Torkwase Dyson at Landmark Arts

These paintings have to be viewed in person. Trite, and can be said of a lot of work (probably all) but it really holds true for Torkwase Dyson's abstractions “Hiding in Plane Site” at the TTU Landmark Arts Gallery (on view until March 5th).

Torkwase Dyson "Hiding in Plane Site"

The chromatic black acrylics sheen, crinkle, and almost tear away from their wooden host. In necessity, the blackness of the large paintings is overwhelming. It’s impossible to escape reading the work through the lens of “ blackness (as) a conceptual paradigm,” best explained in Adrienne Edward’s essay “Blackness in Abstraction.” While the smaller ink and gouache works on paper and small wooden panels punctuate the gallery wall, the large works dominate. The overbearing work affirms that the work is about "the individual's power to expressly inhabit and negotiate freedom in special changes,” as stated in the exhibition materials.

Above and Below (Photocredit: Hannah Dean)

As seen in “Above and Below” line work functions less as an architectural framework, and more like a cosmological diagram. Contrary to the supposed "heaven, earth, hell" cosmogony layers, the under-earth, or lower-layer of Dyson's work functions as a refuge. In European painting, you have a slew of “last judgment” paintings like Hans Memling’s that depict space with lower portion of the image dedicated to hell. Dyson’s cartographing reads more in the Mesoamerican tradition of the cosmos- like the Cosmographic Stela at Izapa, with the surface of the earth denoted through a band or line, with a tree acting as intercessor between a sky band and underworld (in the stela, filled with triangles and waves).

(L) Cosmographic Stela at Izapa , (R) "Last Judgment" Hans Memling (c.1471)

For Dyson, what can at once read like a box, or barn, also reads as the surface of the earth, with ill-defined space above, and a wealth of considered space below. In the tradition of the Popul Vuh or Hercules, the heroic action is occurring below the surface of the earth. I wish I hadn't read about this exhibition before I approached it. I can't get away from cellars, or hulls of ships, or other specifics in which slaves would have hidden away (or, inversely, could been forcibly put into). This is an intended read of the work- and obviously I should see those things. However, the diagramming of above, on, and below moves beyond the anecdotal, individualized portion of what Dyson is doing and begins to reframe the way we consider the hierarchy of space. There is no heaven and hell in her diagram, only seen and unseen. She shifts the cosmological diagram, subverting the taxonomy of inhabited spaces. In this way, the act of occupying space as a political act is confirmed in her work.

I can't help but point out that I am a white viewer (with no recent history of collective enslavement in my past) approaching work that is very much about recent and current histories involving "blackness". Am I meant to consider my experience with space, the way my body is seen or unseen? Am I meant to consider issues of gentrification- a way that bodies inhabit spaces that is inextricably entwined with issues of class and race? I think this work is good for me to see, even as it makes me self-conscious about my ability to understand it (and perhaps for that reason is important for me, specifically).

Black Interiority (Photocredit: Ryan Shelburne)

The most sumptuous, arresting piece is "Black Interiority," the first piece of the show. In a revelation of design, subtle color bias and shifts, thickening and thinning of lines and materials, this piece reminds me of a map. Not in appearance, but in function. It delivers to me visual and conceptual information, but delivers me no key. I am only to witness the strength? (Beauty? Power? There is no right word.) of the painting as a third party.

My Mind is Clear of Fear (Photocredit: Ryan Shelburne)

As a painter myself, I imagine Dyson's creation of "My Mind is Clear of Fear"... the finishing massive stroke of black paint that seems to seal off the silver opening of paint. Perhaps that is it- Dyson is showing us a history, a diagram of the world, but not allowing the viewer to enter in to that space. The politic of freeing yourself may be born of group effort or protest, but the subversion and question of fixed systems like architecture, the cosmos, or authority is highly personal. Like I said, you need to see this work in person.

*The author's opinions are her own.

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