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AMBER ROBLES-GORDON’s “Successions : Traversing U. S. Colonialism” reviewed in Bmore Art

10 Dec

READING

Amber Robles-Gordon’s Geographies of Care

VISUAL ART

Amber Robles-Gordon’s Geographies of Care

At the Katzen Arts Center, Robles-Gordon’s exhibition conveys a first-person account of the intimacies of movement

People, food, and horticulture are among the things that move. Amber Robles-Gordon’s use of the Ficus Elastica is part of the symbology that reverberates throughout her exhibition, Successions: Traversing US Colonialism, on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, DC, through December 12, 2021. The Ficus Elastica—colloquially known as the rubber tree—has its roots in South Asia, though it was later nativized in the West Indies through the rubber trade. Dear reader, among your houseplants you are likely to find the genus of the rubber plant.

The ficus form appears in Robles-Gordon’s collage series Place of Breath and Birth and the six quilts that comprise Successions, the second body of work and the exhibition’s namesake. “Elemental: Tierra, Aire, Agua, Fuego” (2020), a mixed-media collage from Place of Breath and Birth, uses the ficus to gesture toward culture, genealogy, and place. Here the ficus form spreads from a pregnant middle point, growing outward in four directions, above and below, left and right. Bands of yellow, light blue, teal, and iridescent black paint and paper mimic movement. Most striking is the middle space: the central band of color and ink brings to mind a sonic wave, an echo of the artist’s interest in spirit and culture, the divine feminine, and place—her place, the titular place of breath and birth within the Afro/Latinx diaspora.

Through lines that curve and increase in thickness, “Elemental” vibrates off the wall, exploding the collaged territories’ discrete demarcations through gestures of emergence and slippage. It is here that Robles-Gordon’s practice of collage and assemblage evokes Black life as it exceeds the boundaries of the nation-state and of the medium.

Robles-Gordon made Place of Breath and Birth during a self-defined art residency and while living and traveling between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC—a period of time disrupted by Hurricane Isaias and the COVID-19 pandemic. In Successions, we encounter her motifs and movements within a broader practice. Robles-Gordon is a DC-based artist whose family lineage is in the Black diaspora with ties to Puerto Rico and the greater Caribbean. These diaspora ties are reflected in creative and cultural traditions she draws from, including the Washington Color School, Alma Thomas, the Gee’s Bend Quilters of Alabama, and botanical elements within Afro-Latinx religions.

Amber Robles-Gordon, y mi bandera vuela mas alto que la tuya, 2020, mixed-media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Amber Robles-Gordon, The eternal altar for the women forsaken and souls relinquished. Yet the choice must always remain hers/ El altar eterno de las mujeres abandonadas y las almas renunciadas. Sin embargo, la elección siempre debe ser de ella., 2020. mixed-media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist

While one side of the quilts represents the territories through symbols like flags, eagles, and other emblems of the state, the reverse intones a spiritual element, the cultural heart of these geopolitical spaces.

The artist’s exhibition conveys a first-person account of the intimacies of movement—and the past’s effect on the present through empire, colonialism, and transatlantic slavery, of which territory is a major mechanism. Place of Breath and Birth and Successions both invite us to think about the territory and what Caribbeanist scholar Sylvia Wynter has named “mistaking the map.” In the article “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory,” Wynter describes the mistaken map as a series of factors of difference in academic discipline, and in social contexts, that conscribe a particular meaning of “human” to the current social order. The consequences of this mistaken map are that what it means to be “human” is conscripted through logics of belonging that reflect a worldview that excludes, proliferates violence, and is upheld by the state. In Robles-Gordon’s hands, mistaking the map means we must contend with the entanglements of colonialism and empire—and the spiritual resonance of it all—in the wake of violence. 

