Vanessa German’s work sparkles. She gets it to gleam on the cheap. The sculptor, painter and performance artist catches the light around her however she can: with sequins from party dresses, with shiny tassels and costume jewelry, the porcelain of chintzy statuettes, the metallic luster of cast-off trinkets, and the natural gloss of seashells, which, when turned outward and fitted into masks, suggest the contours of African-American lips.
German raids the junk drawer of American culture and affixes what she has found to her human figures: buttons and pins, religious paraphernalia, saucers and odd glass receptacles, and lots and lots of replica birds. An antique clock rests on the shoulder of a spear-toting warrior who makes his stand atop a wooden box surrounded by bottlecaps. A rickety chandelier hangs over the heavy heads of a pair of black-faced figures weeping plastic gemstones. A blue-bodied figure has for its face an old transistor radio, crowned (or perhaps trampled) by a sneaker. In “Mother,” Mother,” a maternal figure with a dress festooned with hand-mirrors and cap guns takes a meat cleaver to a pile of paperbacks that include John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” and Bruce Catton’s Civil War history “This Hallowed Ground.” They bleed glittering, golden glue.
None of these towers of stuff totter. Instead, German’s sculptures, which are now on view in the two large exhibition galleries at the Montclair Art Museum, bestow permanence on the discarded. Her crowded coterie of assembled humans and semi-humans feels like a crowd that would be difficult — maybe even dangerous — to disperse. Though she is hardly the first artist to extract glory from garbage, German is the rare trash-picker who has managed to assemble works of impeccable balance and deep gravity, even when she is conjuring chaos.
In “… please imagine all the things i cannot say …,” a stunning solo show, the artist draws from the traditions of African and African-American sculpture, alluding to Yoruba masks and Southern and Midwestern folk art with equal enthusiasm. She also nods and winks in the direction of gilt-encrusted Renaissance altarpieces and classical Christian artifacts. Yet for all its allusions, her work is not a tribute. Her actions may be guided by her experience as a Christian, or as a queer person of color. But she is putting the jagged pieces of her experience together according to no blueprint but her own.
The artist’s hand is guided by her unique sense of history. German — who, until recently, made her home in Pittsburgh — sees the American story as deep, dense and rich, both lively and sad, full of contradictions and misapprehensions. Loveliness and oppression ride side by side and are often transmitted through the same channel. To German, history is fundamentally social, composed of thousands of tiny gestures, and recorded in the small artifacts and traces of ordinary lives.
German sifts through parts of the rubbish pile that have been sitting unmolested in the sun for decades. Many of the objects amalgamated into her sculptures would have looked old half a century ago, including vintage electronics, cocoa tins and cleanser containers sporting long-forgotten brands, medals, magazines, and figurines coughed out of curio cabinets. It takes more than just mastery of sculptural form to put together bits and pieces in such a harmonious fashion. It requires compassion, and an understanding of the way in which objects carry the traces of the lives they’ve touched. German likes to drape her human-sized figures with pendulous fabric sacs, some stuffed and decorated with objects, some that drag her characters toward the ground with the weight of the past. All of these people are carrying heavy loads. But look closer: Those burdens are awfully beautiful.
Because she understands the heft of small events as they have accumulated over time, her historical pieces are never merely satire. They’re caustic, but they’re also sincere.
“LaQuisha Washington Crosses the Day Aware,” a gigantic three-dimensional reimagining of Emanuel Leutze’s much-parodied painting of a resolute Gen. Washington among the ice floes, is far more than a simple case of race- and gender-bending. Every detail in this complicated piece signifies and resonates — and there are thousands of details to appreciate. German’s woman warriors are armored with ancient cheese graters and clocks, light switches, rubber buttons, key rings; they’re like golems assembled from messy kitchen cabinets. Ghosts of harried ancestors howl around the boat she has parked in the middle of the main exhibition gallery, afloat on a sea of bottles and blue shopping bags, tied up in twine and cast in heaps on AstroTurf. Instead of oars, the human figures row through the plastic waves with crutches.
That is one indication that German’s piece is a critique of heroism and patriotism. Another is the American flag, which flies upside down. To the sculptor, Old Glory is an object like the rest of the ones she has rescued and reanimated; it has emotional significance, but so do the supplies from the scullery. Women’s work requires just as much fortitude as does the crossing of an icy river in wartime. Every day, LaQuisha Washington — and millions like her — gird themselves and go into battle with the harsh realities of life in the United States. With a highly developed sense of humor, irony, and an eye for provocative juxtaposition, German dignifies LaQuisha’s struggle.
Shrewdly, Montclair Museum chief curator Gail Stavitsky doesn’t make the viewer board this ship straight away. She introduces visitors to German’s symbolic language through an introductory gallery of statues that combine gravity and levity in novel ways. It’s the rare artist who can make a viewer laugh and provide nightmare fuel at the same time, but German does this so effortlessly that it probably isn’t intentional. It’s probably just what the inside of her boisterous, tormented mind looks like.
Luckily for us, she knows how to externalize those gorgeous demons. Her gavel-toting barefoot girl, with a cabinet stuffed with miniature statues for a head, manages to communicate a terrible impertinence through its stance alone. Another young woman is as whitewashed as a picket fence; she’s got a paintbrush and a softball tied to her overstuffed dress, her face locked in a birdcage, and a porcelain hen bursting from her torso.
I’m not sure where she found a glass replica of a human heart, but German has rounded one up and affixed it to the chest wall of one of her statues. The heart looks like it has taken a beating. There is dust and grit in the folds and ventricles. It might have been discarded in a dump.
German hasn’t polished it up, or made it any less weird than it is. Instead, she has weighed and assessed it and, in finding a place from which it will never budge, she has given it a home.
Vanessa German’s “… please imagine all the things i cannot say …” will be on display at the Montclair Art Museum through June 25. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.
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