In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, it’s a bit eerie to walk through MASS MoCA’s Thumbs Up for the Mothership. This two-person show addresses Lonnie Holley and Dawn DeDeaux’s artistic responses to the state of the earth, both environmental and political.
Curator Denise Markonish has paired the two artists, noting the common points of connection in their lives. Both were residents at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island, Florida, although not at the same time. As Markonish observes in the show’s press release, both are southerners, they are the same age, and each has experienced traumatic losses. But these facts seem superficial in light of the more potent underlying thematic interests they share. Both artists work with found objects that are fabricated into sculpture, although DeDeaux has also worked extensively in digital media. While joined in time and theme, the two approach their narratives from decidedly different life paths and directions — a tension that highlights the strengths of each body of work and makes the exhibition as a whole successful.
The title is based loosely on an ongoing project, started in 2012, of DeDeaux’s, which was included in Prospect 3, the more-or-less biennial founded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a means to help the city regenerate. The artist lost her home and studio in the storm, and as a result, her work has become intensely focused on the stewardship of the earth and the results of ignoring that obligation. Holley’s work is more broadly and overtly related to the contemporary political pulse — the environment in a rather different sense.
While there is indeed synchronicity in the lives of these two artists, their differences are perhaps more striking. Holley, a self-taught artist, grew up in the Jim Crow South. The seventh of 27 children, his life story is complex, heartbreaking, and compelling. With limited schooling but a powerful intellect and creative drive, he evolved into a musician and visual artist whose oeuvre is political, funny, and poignant. Working with found objects, Holley creates sculptures that reflect a sensibility, no doubt born of his life experiences, that nothing should go to waste. Like a mad handyman, he cobbles together sculptures from unlikely elements. In doing so, he creates poetic pieces that ache and sing and stay with you for a long time.
Each of Holley’s sculptures is accompanied by a paragraph or two of wall text in which he explains what he was thinking when he made the piece. Often I find that art with a backstory can be over-dependent on such text to import power to the work, but not here. In his texts, Holley takes the opportunity to both lead viewers through his associative process and expound on his artistic and societal concerns. He speaks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the need for young people to vote — also expressed in his knockout short video “The Grip of Power” (2016) — the environment, and music. He explains with no irony or pretense how each of the sculptures came to be and what memories were triggered for him in the making of it.
For example, in “Weighted Down by the Hose” (2008), we see a beat-up old upholstered chair wrapped in a massive fire hose, preventing the chair from its intended use. A piece of an old tattered quilt sits neatly on the chair, a small box nestled in its folds. The huge, forceful shape of the hose is both a strong abstract gesture in space and a reminder of how serpentine and destructive such a thing can be.
Here is what Holley says about the piece:
The fire hose wraps the rocking chair like a memory. Even though we are many years past the events of the Civil Rights movement, the memory of the struggle still envelopes us like a quilt. I used an old rocking chair from a house in Birmingham, Alabama that had a quilted pillow. Someone set it out by the road, and I saved it. The little tin heart is like a container for memories in the act of love.
Holley’s sculptures are muscular, bold, and raw, but their accompanying text conveys vulnerability and a longing for peace, equality, and respect. Word and object are a potent combination.
DeDeaux’s portion of the show is a mixture of digital photography mounted on sheet metal and found and fabricated objects. Her work is decidedly more calculated. She is a contemporary artist drawing upon a variety of fabrication techniques to tell her story of the fragile Louisiana environment and her plans for escape in the “Mothership.” Many of her pieces fit together in service of this overarching narrative. There are museum vitrines filled with “souvenirs” of the earth, found urban detritus, soil, ash, and water. While Holley reconfigures found objects into sculptures that are more than the sum of their parts, DeDeaux presents objects in an untouched, precious manner. Like artifacts in an archeological museum, they are carefully displayed and catalogued. Along this same theme, her works’ titles reference extinct civilizations of Babylonia, Athens, Rome, and Luxor. While the work is visually compelling, its presentation can come across as a bit forced, especially in contrast to the unguarded Holley.
A series of huge fascinating portraits of creatures shrouded in what look like space suits loom large over DeDeaux’s section of the show. The most beautiful are the ones entitled “The Vanquished Series: Force of Gravity” (2016–17), made from hundreds of strips of digital photographs affixed carefully to a backing. Close up, they read as pure abstraction of air and light. It is only when you move farther away that the images come together to form something vaguely human. The work succeeds both visually and as a sort of parable about distance and perspective.
The pairing of these two artists is an interesting conceit for a show. Each artist takes the viewer on a narrative journey, unlike anyone else’s on Earth. Their narratives about our future are very different, but they are united in their passion for our Earth, our “Mothership.”
Thumbs Up for the Mothership continues at MASS MoCA (1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams) through May 2018.