So much has happened in six years. It was six years ago that I last wrote about the work of Vanessa German for Hyperallergic. Donald Trump had just been elected, and the country was bracing itself for a trip down a new and dangerous path. Vanessa German, a poet, activist and visual artist, had mounted a powerful show at Pavel Zoubek Gallery entitled I am armed. I am an army. German filled the gallery with a fighting corps of women, armed with weaponry, poetry, history and power. It was a fierce exhibition, and one that both mourned and celebrated the power of women.
Fast forward to German’s debut exhibition, now at Paul Kasmin Gallery, that gives us a new view into German’s Universe. Instead of an army of warrior women, we are immersed in a neighborhood in LA, circa 1980’s. To be clear, this is an imaginary neighborhood, one made of the people who inhabit German’s dreams and memories. Entitled Sad Rapper, the exhibition is a huge leap in terms of physicality and concept. The work is bigger than anything I’ve previously seen. Some of the pieces brush nine feet in height. They hang on the walls, stand on plinths, ride bicycles and skateboards.
The biggest change is that for the first time there are distinctly male figures in her Universe, as well as figure that are gender fluid. The figures that one can identify as “male” have crudely formed lumpy objects protruding from their crotches. These symbols of manhood are painted gold, so we know that they’re precious, but though thick and club-like, they are inert. They give cause for a double take. German’s work is so lyrical, so beautiful and lush in its use of materials that these “clubs” seem to intrude on the complicated beauty of this neighborhood. Perhaps that’s the point.
As always German’s use of materials is astonishing. She manages to deploy everything under the sun in a fluid and graceful way. The mass amalgamations of fabric, beads, objects, and electronics, wood – and so much more – look as if they have sprung fully formed from her imagination. They are all perfectly made, at once complex in execution and effortless in gesture. With figures towering over the viewer, we are at first struck by the majesty of German’s characters, then drawn into the intricate and joyful love of both the materials and the making of these pieces. I long to see the warehouse where she stores her work and her materials.
While the work forms a coherent Universe, each piece is unique. A Black boy rides a tricycle, his body is small but his face seems too old to be on such a childish bike. All of the children in German’s work are prematurely aged. The man-child grips the handlebars tightly; his body and the bike covered with bunched and pillowy watermelon printed fabric are unified by an obsessive wrapping of pink yarn that completely covers the figure and the trike. The fabric is a children’s novelty print, but of course used in this context it is perhaps not so innocent. He is at one with his bike. A joyful feeling I remember as a kid- feeling so much control and freedom riding though my neighborhood.
But as always in German’s work, things are not quite so straightforward. The child’s face is frozen in a rictus grin. The bared teeth covered in rhinestones. His eyes, fixed forward in a hypnotized focus on the future. Or perhaps focused on escaping a past. Is he riding in joy or fear? His body sprouts a massive bouquet of fake flowers in all riotous shades of pink. Underneath he sports an array of heavy faux gold jewelry. On his back is a vintage tin lunchbox, a souvenir of the TV show Julia that appeared in the late 60’searly 70’s on television. Julia was the first TV show that not only featured a Black woman leading character (the luminous Diahann Carroll) but one who was a professional working woman with a full and rich life, rather than the stereotypical ways in which Black women had previously been portrayed on TV.
This nod to an iconic Black woman and a specific moment in American popular culture fortifies all of the pushes and pulls between mass culture and childhood in America. It’s an example of the deep dualities in all of this work. Joy coupled with fear. Beauty coupled with horror.
Each and every sculpture in this exhibition demands this kind of deep dive look into the multiplicity of symbols and emotions and messages they contain. It is by far German’s most complex body of work to date. Her vision extends not just to the inclusion of men, but also to fantastical creatures that are animal with human heads. I don’t know whether to call them a flock or a herd. They inhabit one side of the gallery, like a mutant petting zoo.
Vanessa German understands the force of language. Spoken and written word has always been a critical part of her artistic life. In this exhibition the captions of each piece are prose poems that both describe the work’s physical properties (as is typical for exhibitions) but also describe the psychological state that underlies each piece. They are critical to the work, but far too long to be included in this essay. Please refer to the gallery’s website to read the texts. Or better yet, go see this important and deeply affecting show.
All photos courtesy of Melisa Stern.
Melissa Stern lives in NYC and The Hudson Valley. She studied Anthropology and Art History at Wesleyan Univ. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in a number of corporate and museum collections including The International Center For Collage, News Corp. Inc. JP Morgan Chase, The Arkansas Art Center, The Racine Art Museum, The Museum of Art and Design and The Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis. Her multi-media project The Talking Cure has been touring the United States since 2012, showing at The Akron Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and at The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.MA. She has written about art and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years and is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical. Melissa has joined Art Spiel as co-editor and contributing writer.