Darius Steward At Tregoning & Co.
If you haven’t had a chance to see Darius Steward’s new exhibition, “Baggage Claim” at Tregoning & Co., you should check it out Friday (12/15/17) during Third Friday at 78th Street Studios. The artist will be there – performing – as part of the exhibition. Tucked into a corner of the gallery is an easel, stool, and pedestal – and a small painting of a purse, falling open as if to reveal its contents – these items will presumably be activated in some way. What this performance will entail exactly is a bit of a mystery, but that only makes me more curious.
Like many of the works in this show, the painting on the easel is an homage to Steward’s mother, who passed away about a year ago. These are deeply personal works – unashamedly so, and I must admit, it’s refreshing to see such technically solid draftsmanship, realistic subject matter, and the grace with which Steward exposes his own emotional world.
The exhibition begins with a powerful self-portrait (at top, details below) that typifies Steward’s ability to convey some of the tougher aspects of his life. Titled “My Inheritance”, the painting shows Steward surrounded by what appear to be garbage bags – but on closer inspection, these bags aren’t filled with trash – it’s all too tidy, too deliberate.
I spoke with Steward on the phone – he explained that the painting was inspired by clearing out his mother’s house. Her belongings, the physical objects left behind, are bagged and strewn about the composition. Steward stands amidst his inheritance with an expression that, to me, relates the shock and emptiness one feels when condensing someone’s life into a mere collection of plastic bags. Steward not only memorializes his mother with works like this, he is thanking her – he signed many of the paintings “Rhonda V” – a gesture of deep respect and love.
Steward grew up in East Cleveland. It was a tough environment – two of his best friends were shot when he was 8 years old, and he recalls the police discovering a dead body in some weeds when he was 10 (for a full account of his old neighborhood, check out Mike Butz’s excellent profile of the artist in Canvas). But through it all his mother did everything she could to encourage his art-making, taking on the heavy burden of raising her children alone while working several jobs to get by. Some of the most powerful paintings in the show honor her sacrifice, by using handbags as a metaphor.
In a series of paintings titled “Grin & Bear It”, Steward portrays his late mother, her hands struggling to carry seven handbags at once. In “Grin & Bear It Part 2”, she walks away from the viewer, her bags in tow. The purses are stylish and colorful, but with one sleeve pushed up, and her feet slight askew, the task of carrying them does not seem altogether pleasant.
In “Grin & Bear It Part 1,” she presents the bags to the viewer – leaning forward, with the bags stacked up on her arms like one does when carrying in grocery bags. She fills most of the canvas – which is unusual for Steward, who usually lets the vast whiteness of the composition overwhelm the subject (more on this later). Here, she is thrust into the front of the picture plane, her arms open, her hands free, almost as if she is going to pick you up (if you were a small child standing in front of her) – which would of course make her load even larger. Technically it’s painted with great skill – his gestural brushstrokes and the occasional drips of ink are a visual delight.
In Part 3, we are again seeing her from the viewpoint of a child – as if walking alongside her, looking up – and still she shoulders the purses – her gaze steadfastly before her. These bags are of course metaphors, and stand in for the weight that each of us carry every day. For his mother, and many of the women he grew up with, there was certainly an accumulation of weight, of burdens, of troubles, what you will – but through it all, they carried it with style. That’s why Steward chose the fashionable bags as a metaphoric vessel for these problems – because no matter what troubles his mother faced, she met it all with grace and style.
Another recurring subject for Steward is children, often his own – and this show has many – But I found his series of prints “If You Too Cool You Lose” to be the most striking. Like many of his works, the subject is overwhelmed by a large amount of “whiteness”. Compositionally, this is a deliberate choice for Steward. As he explained in Canvas, the dominance of white in his compositions is about placement and juxtaposition. He often quotes the novelist Zora Neale Hurston to help explain: “I do not always feel colored. … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
The children in his work are surrounded by whiteness – and though there are clues as to their location (perhaps an airport or playground), you can tangibly feel their isolation. These are not easy, comfortable scenarios – in comparison, take a look at the ease of the subjects in John Singer Sargent’s watercolors of his own family, on picnics, sketching outdoors, lazing around in beautiful clothing and in lush settings – the kind of activities reserved to the well-off and privileged in the early twentieth century.
Now imagine them isolated, stripped of their lush, vegetal, easy environments. You can’t really, can you? – and that’s Steward’s point. By eliminating the background around his subjects, Steward is visually illustrating the struggle of operating in a world where race greatly determines your sense of place.
He pushes this even further in by occasionally giving his subjects a sign. It’s a repeating motif that is extremely powerful – because not only are the signs blank – they’re invisible. In “If You Too Cool You Lose #1” (above), the boy is clearly holding a sign, but there are no edges – it’s just the ghost of a sign.
The series continues with the same theme. I asked Steward about these invisible signs – he explained that as an artist you could put whatever you want on those signs, and viewers will still insert their own interpretation. But additionally, as a black man and an artist, Steward often feels “voiceless” – passed over, ignored – and these signs, bearing no message at all, illustrate that perfectly.
But these images aren’t about silence – they are about being silenced. And despite their blankness, this imagery is LOUD. His work points to the larger problem of race in America. The Black Lives Matter movement has thankfully brought increased attention to the broken system that has taken so many innocent lives – Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, etc. etc. – but there is still far to go. This is not a time to be silent (as Zora Neale Hurston also said: “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it”). Silence will not protect you, perhaps nothing will, but at least the conversation is moving forward. Steward is making a strong statement with this work, and I hear it, loud and clear.
Darius Steward: Baggage Claim
Through Jan. 20, 2018, at Tregoning & Company
1300 West 78th St., 216-281-8626