For artist Holly Lee, many of the works featured in her new solo exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum hold a special significance.
Born of the anxieties, fears, and uncertainties emanating from ongoing social-political frictions, I felt an urgent and guttural need to respond through my work. The works here are a continuation of series begun over a decade ago as we greeted, through grinning-yet-gritted teeth, our first Black president. Despite, or unfortunately, precisely because of this achievement, it peeled back the thin veil hiding the hate pulsing and coursing and seething through the body of our country. Some of the works presented here — Looking Back at the Future and Hoof n Mouth – are from that original series, acting as a bridge to the present, declaring unfinished business, and corroborating that old news continues to be new news. The issues that birthed these works have only entrenched us deeper into a society that now, again, is emboldened to celebrate hate. And so, I continue to feel and respond.
Evermore Nevermore offers deadpan, sardonic totems as reflections of a festering hate-filled past to a confused and unrepentant present. At times the work presents a sarcastic specter holding up despicable representations to us, like a visual version of nails on a chalkboard. Yet weirdly they may also act as hopeful monuments sparking ideas for change, rather than not-so-forgotten uglinesses still boiling in the psyche of our culture and its people.
The structure of the work somewhat suggests a formal connection to modern art tropes, neatly packaged within the autonomous art object. The contours of the work’s bold, simple silhouettes and monolithic stance are jazzy improvisations of line derived from vessel shapes. The volumetric portions are meant to stand apart as stoically beautiful. In contrast, I use the trappings of Modernist Formalism and Pop Culture’s expressions of line pulled from cartoon and comic book vernacular to deploy these emotionally charged images with cynicism. The images “unfold” on the opposing side of the abstract forms. These images, hidden on the other side, reveal the within of the vessels. The works are contradictions, challenging beautiful form, line, color, and design, while being wrapped in disturbing and ugly symbols of our racist reality! (Do we as a people hold inside us the hidden rot of hatred, just as these containers?)
The abstract volumes of the work hint at several origins simultaneously—the body; graphic movement in graffiti; African sculpture; the vessel; and more
generally, the deified aesthetic of modernism whose systems of appropriated mannerisms, forms, materials, and building logics were pulled from the African continent and vetted by the colonialism of the Western Art World. Ironically, like the work, these colonized realities and values live in me, fundamentally shaping my sensibilities where these are all the same subjects that inspire me as maker, educator, and lover of art.
My approach to building is to generate at a pace at which traces of the maker, the act of making, remain. There is an immediacy to the movements and marks both in the handling of clay and the pull of a brush line. The images made through a mono-print transfer process preserve similar urgencies and are trapped under a glossy clear surface, folded into the architecture of these quasi-pot sculptures – sealed like amber, preserved and frozen in their aspects.
These images are here to recall and address shameful histories set alongside enigmatically positive images too; a gesturing black hand on Glad Hand, the proud black pride figure of Lil’ Tuffy on No More Words, and on the piece Benevolent Manifestation Gazing down upon the Land, a forgiving gaze of a victim of hateful violence who sparked the yet-to-be-resolved civil rights movement. Pause to ponder the incongruity and jarring juxtaposition of beauty and hate, like medicine delivered in honey are these startling forms beguiling and quizzical enough to trigger contemplation and change and understanding?
This work was difficult for me to make – confronting feeling of self-hate while redeploying both brutally literal and stereotyped images. I wrestled with each one, and there are many that I could not make. They lay abandoned, avoided, or sealed in my sketchbook of scary things too dangerous to look at.
I do not present my work as answers; these pieces are felt reactions to a constant inequity and unresolved tension of my lived experience, a person of color, in a country more and more clearly comfortable with intolerance rather than tolerance – a country and time still unsure that we are all one people.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith