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There has been a good deal of talk about radicality lately, but to proclaim that there is such a thing as “radical love” begs for more than avowal or declaration; one expects a demonstration or explanation of the thing. The show Radical Love at the Ford Foundation Gallery, curated by Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker, engenders a particular critical response (at least in me), one that looks to answer the provocative questions the title raises: What kinds of love are modeled or enabled here? In what ways are they radical? What will the world look like if shaped by these forms of love?
It makes sense to begin with the banner image that adorns the majority of the promotional material, including the sign posted outside the Ford Foundation’s building: Athi-Patra Ruga’s photographic print, “Umesiyakazi in Waiting” (2015). It is an image that is, like much of the rest of the show, lush and verdant, overflowing with colors and vibrant flora. The image is unique in its three-dimensional quality which makes certain parts feel like they loom larger, are almost moving towards me as I view it, while other parts recede into the distance of the picture plane. It is lush, but there’s also a makeshift, do-it-yourself quality to the chandelier, the stuffed cheetah that looks as if it’s stalking the central figure, and the odd, conical, green plastic tarps that appear here and there in the image. This central figure, a model who has the trappings of hyper-femininity, clothed in a sheer body suit, full makeup, dazzling jewelry, a headdress, and stiletto heels also wears a sash that reads “Miss Azania” — a reference to an imagined utopia that is welcoming to queer lives.
This piece is key because it establishes a visual theme that reverberates throughout the show: that of lushness and fecundity that reaches past physical borders and perhaps temporal ones too, to grasp for a future not quite present yet. The image is also key because it asserts the idea that loving oneself can be a radical act, particularly when the very nature of one’s (queer) being is subject to rejection, hatred, fear, disgust because the love that is held back by others is contingent on ideological, sexual, and gender conformity. For some of us, loving ourselves comes easy; for others it is a life’s work.
That idea of boundless fecundity is sumptuously rendered by Lina Puerta who has created a scheme of ersatz, plastic foliage with dangling decorative chains and threads and pockets that bloom into iridescence, “Mẽãbema” (2019). It makes a subtle but key point about love: that when it is in full bloom, it goes everywhere and touches everything and in its nondiscrimination constitutes an attitude rarely seen or enacted in human story. (We tend to associate this kind of nonjudgmental love with religious doctrine, but the same doctrines incite precisely the opposite action, so clearly religious principle is not a steady foundation.) We say we want unconditional love, but such love is indiscriminate and I suspect, if I met it on the street, I would know what to do with it.
Ebony G. Patterson is an excellent choice for carrying this florid banner forth. Her materials are again seemingly inexpensive, showing that a love for decorative materials is not limited to those things that are rare and costly. Patterson shows up with plastic jewelry, small, patterned bows, Mardi Gras beads, fanciful embroidery, appliqués, brooches, faux gold coins, and gold-painted seashells that are procured and arranged through a laborious process. And then she hangs all these materials on a hand-cut, handwoven jacquard tapestry that is itself hung against custom-printed fabric wallpaper. The love here is a love for labor and abundance, for a cup that overflows with decorative indulgence and for the arm and energy wielded to make the pour. It is powerful to choose not to represent this love with rare objects associated with a certain socioeconomic class, but that which is made by hand. It’s love that’s fashioned out of one’s agency and intuition and it can be transformative. I have long wanted to write about this artist’s work because all that she makes is suffused with a conviction that one can live in loveliness.
Maria Berrio (who, like Patterson, is an artist I’ve long wanted to write about since encountering her work years ago) sends the theme of ornamentation diving off a cliff with her “Nativity” (2014). The surface of her collage made of Japanese paper and watercolors is rippled where the paper has been creased and folded, and it is festooned with spots of color and the portentous images of birds. Against a starry night sky, topless and pale-skinned women with a menagerie of animals restage the nativity scene. Berrio moves beyond the boundaries of traditional Christian versions of the birth of Christ to feature multiple children who seem to possess the spark of divinity and mothers whose bodies are revealed instead of being modestly clothed. And this is one of the key features of love: absence of shame. We can celebrate the maternal body rather than be cowed by it.
Jody Paulsen, in a way, converges the concerns of both Patterson and Berrio by focusing more on the figure in his “Find Your Gaggle” (2019), which is a circus of collaged felt, colored and patterned to make the central six figures naturalized in their variety. There are clear differences in skin tone on their hands, but their faces are hidden behind masks. This is a scene that asks the viewer to value and extol individual uniqueness before making a judgment about the worth ascribed to persons given their ethnicity or gender.
Rashaad Newsome also uses the strategy of collage to pull the pop-culture, overexposed, hyper-sexualized woman’s body into collage in a celebratory way. With both “#1st Place” and “Look Back at It” (both 2016) he emphasizes the drop-it-low aesthetic by using bodies that are almost entirely comprised of jewelry, with an almost bare ass or leg here and there. He makes a kind of femininity into spangled bling that is another kind of coin of the realm, thus making the case for a kind of power that I think often gets confused with appreciation for one’s own body. But the work is even more complex. Newsome makes several simultaneous assertions that don’t quite cohere: These bodies are made up of shiny accessories, suggesting that they might themselves constitute a kind of adornment. Yet, several figures feature African masks where their faces would otherwise be, suggesting their point of origin. Do the masks then constitute a kind of decoration, or a kind of power, or an indication of ancestry? Newsome provokes these questions, but does not answer them, and rather suggests that one can appreciate the power of these bodies to operate as a locus for a wide variety of desires — to have it, to flaunt it, to wield it, and so on — and this appreciation might be a way to move towards love, but I have my doubts.
In the same room, Lina Iris Viktor pays tribute to women in a way that both celebrates and historicizes them. Viktor’s self-portrait, “Eleventh” (2018) is surrounded by decorative gold filigree and a chromatically bountiful scheme of red leaves and white flowers, and she’s also surrounded by language, place names such as “Mende” and “Bakwe” to map out where she is from in the wide-ranging African diaspora. She is a fey character, with her face mostly blacked out by inky makeup, while also wearing what looks like a tribal gown; she feels like a bridge between now and the past.
Radical Love is part of a series of three thematically related exhibitions (it is the second) and as I had similarly surmised about the Ford Foundation’s first installment, Perilous Bodies, some of the work installed here feels like it was chosen to fill out a spot in the idealized roster rather than expand and deepen the theme.
For example, there are some pieces whose inclusion I don’t understand, in particular the ghostly portraits of civil rights activists that are made up of an oil painting and a photograph in blurry dialogue. Bradley McCallum’s and Jacqueline Tarry’s “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (2008) just doesn’t convey the love that these warriors must have had for themselves and for the idea of what the lives of colored folk would look like after they succeeded. Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s installation “The Preying Hands” (1985) ventures so far into the decorative that he ends up in the grotesque: rats and tics and other creepy-crawly things spread out across a kind of horror-themed chapel.
In all, the show reminded me about agency, about how love is a willful and conscientious construction — that we decide to love and to what extent we will. I think of what Richard Pryor said about love in one of the documentaries made about his life I saw a few years ago. He talked about its absence and about a relationship he had with one of his wives that gave him a kind of hope. He said that he had stayed with her because he thought she might be able to love him so hard “that I could learn to love myself.” But the kinds of love modeled here aren’t passive, dependent on someone else’s recognition. They are active, laboring, intentional. Radical Love tells us that we don’t really fall in love; to find it, we must dive into something that resembles it headfirst.