Place of Breath and Birth bears the mark of one of the United States empire’s territories, Puerto Rico, referencing the artist’s personal relationship to its people, land, and culture. Successions take a more hemispheric approach. This series comprises double-sided quilts standing in for five territories of the U.S. empire—Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands—and the District of Columbia, a federal district. While one side of the quilts represents the territories through symbols like flags, eagles, and other emblems of the state, the reverse intones a spiritual element, the cultural heart of these geopolitical spaces. This second orientation to the quilts, which are suspended from the gallery ceiling like flags in a federal building’s rotunda, upends a logic of conquest by inviting viewers to encounter them through another path.

The sixth quilt, the first completed in the series, titled “When All is Well (Front)” stands out with its color palette of red, green, and sunburst orange against a black background. With paint and fabric stitched together, the quilt holds symbology of flora, fauna, and deconstructed text that contrasts with a pattern of white geometric lines and marks. From the quilt’s outer reaches comes a cascading element of green and brown lines and curves and triangular patchwork, and a pink-and-yellow bloom disrupts the earthen tones. A circular area with symmetrical marks, resembling eyes, is composed alongside what might be a talisman hanging in sunburst orange. “When All is Well/The Hawk (Back)” continues motifs of flora and fauna, alongside a black background where line and mark bring together symbols reflecting latent and less obvious cultural and social inflections of being. 

How necessary that the District of Columbia—the political seat of the US empire and a geopolitical place vying for its own statehood—would factor into Successions. “DC Political, Welcome to the District of Colonialism” and its reverse, “DC Spiritual, Native American,” evoke the duplicity of empire and subjugation, culture and acknowledgment.

On “DC Political,” Robles-Gordon deconstructs the seal and the flag that marks the territory, pulling at the seams of the spangled banner’s stars and stripes and the district’s spatial dimensions. An insignia where Lady Justice hangs a wreath at the George Washington monument sits off-kilter and atop a depiction of indigenous presence—in a place where the Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nentego (Nanichoke), Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan, and Powhatan cultures thrived. These depictions are housed in the outlined topography of DC as a landscape. The other view, “Native American,” produces a hieroglyphic of symbol, line, and color that suggest the heart/soul of a presence that thrived, championed expansive visions of existence, and yet is constantly erased. This view acts as a portal, building a world that can be imagined outside of subjugation and conquest, one that can imagine the multivocal breadth of care as a collective practice against such dehumanization and erasure. 

DC Spiritual, Native American (Back), 2021, mixed media on quilt, 86 x 90 inches
Amber Robles-Gordon, DC Political, Welcome to the District of Colonialism (Front), 2021, mixed media on quilt, 90 x 86 inches

As a navigation of the roots and routes of Puerto Rico’s colonial past and present, the mixed-media collage invites viewers not simply to witness horror, but to build and acknowledge care as a revolutionary practice.

Empire makes inroads through racialized gender. The fact that textile art has always been gendered (due to its connotations with craft, domestic space, the labor of women, and the feminine) is well-trodden territory. National imaginaries and territory, meanwhile, are constructions of masculinist notions of conquest and control; the infantilization of the native/colonial subject often stands in as a proxy for gendered labor. Taking bits and pieces of colored fabric and material and assembling them into an amalgamated whole, Robles-Gordon’s technique harkens back to gendered labor and care. 

Take, for example, “The eternal altar for the women forsaken and souls relinquished. Yet the choice must always remain hers.” (2020), from Place of Breath and Birth. This work draws on the histories of experimental birth control trials and forced sterilization of poor Puerto Rican women between the 1930s and 1970s, and the notion of bodily autonomy alongside the process of reclamation. Forced sterilization, a dehumanizing form of state systematic violence, was exercised to curtail poverty and unemployment, and it intersects with early forms of gynecological testing on enslaved people. 

In Robles-Gordon’s collage, blood red brings into focus the embodied ways that racialized and gendered labor produce the violence of empire. We might also see connections to women and queer rebellion, in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the retooling of naming Blackness on census data in Puerto Rico through the efforts of groups such as Colectivo Ilé and Revista Étnica. As a navigation of the roots and routes of Puerto Rico’s colonial past and present, the mixed-media collage invites viewers not simply to witness horror, but to build and acknowledge care as a revolutionary practice that transforms how people interact with one another and how they interact with place.

