October saw the launch of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of ten exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The series’ first two exhibitions honor two unique feminisms. Today, we’re taking a look at them both: Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals and Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty.
How might we understand a spatial and architectural discourse that marks a black subjectivity? This is the question that lingers in my thoughts as I reflect on Ruins and Rituals, a retrospective exhibition presenting the work of the late Beverly Buchanan, now on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Sackler Family Curator Catherine Morris considers Buchanan a game changer, which is not untrue; I would consider Buchanan a witness.
Beverly Buchanan was a black Southern woman. As a black Southern woman myself, many of those in my personal circles ascribe to this positionality a type of unspoken power. However, as critics have already rightfully articulated, within the parameters of the mainstream (read: New York City) art world during the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s—the periods during which Buchanan was most active—to be Southern and black and woman often resulted in an overlooking. Buchanan worked anyway, creating a repository of site-specific earthworks, sculptures, self-portraits, and other assemblage objects that move across the schools of conceptual and land art, while responding to the idiosyncrasies of the geographies in which she lived. So, as the artist traversed multiple landscapes, so too did her ever evolving canon traverse the political histories of the land, which often revolved explicitly around blackness(es).
Organized by guest curators Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur, Ruins and Rituals points a critical, unprecedented eye towards Buchanan’s multi-disciplined oeuvre. (Full disclosure: I am now employed at the organization where McArthur was once an artist-in-residence.) The exhibition is divided among three galleries, resisting a chronological viewing experience while still offering an obvious thread of conceptual connectivity.
Beverly Buchanan, Untitled (Slab Works 1), circa 1978–80, Black-and-white photograph of cast concrete sculptures with acrylic paint in artist studio. Private collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan
Upon entering the Sackler Center, one is drawn towards Buchanan’s Frustuala series: small, concrete blocks and columns the artist utilized as markers of presence, or, in some cases, the withering away of that which once was. When she began the series in the late 70s, Buchanan was employed in the public health field in New York and New Jersey. She used the stones to respond to the urban decay she was encountering, acutely aware that the materials she used to compose the works were also subject to weathering and aging. In a document on view in the archival section of the exhibition, Buchanan writes that she was “...interested in urban walls when they [were] in various stages of decay; walls as part of a landscape.”
Buchanan’s topographical engagement embodies critic (and close friend of the artist) Lucy Lippard’s meditations on place—that is, a location in which space meets memory. Marsh Ruins (1981), for example, marks the memory of a group of Igbo slaves who drowned themselves off the coast of St. Simons Island, Georgia, as a way of resisting enslavement. Buchanan built these ruins in the marshes of Glynn, in Brunswick, Georgia, and in the show we encounter them via a video created by Burris, McArthur, and Jason Hirata. Marsh Ruins is a material reckoning with the earth in which its stone are planted, certainly, but also a physical (perhaps even spiritual) negotiation through unseen remnants of time.
Beverly Buchanan, with poet Alice Lovelace, Shack Stories (Part I), 1990, Unpublished handmade book of ink and crayon drawings with watercolor and collaged typewritten text. Private collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan
The same might be said of Buchanan’s small shack sculptures. It is in these works that we see the artist most vividly address a Southern, black, architectural vernacular. That is to say, the shack, in Buchanan’s hands, is not merely a signifier of social status, but rather a framework—literally and figuratively—through which we might understand the nuances of black Southern life. The form represents an important site of social and familial interactions such as weddings, births, and religious gatherings. The centering of the shack as structure but also cultural idiom places blackness within the frame of reference for spatial inclusion, as architect Mario Gooden describes in his book Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity. Through these loaded forms, Buchanan speaks to the particularities of a black Southern subjectivity, past and present. Low Country House (date unknown), a small, unpainted wood shack, is an eloquent illustration of Buchanan’s deftness for the subtle processes of commemoration.
Beverly Buchanan, Low Country House, date unknown, Wood. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan, courtesy of Jane Bridges. Photo: Adam Reich, courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
In the 90s, Buchanan also began to make assemblage pieces, often dedicated to or named after close friends, once again embodying experience and memory within material form. In the final gallery we see the bulk of this later work alongside a trove of photos, letters, and other textual ephemera produced by Buchanan throughout her life. In this room, though full of works ostensibly different in form, we still encounter Buchanan’s entanglement with space, object, and memory. Here, the artist turns inward, tracing a personal relationship to the people she loved and the spaces she called home. In one black and white photograph, Hunger and Hardship Creek (1977/1994), Buchanan grips a sign pole with her right arm while staring intently at the camera. In an untitled, undated photocopied business card, she has drawn an image of herself as working artist/good cook/drama queen/safe driver. She is naming herself.
McArthur and Burris have gifted us with a well-deserved exhibition that offers a full picture of the prolific artist. The curatorial narrative surrounding the exhibition is concise and direct, some may argue approaching the didactic. But, for me, the texts and exhibition materials feel extremely important as a narrative tool, especially when Buchanan is unfamiliar to many who will first encounter her story through this exhibition.
Beverly Buchanan, Untitled (“The doctor will, if you’re lucky, see you, now.”), July 1993, Unpublished writing in notebook. Private collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan
In Dark Space Gooden goes on to remark that “...the black female body occupies a space within the matrix of subjectivities and bodies, and as such, its spatial praxes, whether visible or invisible, yield its potential agency to reference its own self.” Gooden makes this statement with specific regard to the ways blackness has (or has not) tended to operate within spatial and architectural theories and dialogues. Buchanan then, it can be argued, transgresses the boundaries of seen and unseen in order to map a non-linear grid, a dark place, to borrow again from Lippard, where blackness is represented through memory, structure, or through her own image, her body.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK.
(Image at top: Beverly Buchanan, Untitled (Double Portrait of Artist with Frustula Sculpture) (detail), n.d. Black-and-white Photograph With Original Paint Marks, 8½ x 11 in. Private Collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan)