THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Alfred Conteh, Teddy, 2018. Acrylic and atomized bronze dust on canvas, 73” x 37.5” Image courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery
Titus Kaphar Modesty, 2011. oil on canvas, 47” x 7.5” x 96” Image courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery
The summer collection at Kavi Gupta Gallery on West Washington Street, “Parallel Lives,” brought together thought-provoking figuration and portraiture that probed questions of identity and blurred the edges of reality. The group exhibition was thematically, if not visually, cohesive. Each artist approached the topic in their own style and media.
Among the most striking inclusions was the work in the entry hallway: Glenn Kaino’s piece shone—literally. Bridge (Turn) (2018) is composed of two shockingly gold disembodied arms raising a fist in front of a mirror framed by lights. The floor buckles in between the arms, creating a repetitive, hypnotic world extending far beyond the confines of the room and reality. It functions as a bridge between one world and another.
It was impossible to ignore the large portrait of a black man hanging in the main gallery. His head leans back, and he gazes out of the canvas with a combination of weariness and disinterest. Teddy (2018) is rendered in acrylic with extraordinary detail by Atlanta artist Alfred Conteh. The kinks in each hair of his beard, the lines in his lips, the wrinkles in his t-shirt, and the misplacement of the clasp on his chain are each carefully rendered. Yet Conteh departs from naturalism by painting in black and white against a vivid turquoise background. The canvas is aged with atomized bronze dust, making it rough, speckled, and stretched–a distinctly unnatural effect. Even when removed from reality, however, Teddy is alive—electric, even. It’s these contradictions between naturalism and abstraction that make the piece powerful.
On another wall, viewers are asked to consider what modesty requires. Titus Kaphar settles on removing the body all together. Imagine Modesty (2011) before it reached its final form, and you would see a larger-than-life oil painting of a nude woman, with long hair, standing on a rocky beach, the next in a long lineage of such paintings.
But Kaphar cut her limbs free and crumpled the canvas against her chest. Her body is an empty silhouette. It speaks to dialogues more present than ever in 2018 about the sexualization of the female form and the right to take up space. Perhaps this woman cannot exist—clothed or not—modestly enough for the public. Whatever Kaphar’s intended message, he succeeds in creating an unsettling and thought-provoking image.
The adjacent works were a fraction of the size and did not carry the same shock value but stood out nonetheless. Inka Essenhigh’s enamel on canvas works are visually and technically impressive. In Flowers in Starlight (2018), the artist represents language literally. White two-dimensional stars spill from the sky onto the ground among the flowers like party decorations rendered in her signature dreamy style. New Flowers (2018), which uses a chrome-like silver spray paint to great effect, depicts glowing buds emerging between parted stalks in a silvery bubble of safety. Both pieces mix beauty with darkness and strike ominous notes that hint that something dangerous lurks beyond the shimmer and petals.
Inka Essenhigh, Flowers in Starlight, 2018. Enamel on canvas, 24” x 24” , 61 x 61 cm. Image courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery.
A less-established artist contributed four noteworthy works to the installation. Basil Kincaid is known for embracing the history of his African-American family and incorporating that into his work. His quilts—a nod to the craft his family has participated in for generations–were made with his family’s discarded garments and bed sheets. Seams, buttons, and company logos create a patchwork of memories draped on the walls. It is nostalgic yet purposeful.
One quilt, Labor and Leisure (2018), brings together his father’s shirts and his parents’ bed sheets in a single whole wherein employer-issued polos and satin sheets meet. In Self-Portrait Quilt (2017), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles peer out between khaki pockets and plaids. The fabric of his life is captured in viscerally recognizable details that come together to create a mesmerizing whole.
Firelei Báez contributed a five-by-seven-foot oil painting that monumentalizes a forgotten thing, or perhaps the act of deciding to discard it. The subject of Untitled Tignon Painting is a crumpled sheet of paper with a fabric-like print. A tignon is a large piece of fabric worn as a turban-like headdress that was once required by law for Creole women in Louisiana.
A woman of color born in the Caribbean, Báez’s reflection on tignons is part of a larger thematic impulse to study and celebrate women of color in her art. This particular piece captures the matter-like quality of identity: impossible to destroy, let alone forget.
This summer, Báez’s work was also on exhibit at the 10th Berlin Biennale and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her often politically charged art is sure to make waves with Chicago audiences in September when the gallery will feature a self-titled solo show of Báez’s work.
With “Parallel Lives,” Kavi Gupta has brought together a truly diverse study of human and object identity and how they overlap. The gallery’s commitment to the stories and art of people of color is evident, and the visual dialogue is correspondingly strong and diverse. Whether or not the prices these artists command are beyond your reach, these artists are deserving of your attention.
Evangeline Reid graduated from the University of Chicago, where she studied English literature and art history. A former editor and writer for The Chicago Maroon and Grey City magazine, she has covered art and culture in Chicago since 2013.
Firelei Báez, Untitled Tignon Painting, 2017. Oil on canvas, 84" x 60." Image courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery.
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