Renée Stout is essentially a do-it-yourself conjurer. That’s the impression I get when I visit the Marc Straus gallery for the first of her two-part solo exhibition there. These artworks don’t seem to be cast hexes, but it would be an oversimplification of her work to say that the magic she wields is good. It’s fairer to say that her witchery is mischievous, aiming to trick the beholder into a quite fragile enchantment, in which for a moment the object or image she’s made becomes a kind of talisman.
For example, her “Root Dispenser” (2013) looks like an old-fashioned pre-war vending machine, but this one offers, among others, Yucca Root, Orris (Love) Root, and High John the Conqueror Root. Except that it doesn’t really. I find out that the box doesn’t open; it doesn’t dispense any of the visible contents, and in fact, the façade is hand-painted by Stout to look as if it were stenciled. She has a lovely hand for this work which is very much about tricking the eye. Her “Spirit Selector” (2014) could be the work of a Caribbean cyberpunk root doctor who survived the coming cataclysm and began resurrecting religious practices ad-hoc using tech from the mid-20th century. The front has the terms “Transformer,” “Control Panel,” and “Intensity,” and two dials presumably connected to two compass needles that can point to different spirits: Ghede, Shango, Ogun, Elegba. What exactly would one tune into and turn on with this machine? Would the dial work like an analog radio tuner so that manipulating it might summon the faint sounds of the loa? Perhaps fiddling with it would produce an apparition, floating just above the selector? I have no idea, but the possibilities are tantalizing.
In the first iteration of the show, Stout has an illustrative piece, “Roots and Readings” (2013) that features an image of an alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, who wears dark glasses and sits crossed-legged in an upholstered chair with text that advertises her skills as a “Reader, Advisor, and Herbalist.” To this list might be added the descriptor “trickster.” It occurs to me that the context of contemporary popular culture in the United States is not hospitable to the trickster figure, though it factors prominently in Native American tradition. When I think of characters who take advantage of others’ gullibility or desperate faith in what they cannot see or empirically verify, I think of groups like Q-anon and carnival media hucksters like Alex Jones. But the kind of trickster Stout is has more discerning ambitions. She wants to create a space for a mélange of Hoodoo, Vodou, Santeria, and other African-derived belief systems to have equal cultural footing with the other religions which drive deep devotion in their congregants.
In the second iteration, there are more paintings. Some like “The Alchemy of Healing” (2019) or “Wall, with List” (2014) function as recipes with a list of substances that might treat nagging insomnia or chronic arthritis. Others such as “Come Back Gil (Scott-Heron) #3” (2021) depict colorful, abstract blobs in a dark background pick-pocked with stars, as if to draw a visual record of an interstellar event. And other paintings look like charts or diagrams.
The pleasure I find in her work is the pleasure of playfulness. The work allows me to feel beguiled, but not cheated. I am taken a bit for a ride, but it’s an excursion into curiosity.