In her book In the Wake, Christina Sharpe writes of care work as a labor in which Black diaspora people insist on life-giving practices alongside the singularity of slavery, to hold space for Black life. Care is woven through Robles-Gordon’s work: These mixed-media collages are potent worlds where touch is a critical factor in their making. The detail in which black bits and pieces give way to the constellations of color and line, fragmented yet collective, ruptures a too-easy analysis of collage as a process of making that dissects and creates categories of materials like an index. Quilts are sensory, touch-based work; they invite exploration of the haptic and of intimacies with space. 

I return to the presence of the Ficus Elastica as a symbol throughout Place of Breath and Birth and Successions. While the formal qualities of the ficus are more readily present in Place of Breath, it is a motif of importance in Robles-Gordon’s work. It becomes a way to get behind and underneath the spatial politics of the territory, and toward a politics of care, where people on the land forge their own experiences, make culture, and fortify community in spite of empire.

Amber Robles-Gordon, American Samoa Spiritual (Back), 2021, mixed media on quilt, 104 x 90 inches
Amber Robles-Gordon, American Samoa Political (Front), 2021, mixed media on quilt, 104 x 90 inches

Images courtesy of American University/Katzen Arts Center. Art images courtesy of the artist. Exhibition installation photos by Greg Staley

Available Artwork by AMBER ROBLES-GORDON

KATHERINE TZU-LAN MANN in Bmore Art by Suzy Kopf

7 Oct

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann Isn’t Apologizing for Beauty Anymore

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann Isn’t Apologizing for Beauty Anymore

Mann’s wall-sized collages and installations rework and play with her own life and history, visually summarizing the collision of her upbringing

Collage can be loosely summarized as the coming together of contrasting elements to make a new whole. Bold colors or patterns are pushed up against representational forms to create a world that doesn’t adhere to the laws of gravity or perspective. We recognize this in the 100-year-old canvases of artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris (who currently has a show up at the Baltimore Museum of Art). Perhaps because of these origins of collage, it’s especially notable when a contemporary artist combines elements of themselves in their work, not just material from the world around them. 

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann’s wall-sized collages and installations rework and play with her own life and history, visually summarizing the collision of her upbringing. Moving every two or three years through Asia, the US, and the Middle East as the daughter of an American foreign service officer father and a Taiwanese mother, homemaker, teacher, and graphic designer, Mann first dabbled with traditional Sumi-e ink techniques as a teen but didn’t learn to speak Chinese until college.

In her work, Mann simultaneously combines Eastern and Western influences, using extremely old mediums such as Sumi-e ink, invented in the first century AD in China, and contemporary ones such as Yupo paper, a plastic paper that is popular with water media artists because it repels water instead of absorbing it, allowing ethereal shapes that recall their watery origins to dry slowly.

Installation view of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Water Ribbon at Morton Fine Art

In her practice, Mann creates space for herself to exist as a biracial person, something she says is a “lifelong struggle and burden” of constantly feeling out of place. The traditional Asian painting traditions are not fully hers, she feels, and neither is the thorny history of Western landscape painting, which is inherently tied to imperialism and colonialism. In her studio in the DC studio complex STABLE, Mann has both a well-worn Thomas Moran book and a similarly battered book of the Buddhist Mogao caves at Dunhuang, China, within arm’s reach. A self-identified landscape painter, she draws upon both histories of painting place, relating to her ancestors, who she describes being “destroyed by colonialism,” and the undeniable beauty of the work of the Hudson River School, problematic as they are.

I first saw a solo show of Mann’s work at Goucher College in 2015, and over the six years I’ve been admiring it since, it has become more chaotic, more layered, and, as Mann sees it, “more fragmented.” The pandemic caused great personal loss for the artist: Two of her grandparents passed away, one from COVID-19 and one most likely from pandemic-induced confinement. But it has also caused her to rethink the way she works. She also connects the start of these internal shifts to parenthood (she is the mother of 4-year-old Mae and 6-year-old Calvin), which has caused her to grow more accustomed to taking risks in her art and being less rigid. 

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Arch 2 (diptych), 2018, acrylic, sumi ink, silkscreen, and monoprint on paper, 60 x 120 inches
Installation view of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Water Ribbon at Morton Fine Art

Many of the works in her current solo show, Water Ribbon, at DC’s Morton Fine Art (up until October 6), are a record of the last eighteen months, when Mann took care of her children during the day and worked for long chunks of the night in her studio. “I’m going to look back at the pandemic as this time of immense grief and loss,” she says. “But also, I’m going to look back at it as a time where I became much more connected to my kids.”

Before having children, Mann was a regular on the DMV college-adjunct circuit. Since having her son and daughter—and especially since the pandemic forced her to become a “preschool student” of immersion Mandarin (to support her daughter’s education, she says, laughing)—she and her partner have worked out a system where they split childcare and Mann is a full-time artist. Her ability to support herself with art sales and commissions speaks to her talent, but moreover, it is evidence of her work ethic. 

Coming out of MICA’s Hoffberger MFA program in 2009, she knew that there were not going to be galleries knocking down her door to work with her. Instead, she focused on open calls and began what has become a constant practice of sending out applications. The results have basically been a snowball of opportunities over the last twelve years.

“I applied to the Hamiltonian fellowship after grad school and when I got that they brought my work to art fairs,” she says. “A gallery saw a painting at an art fair and picked me up after I was finished with the fellowship. I was lucky that happened, but I did apply to it to begin with.” She also got good at accepting rejection and moving on. 

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Crust, Mantle, Core, 2021, acrylic and collage on paper, 60 x 60 inches
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Ley, 2020, acrylic, sumi ink, and collage on paper, 45 x 55 inches

This is not to imply Mann’s career has been without its professional challenges—she began to pursue public commissions because of a bad business deal. When she was pregnant with her son six years ago, she had gallery representation in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto—an enormous professional milestone for many. And then, seemingly without warning, all but the Toronto gallery went out of business, one going bankrupt while owing Mann a substantial amount of money for works that had been sold. “It felt like, oh, you achieved this goal that you’re supposed to have in the art world. And then you ended up worse for it,” Mann says. “It felt like this lack of independence, a lack of freedom on my part to have control over my own destiny because all of these other people were players.”

But Mann isn’t dwelling in the past, and is instead focusing on ways to evolve her studio work alongside the large-scale commissions. For the works in her show at Morton Fine Art, “there was more bold cutting into forms and it’s a little bit more aggressive,” she says. “Whereas before, I was thinking about building these bodies and having these additions onto the bodies.”

Weathering this season of loss, Mann sees a “subtractive element” in her work where there had previously been additions, focusing more on “sharply cutting into forms to take things away and confuse the negative space more. What is negative space is not as apparent now as it was.” Where earlier collages focused on contrast, in the new works made in 2020, collage is becoming camouflage.

A single completed painting contains many “failed paintings,” Mann says, which have been recycled and pasted into new works, creating an overall “hybridity” that she is seeking. She works on paper, first laying it down on the floor and pouring ink onto it, and then pinning it to the wall so she can paint and collage in an immediate manner, responding to previous marks and allowing her plans to change as the work develops. 

