Essay: Celebrating 25 Years with The Joan Mitchell Foundation

(The following essay appears in the exhibition book for "Widening Circles: Portraits From The Joan Mitchell Foundation Artist Community at 25 Years” currently on exhibit at the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York, NY)

A Reflection from the Photographer

This summer, I had the great joy and honor to photograph the artists in this collection, each of whom have produced bodies of work whose breadth, scope, clarity of expression, and invitation to reflect (on beauty, on craft, on our place in the world) extend beyond my capacity to contain in succinct language. Each session, co-composed between the artist and myself, was an exchange of ideas of which these images are a record.

While we worked, I asked the artists about their philosophies. Cullen Washington, Jr spoke to me of the sacredness of the painterly space, how the act was akin to an act of worship. Adejoke Tugbiyele spoke of the sacredness of the self, and the work between self and world that art—and living—involves. I found similar reflections with Mario Martinez, whose ideas about the nature of the artist’s individual soul resonated with me, and with Wojciech Gilewicz, who suggested that we are our most artist selves when we are looking closely at the world. Denise Schatz’s drawings, which catalog the mundane, brought to mind a similar meditation.

Several of the artists I photographed make work that grapples directly with memory. Maia Cruz Palileo reckons with the impact—aesthetic and spiritual—of the colonial and migratory memory of those descended from the Philippines. In another register, Ashley Teamer incorporates 1990s basketball cards in massive painterly collages. A child of the 90s myself, I felt, walking among them, the immersive reckoning childhood memory imposes on the reflective adult. Louise Mouton-Johnson’s tapestries in paper and fabric evoke the patchwork quilts Black women in the Antebellum South produced not only to keep warm but also to share vital messages. And Amy Sherald’s stark, magnetic paintings grasp the historical, collapsing the viewer’s expected alienation from certain historical narratives while inviting, for me at least, an interrogation of the ways in which such an alienation remains ever-contemporary among the Black lives she explores.

The guiding role of narrative and myth could be found in many of the profiled artists’ works. Andrea Chung’s work problematizes the concept of paradise, formulating a material meditation on the story of those whose labor made the New World. Katrina Andry’s carvings and prints upstage mermaid mythos by connecting it with the aquatic memory of those who died in the Middle Passage, among other events. Shervone Neckles’s multimedia origin myths, like the work of several others in this collection, returned me to Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter’s recent conversations on the human as a hybrid being of mythos and bios: that stories are as essential to our being as our biologies, that each informs the other.

To encounter Jess Perlitz’s looming sculptures was to walk among the destabilizing figures of dreams. Anne Buckwalter’s work, striking its own oneiric registers, invites, among other things, a structural reflection on how narratives around femaleness are marked by myths of the danger of feminine power. Sarah Wagner’s surreal constructions subtly ring the personal and historical memory of the American experience, connecting the trade in cotton to an aspirational imagination, seeming to say that if we could interrogate this massive, tempestuous mythic in which we find ourselves, we might be able to steer ourselves through. Lilian Garcia-Roig’s large indexical abstract works, in the tradition of Joan Mitchell herself, evoke consideration of what it means to form one’s own grammar of images.

Mel Chin’s massive retrospective at the Queens Museum (through which I was guided by the artist himself) felt like a long walk through History. His works, spanning decades, were in conversation with one another as well as with the major questions that guide civilizations. Indeed, questions like Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? are evident in the works of all the artists. Stacy Lynn Waddell’s glimmering textual works invite such an act of epistemic wayfinding. Her deconstruction of the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mirrored the ways the movement itself has encountered the inevitable dialogic entropy our civilization imposes on such movements almost as soon as they crest.

There were many happy coincidences that intersected with my sessions with these artists. Tomie Arai’s photo shoot occurred the day before her birthday. We talked about how she arrived at her years, about the little things she would do to celebrate herself. My session with Julie Green happened on my own birthday. We talked, over lunch, about the contemporary world, specifically our American world—a topic that entered almost every conversation throughout the sessions. How could it not? Heather Cox spoke of metamorphosis, and we thought together on what a more perfect internal union might mean. Rontherin Ratliff’s installation-meditation on space-making offered, for me, some response to just such an inquiry.

When I shot with him at the Foundation, Lobsang Tsewang was intent on making work before the camera. One of the younger artists participating in this project, he showed me some of the mementos from his time as a youth artist taking classes with the Foundation. Another of the younger artists, Angelica Santiago, struck me with her focus in describing how her paintings were informed by her faith. It rang as similar in spirit to that of many of the other artists whose studio spaces took on the quality of the sacred, like Sonya Kelliher-Combs, whose wide-ranging practice includes rigorous preparation of scores of objects whose energy resonates with deep memories. I could not help but be moved.

As we worked together, all of the artists mentioned the importance of the Foundation’s generosity in the pursuit of their creative lives. I heard so many stories of how receiving a grant helped them to secure space, to focus on their craft, how in the years since receiving a grant the Foundation continued to support them with resources, information and other opportunities.

I’m grateful to the Joan Mitchell Foundation for the opportunity to have shared with these artists. I learned and will continue to learn from their work and spirits for a long time to come. Where my words fail, may these images begin to say that most fully.  

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