To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Howardena Pindell: “What Remains to Be Seen” career retrospective opens at the Rose

Last Friday, the Rose Art Museum unveiled its career retrospective of Philadelphia-born artist Howardena Pindell. Pindell’s work spans over 50 years, with the exhibit showing a variety of works from various styles. “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” goes from abstract grids to political collage to more abstract pieces exploring travel and science—revealing a talented, wide-ranging, poignant artist.

As a woman of color working from the 1970s onward, Pindell’s art engages with ideas of racial and gender identity, politics and aesthetic exploration. Working mostly in acrylic and mixed media (the artist revealed in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot that she is allergic to oil paint), Pindell has developed various avenues of art; she paints, collages, overlays TV images and makes video art, among others. Now an esteemed artist with a traveling retrospective show at the Rose, Howardena Pindell has also gotten a chance to look back at a career of making art. “It’s fifty years of work,” she said to The Hoot, “and I’m amazed I produced all that work. I’m interested to see how I’ve come with what I attempted, kind of full circle.”

Pindell began painting when she was eight. One of her teachers recognized her artistic abilities and told her parents. After that, she was encouraged to practice her art and began to win prizes. She graduated from Boston University with a degree in Fine Arts, going on to receive a graduate degree from Yale. In 1972, she co-founded the Artists In Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery in New York, a first-of-its-kind gallery dedicated to exhibiting work solely from female artists.

The show at the Rose begins chronologically, displaying work from her college and postgraduate years. After a self-portrait of the artist, there’s an untitled piece from 1967 depicting a skeleton splayed on the ground. Colored in orange and red ochre, the body lies in repose. Its head rests near the bottom left corner of the frame as the setting sun’s rays seem to hit it—peaceful instead of macabre.

These early works use color, points and light to experiment with dimensionality. Another untitled painting, from 1970, uses abstract pointillism to create such an effect. An image begins to take shape before your eyes, as if it’s coming out of the painting. But the green space resists coalescing into something concrete, instead remaining a hazy afterimage. The tension, between what your eyes are trying to pull out of the canvas and what’s actually there, is mesmerizing.

“Untitled” (1972-1973) looms nearby. It’s a big, dark maroon canvas—like a galaxy at first glance. This work was the first time Pindell used tiny paper circles in her work, a material that reappears in the exhibit many times. What first appear to be stars are in fact different colored paper holes—“dots,” as the artist calls them.

The works in this phase were often grid-based, working in a field of constraints, for example, when Pindell combines hundreds of different numbers written on tiny pieces of paper. “I like working with the grid structure,” Pindell said. “My father was a mathematician. He liked to write numbers in a journal that had a grid to it.” Inspired by something from her childhood, Pindell was able to make art from droll schemata, like the large, languid sculptural piece that dominates the first downstairs gallery, around eight or ten feet tall, a rigid graph turned plastic.

Opposite, there are photographs of TV screens, with words and arrows scribbled all over, as if the image can be scientifically analyzed and explained in meticulous detail. Pindell detailed her process for these pieces: “I would photograph on the negative, I liked very much the sports images because you always seem to have an amazing movement, even without the dots and arrows and numbers, but I liked the way they meshed together.” It’s a technique she would use later for more pointed political work.

In 1979, Pindell’s art changed. Reactionary conservative politics, a traumatic car accident and racism in the art world combined to influence her work. As you step into the rear gallery of the Rose, you’re confronted by a large video projection of Pindell’s, titled “Free, White and 21.” The 10-minute filmed work from 1980 is a personal and political commentary on Pindell’s experiences as an artist of color, signifying a shift from art concerned with pure aesthetic to political and social issues.

The video alternates between Pindell as a version of herself, and a white character, played by her in heavy makeup. When Pindell recounts times she was discriminated against or harassed because of her race, the white woman is quick to discount her story. Pindell begins to wrap her head in toilet paper, obfuscating her face, the white becoming a blank space completely blotting out her identity. Her voice and creative expression are pigeonholed by the other character: “I hear your experiences and I think, well, it’s gotta be in her art, that’s the only way we’ll validate you, and it’s gotta be in your art in a way that we consider valid,” Pindell as the white woman says.

The last, largest gallery at the Rose deals with Pindell’s “issue-related pieces” as she called them. “I feel obligated to deal with subjects that some people would find are too hard to deal with,” Pindell said in the interview.

The work “Autobiography: Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family” is remarkable. We see Pindell’s face, with a vague outline of her body, surrounded by what appears to be water. “I laid down on the canvas and cut myself out and sewed it back in,” she said. There are pictures pasted all around her, collage-style, some of them faces, many of them eyes. The artist described a fascination with her ancestry. “I’m standing on a mountain of faces, that represents the legacy of my past, in terms of my DNA and heritage.”

Like the TV images before, this piece takes a similar approach. “War: A Thousand Points of Light (White Phosphorus)” 1988 is an ironic send-up of President George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light campaign,” his call for Americans to individually represent the best of American values abroad. Instead, we see a television image of one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons exploding, with “A THOUSAND POINTS OF LIGHT” superimposed. It’s a powerful, memorable image.

Across the room hangs “Separate But Equal Genocide: AIDS” (1991-1992). Two flags, reminiscent of earlier work exploring re-woven fabric, remember the AIDS epidemic—and discrimination in terms of medical care between whites and people of color. “That is an AIDS memorial,” Pindell said. “At that time I knew thirteen people who had died of AIDS.” A cousin of the artist died of AIDS at 35.

To me, Pindell’s political art is the most powerful section of “What Remains to Be Seen.” She combines collage, acrylic and photographs to create works that are worth taking the time to reflect on. Truly a worthy reason to trek out to the Rose. Identity, heritage, racism, political and cultural oppression, are all broached in inventive, compelling ways. Works like “Separate But Equal” and “Autobiography” in this section are worth seeing for the profound contemplation and emotional responses they motivate.

“The paintings create an inner dialogue with people, whether they think about certain events or subject matter,” Pindell said in her interview.

She also encouraged young artists, saying “not to give up,” and to “try to experiment and have fun with it and let it grow.” For those with artist’s block, she recommended reading the book “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron.

Currently, Pindell said that she is working on another large canvas piece. “I don’t want to talk about it too much, I don’t want to give it away,” she said. She described her experience at Brandeis as “Very positive,” saying that the Rose was one of her favorite venues to exhibit work.

“Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen,” is on view at the Rose until May 19. A diverse, thorough exhibit of a renowned American artist that should not be missed. As always, admission is free.

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