“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
There is a lot to say about Deborah Grant’s installation at the Drawing Center, Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!! (January 25–February 28, 2014), which was curated by Claire Gilman. What is so delicious about it is that at some point you will not be sure whether any of narratives you’ve applied to the work makes sense. Not many artists can make work that is so open and compressed, or so inviting and resistant — at least to any literal interpretation — at the same time.
In its complex visual density and wide-ranging allusiveness, Grant’s work exists on the spectrum that stretches from Jess’ intricate paste-ups (his word for collages), which embrace alchemy, the occult, literature, nursery rhymes, and his life with the poet Robert Duncan, to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s gritty inclusiveness of graffiti, image and text, as well as unwritten and overlooked histories and figures, particularly concerning black culture.
Grant incorporates silhouettes derived from self-taught artists such as Bill Traylor; Christian and Jewish religious symbols; advertising from old mail-order catalogues such as Sears Roebuck; comic books; modernism’s flattened forms going back to Hans Arp and Henri Matisse; calligraphy, abstract ideograms, patterning and spirit writing; childhood memories and stories. In this exhibition of four distinct groups of work, Grant’s treatment of images, patterns and text ranges from seemingly straightforward juxtapositions of iconic images and text to dense aggregations of images, patterns and texts. In “Obedient Unto Death, Even Death on a Cross (2013) and “Hosanna to the Son of David” (2013), two similar works that feature a vase holding a palm frond, she combines Christian imagery, Hebrew text and images from Matisse with painting, wood relief and drawing. What the different groups of work share is their resistance to reductive readings. She isn’t after a conventional story with a beginning, middle and end, but a multivalent narrative that shares something with experimental poets (T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator or more recently, Nathaniel Mackey’s Song of the Andoumboulou: 18–20).
The centerpiece of Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!! — the title comes from the Lennon/McCartney song “The Ballad of John and Yoko” — is “Crowning the Lion and the Lamb, which consists of four irregularly shaped birch panels abutted together. The subject is a fictional meeting between the black folk artist Mary A. Bell (1873–1941) and the innovative modernist master Henri Matisse (1859–1954). By pairing the two artists, an African American woman and a Frenchman, Grant dissolves the labels that museums and other institutions routinely use to categorize as well as segregate one group of artists from another. By focusing on Bell or, as she has done elsewhere, Bill Traylor, Grant seems intent on challenging the exclusionary policies underlying canonical thinking.
A devout Catholic, Bell was a domestic servant who worked in the house of Gaston Lachaise’s wife’s sister. After retiring from domestic service, she began drawing in crayon, making portraits of well-dressed Creole women. Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein and Florine Stettheimer were among those who collected her work. In 1940, she was committed to a mental health hospital where she died the following year of heart failure.
In “Crowning the Lion and the Lamb,” Bell is visited by Matisse in a dream. He talks to her about his collages or what he calls “painting with scissors.” Grant’s contextualization of Matisse’s remark connects it to Dada and the work of Hannah Høch and John Heartfield, which she amplifies by incorporating images of faces with their eyes covered over by a black band. Are they blind, blindfolded, censored or self-censoring? One’s lineage in art is never pure nor it should it be.
The work is brimming with allusions to Bell, Matisse, Van Vechten and Stein. Images, symbols, text and abstract script fill the work. Once you begin looking closely, you get lost in the information. Looking becomes learning about a little-known figure — an act of recovery as well as an act of the imagination. By bringing these two figures together, we see both their underlying connection (flat images) and their isolation from each other. At the same time, the images are bordered by rows of neat abstract script — an indecipherable language for which no Rosetta Stone exists, suggesting that understanding the other is finally impossible. The best we can do is respect and appreciate that which we (whoever “we” are) might never fully comprehend.
Grant’s fictional meeting underscores her interest in the complex history that is our legacy, as well as the multitude of collisions that occur on every level, from the personal to the public. In one of the twenty-four panels of “God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours” (2013), Grant depicts the simplified image of a rabbi and a young black girl walking together. Dressed in a blue and white dress, she is holding a Torah. There are silhouettes of children playing on either side of them. As silhouettes, they exist in their own world, which is separate from that of the rabbi and young black girl.
The caption beneath the image reads “THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DEBBIE KRAVITZ.” In this work, Grant – whose parents are Barbadians and who lived in Canada before moving with her family to a neighborhood in Coney Island that included Hasidic Jews and blacks, among many cultures and races — is alluding to the novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, which was first published in 1959 and adapted for the movies in 1974. The reference suggests that Grant recognizes that her identity is both multiple and porous, that she is a sponge when it comes to defining her identity, which embraces, as Walt Whitman wrote, multitudes.
If there is an artist working in the tradition of Whitman, while revising his vision of the other (he was not particularly respectful of Native Americans), it is Deborah Grant. One of the touchstones of Grant’s work is her interest in fictional meetings, which she groups under the title Random Select. Her embrace of multitudes is inherent in the very making of the work, which is simultaneously transparent and opaque. There is nothing essentialist about Grant’s investigation of identity, but what she does is essential.
Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!! continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through February 28.