Magic Mountains, Magic Cities: Tia-Simone Gardner, at SPACES

Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company Ensley Steel Plant and Furnaces: Colored Recreation Class. Installation photo by Grace Carter.

Magic Mountains, Magic Cities by Tia-Simone Gardner is on view through April 28th at SPACES. The body of work came from conversations that Gardner had with her mother about Fairfield, Alabama, where they both grew up. Fairfield is located at the Western border of Birmingham and was an experiment in spatial-racial-class separation and segregation. According to Gardner’s artist statement, “these divides were not obvious. The planners used nature—including soil, earthen berms, tree lines, and dead-end streets to scar the landscape.”

Gardner resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota and is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and Black feminist scholar. She works primarily in drawing, and recontextualizes still and moving images from archives, by bringing together fragments of events and places. According to her biography, “ritual, disobedience, geography, and geology are the specters and recurring themes that cross her work.” Gardner has her B.A. in Art and Art History from the University of Alabama in Birmingham and her M.F.A. in Interdisciplinary Practices and Time-Based Media from the University of Pennsylvania.

Many of the works in the exhibition are deliberately unframed. Leaving the work unframed removes a barrier between the art and the viewer. It also allows the paper to move and breathe within the space. As a result, the work feels more organic and untethered.

Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, Fairfield, Alabama: White Toothbrush Drill. Installation photo by Grace Carter.

The artist used photographs from the U.S. Steel Corp/Tennessee Coal and Iron Company Archive from between 1919 and 1983. She selected photographs that capture racial segregation in schools. One such photograph contains a caption that reads, “Colored Recreation Class at School No. 1.” Another photograph’s caption reads, “Coal Mine- Bayview, Alabama, White School Garden.” And, finally, one photograph shows a “White Toothbrush Drill.” These images, while distressing for several reasons, bring humanity to the racial segregation that was at one time lawful and continues to leave ripple effects on today’s society. Black-and-white photographs often evoke the past, but here, we see them presented with images of industrialization. In this way, Gardner challenges and deconstructs the idea of forward progress.

Important to note is the fact that cameras were not originally designed to accurately capture darker skin tones. Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis’ 2019 article, “The Racial Bias Built into Photography,” recounts how photography traditionally used light skin as the standard. When lab technicians developed film, they used an image of a white woman to calibrate the colors. This image became known as the “Shirley card.” In the photographs that Gardner used, we can see the “racial bias built into photography” that Lewis writes about in action. The photographs of the white children show more detail and variation versus the photograph of the Black children. Additionally, the process of searching through archives and selecting specific images shows Gardner’s knack for curation. By selecting photographs of both literal segregation and industrialized landscapes, Gardner creates a new dialogue that the archives did not originally reveal.

Gardner created an “erasure poem” using the 1910 Geologic Atlas of Birmingham. The artist covered most of the words on the page to transform it into free-verse poetry. I perceived these works as a metaphor for the important details often left out of written histories. Again, this is a reference to the divides that were not obvious, mirroring Gardner’s artist statement.

Archival photo of landscape divided by railroad tracks. Installation view photo by Grace Carter.

The rocks are not our pets, they’re magic series, created in 2023, are archival inkjet prints on Moab paper. Pet rocks were a popular collectible toy in the 1970s, invented by Gary Dahl as a gag gift of sorts. Pet rocks were packaged in cardboard boxes with air holes, complete with a straw bed and an instruction manual. The inherent silliness of commercializing an object you can find on the ground was part of the charm. Gardner’s prints show the grooves and striations of monoliths. The artist positions large rock structures as marvels of nature, referencing the title of the exhibition. In this way, Gardner’s rocks are not our pets, they’re magic series can be read as a commentary on exploitation of the landscape for selfish or unethical reasons. As a whole, the exhibition is a commentary on how land was used to subjugate certain groups of people in order to keep others in power.

Magic Mountains, Magic Cities reframes historical moments in a new context. Rather than passively accepting the insidious ways in which segregation was realized, Gardner stresses the deliberate actions that marginalized people of color.

Magic Montains, Magic Cities

February 24 – April 28, 2023


2900 Detroit Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio 44113

Noon – 5 pm Monday – Saturday

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.