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Dunhuang 1, 2016, acrylic and sumi ink on paper, 60 x 84 inches

Contrary to the traditional emphasis on sketching in art school, Mann doesn’t create sketches first unless working on a commission for a client. Her process-oriented works begin with an ink pouring, which “provides the rest of the direction of the future of the painting.” The resulting works are layered and confusing to behold because they seem to move constantly between flat and textural areas, a phenomenon that Mann recognizes from her training in traditional Chinese landscape painting, which also emphasizes shifting perspective. Sumi-e painting can be thought of as a kind of meditation that follows an extremely specific order of brush strokes to create such classical natural subjects as bamboo, cherry blossoms, and mountains. The repetition of subject matter and method has found its way into Mann’s work; botanical and decorative themes such as flowers and undulating bows have been motifs since the artist’s graduate school days. Over time, she feels that these symbols “take on a new form, new meaning, or become kind of diffused in their original meaning.” And for this reason, she returns to them, playing with how to make them over again.

Like most of us, it seems Mann is entering the next phase of the pandemic with a new acceptance of herself and her work. She no longer tries to explain away the inherently pleasant nature of much of the patterns, colors, and compositions of her work. “I originally felt like it was a flaw in the work that it was beautiful and therefore not serious,” she says. “I’ve come to not apologize for that.” 

She believes that the concept of beauty as trivial comes from the male and Western tradition of Abstract Expressionism, which she butted up against with Grace Hartigan, then-director of Hoffberger, in her first year of graduate school. Mann recalls Hartigan telling her that “pattern tickles the eye but does not touch the soul,” which was hard for her to move past. Mann began purposefully working with symbols of beauty to address this critique and in “acknowledgment of beauty and girlhood,” she explains. After the pandemic, it’s hard to really see the pursuit of pleasure as a problem.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Water Ribbon, 2021, acrylic and sumi ink on paper, 90 x 60 inches

*****

Featured image: Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Understory, 2021, acrylic, collage, and sumi ink on paper, 56 x 56 inches

Installation view of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Water Ribbon at Morton Fine Art
Installation view of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Water Ribbon at Morton Fine Art

All images courtesy of the artist and Morton Fine Art. Installation views by Jarrett Hendrix

Available artwork by KATHERINE TZU-LAN MANN

AMBER ROBLES-GORDON’s ” “Fertile Grounds: of minds, the womb, and the earth” at The Nicholson Project

13 Dec

 

 

In DC, neighborhoods are facing an unprecedented amount of change in appearance, racial makeup, and social policies that runs counter to the once-prevalent idea of DC being “Chocolate City.” However, there are ways to balance change with paying respects to DC’s living history. The Nicholson Project, an artist residency that recently opened in Ward 7, hopes to demonstrate this change effectively with the inaugural resident artist Amber Robles-Gordon, who lives only eight minutes from the building. For me, it feels like a house turned into a relic, with its period-accurate rehab details; however, the Nicholson Project owners do not focus on the actual former owners, but highlight contemporary artists of color instead.

Robles-Gordon’s multimedia installation at the Nicholson Project, “Fertile Grounds: of minds, the womb, and the earth,” delves into emotional and physical histories of the bodies of women of color in scientific and medical contexts. From gynecologist and slave-owner J. Marion Sims to government-sanctioned Tuskegee experiments, systematic violence on Black women and their wombs plays a quintessential part of American history and medicine. Nowadays, such violence has evolved into defiling the space that bodies of color inhabit; a disproportionate amount of US pollution, for instance, is shipped off to poorer countries for processing. This installation, Robles-Gordon explained to me, “is a conversation about the deleterious effects that man-made products have on the earth in general and how that is in conjunction with what we put into our body: unresolved trauma, unresolved issues, unresolved energy.”

In tribute to the story and cells of Henrietta Lacks—the Baltimore woman whose immortal cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent at Johns Hopkins in 1951, and continue to be used in research to this day—“Fertile Grounds” layers nuance into how informed consent shapes who and what gains access to bodies and parts. Her installation seems to ask: “Who has the right to examine and characterize what is happening here? How are they describing it, and are they using the correct tools and language to do so?”

