them into textiles, video, and images to explore speculative futures, culturally perceived identity, and the emotional memory of what it means to be a queer black man. References to hoodoo, queer culture, and Afro-Futurism are woven into images of the natural world.
In his series Afer, a neon (a consistent palette of Nelson’s) tropical landscape is shown through a broken link fence, a marker of human intervention both in the placement of the fence and in its tearing down. The barrier twists and contorts, sometimes appearing absorbed by the psychedelic palms and ferns.
Afer is defined as: a wind that blows from the south-west, especially considered as originating in Africa; an individual of the Afri tribe, which the continent of Africa is believed to be named after; and is another name for Lips, the Roman deity of the southwest wind. This weaving of direction, origins, deities, and the power of the unseen–be it the wind or a hoodoo spell–connects directly to Nelson’s interest in the relationship between perceived identity, collective memory, and the potential to live in a shape closer to that of the wind, unbound and free-forming.
Sam Vernon uses collage, drawing, installation, and photography, often in black and white, to convey a sense of uneasiness in the familiar. Vernon’s work creates narrative dualities: life and death, dreams and nightmares, what is real and what is fake. Her installations create worlds that bring to the surface ideas and imagery whose existence is frequently debated, often including ghosts and spirits.
Her collages are heavily abstract, leaving the viewer responsible to create a context in which these beings can exist. Vernon’s work takes the recognizable and revises it, often reimagining historical imagery and creating an alternative history. The presence of ghosts in Vernon’s work invokes a sense of the looming past; the ways alternative histories always exist in some form, even when they have so long been ignored.
Stuart Robertson captures experiences of Blackness through assemblage and collages of everyday objects and images. His assemblages evidence the diligent collection of objects otherwise to have been discarded, now refashioned by careful hands into the series Monoliths. Robertson’s sculptures create landscapes that simultaneously establish and erase a narrative. While giving new life to these discarded objects, he erases their individual pasts and brings them together into new and abstracted stories.
Similarly, Robertson’s collage works force the viewer to reimagine views of Black people that are fed to us through popular media. These collages challenge us to either make sense of what are actually familiar faces or to make due with one’s inability to make perfect sense of them. The ideas of reclamation and recreation are heavy in Robertson’s work, as they create new landscapes out of ideas and objects we once thought we knew well.
Laneya Billingsley explores the elasticity of identity and the strive towards self-love. In the video In the Arms of Yourself, the artist is at the center, cloaked and resembling a Mary Magdalene-like figure, her body disjointed yet holding a fixed gaze. There are many entryways (or exits) depicted. Walls made out of bodies move in unison, appearing to dance but at times looking like they are attempting to swim. Portals of water ripple above and below, and a small rendering of the artist walks in and out of doors that seemingly go nowhere or lead back to each other. A voice comes in slow singing "In the Arms of an Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, the title of this piece obviously a reference to her, asks us who does the saving or protecting–a force based in faith of the unseen or the force of one's own self?
View an additional work by Laneya Billingsley, You is you is you.