Torkwase Dyson is part of a growing number of contemporary artists to imbue geometric abstraction with a sociopolitical dimension. Geometry is never neutral; the formal geometry in a painting reflects how the artist conceives of space, order, and positionality. Even when divorced from explicit politics, these issues map on to social relations between people, places, and things. Dyson approaches geometry as a route toward Black liberation.
Dyson’s materials are largely industrial: wood, steel, graphite, canvas, glass, ink, and acrylic. A Liquid Belonging at Pace Gallery is comprised of four paintings and two site-specific sculptures, all in variations of black. Black appears as shades of gray, blue-blacks, matte, and gloss. Modernists have used black for a variety purposes. Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings are a form of negation. Malevich’s privilege the iconic over the representational. Adam Pendleton negotiates black’s linguistic and formal use in his text-based paintings.
Dyson may be seeking to combine all three approaches in her minimalist practice. The results don’t always work. A reductive painting language is a means to reveal something essential about materiality. Dyson is using x`reductive language to reveal something that is primarily linguistic. “Scalar #1 (Blue Belonging)” (2022) is a multimedia color field painting composed of matte, deep blue-blacks dotted by thin graphite lines at the top left and center; an opaque, glossy triangle appears near the bottom left. The triangle is dwarfed by two inset, protruding wood beams painted in black. Historical references are at work in her conception of space. Henry Brown escaped his enslavement by contorting himself into a three-by-two-foot wooden crate and mailing himself to abolitionists. Geometric structures like plantation hot boxes were used to confine Black bodies.
This is loaded geometry, but the metaphors are not clear. The exhibition asks audiences to take a conceptual leap of faith; often, the leap is too far. Partly because the work relies so heavily on its conceptual content, viewers are doomed to re-read the press release to grasp the artist’s intentions.
A transformation happens in the sculptures: trapezoids and circles drafted in thin pencil caress the facades of wood, inset arches create doorways small enough to hide a small child. Dyson’s work has an enormous capacity to reveal and conceal. The artist often cuts parts of her structures to reveal interior space, almost as if these works are in the process of making and remaking themselves. They seem liquid, malleable. They invite us to walk around and inside them; to live in them.
On the seventh floor is a massive site-specific sculpture facing a wall of windows overlooking the city. Titled “Beloved Stillness (Hypershape)” (2022) the work is composed of two large black planks that extend from the bottom of the stairs to the top of a freestanding wall. A narrow passageway underneath invites visitors to walk from one end to the other. The top of the plank extends into the air, nothing obstructing its path. It is a bridge to a possible, future horizon. It, too, is loaded with history. Audiences can read this as an emancipatory superhighway rather than an underground railroad.
In this monolithic piece, her construction materials do the talking. Nearly every civilian navigates freestanding walls marking a construction area in New York, shorthand for generic glass and steel buildings or, worse, a grotesque spectacle like Hudson Yards’ “Vessel.” Dyson reorients the Manhattan skyline littered with hollowed-out corporate offices, their banality on full display. In her world, materiality and geometry provide a path to liberation, a place where geometric structures from plantations past get new mileage for a radical future.
Torkwase Dyson: A Liquid Belonging continues at Pace Gallery (540 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.