The room-size installation uses every corner and cranny of its 12-square-foot space, from floor to rafters. White cotton strings, which remind me of Fred Sandbeck’s minimalist work, hang vertically, in a 3-D formation approaching the viewer. Suspended from the strings, colorful sticks wrapped in natural and synthetic fabrics form diamond shapes at different heights and depths. Each of the three layers is approximately 8 inches apart, dancing whenever you move around. The flat V shape of the overall installation, when seen head-on, channels sacred yoni power and fragility. Approachable only from the sides and front, the installation offers viewers no access to its inner layers, setting a subtle barrier of modesty and mystery.

Women, in Robles-Gordon’s interpretation, bear the brunt of environmental instability and physical violation. The artist focuses on the physical manifestations of trauma through fibroids, growths that spontaneously appear in uteruses due to hereditary factors and which are thought to be exacerbated through emotional and physical stress. The systemic disadvantage that women of color receive in medical contexts compounds these problems.

With Henrietta Lacks, her DNA was taken from her womb without her knowledge and parsed out to strangers, thousands of times, in a 20th-century form of legal slavery. More to the point, medical institutions and genetic science itself have profited off of her cells without the Lacks family‘s knowledge, anonymized as HeLa cells to conceal the fact that any living person was ever connected to them. To stress the ancestral and narrative power of Lacks’ ordeal, Robles-Gordon uses talking sticks, an indigenous artifact that uses twigs wrapped in different strips of cloth, to represent her DNA.

“Someone told me I have a fascination with materiality,” Robles-Gordon says. “Each stick is like a conversation or like a strand of DNA where it’s perfectly imperfect.”

She uses a rainbow palette with an evolved sense of how its placement completes the personification of humanity: the spirit of colors, feelings, and experiences. With her previous solo show in 2018, Third Eye Open, Robles-Gordon focused outwards, on the infinity of the cosmos; here at the Nicholson Project, she zeroes in on the unknowable within the body.

Stefanie Reiser, the owner and operator of the Nicholson Project, came to the idea of an arts residency by way of her main occupation in real estate development. When she was starting out, she says, she was “gravitating towards doing things that are related to the arts and how I could use space in a way that really could cultivate and be a cultural hub or a catalyst for creative activities.” She also took care, in her complete rehab of the Nicholson Project house, to bring in historically accurate doorways, flooring, and fixtures to reflect the styling of similar houses built around the same time, decades ago. In an interview, Reiser stressed how the property became an important symbol of history remade and re-examined for her. This building, which officially opened Sept. 14, offers paid residencies for creatives of all disciplines, stating on its Instagram that it creates “a safe, equitable space for artists to work on their studio practice and produce onsite creative activations.”

Besides Robles-Gordon’s installation, there is a photo exhibition entitled Goosin’ featuring local artist and Howard University professor Larry Cook, videographer Vince Brown, and photographer Beverly Price, alongside “Take a Stand” (2019), a neon piece by Jefferson Pinder. Goosin’, which according to the Nicholson Project’s Instagram means “the act of looking at someone or something in admiration,” features boys crouched in front of a blue backdrop, neighborhood businesses, and protestors that proclaim that “housing is a right, not a privilege.” They occupy a significant place in the gallery, well lit by the lights above and by Pinder’s artwork.

This current collection of artwork is both a study of medical anthropology and abstraction, leaving me with more questions than answers about how to value my own body and keep it from violation and degradation. Robles-Gordon’s confrontation of the past in the Nicholson Project’s rehabilitated space is a meaningful way to combat a culture that dissects and disseminates the bodies of Black and brown women, cutting deep until there is nothing left.

 


 

Admission to the Nicholson Project is free, but visitors need to make an appointment at info@thenicholsonproject.com to gain access outside of public event times. Exhibitions on view through the end of 2019.

Photos by Anne Kim / courtesy of the artist

 

Available artwork by AMBER ROBLES-GORDON

Contact:
Morton Fine Art
52 O St NW #302
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 628-2787
mortonfineart@gmail.com