Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cotton, Crops, Landscapes

The title of the exhibition Roots, Connections and Pathways gives a wide overview of the subjects  brought up by Lydia Thompson at the occasion of her exhibition at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art. The artist presents diverse sets of multimedia works, including collages, lithographs, stone wares, ceramics, paint, paper, wood.

Starting with collages of paper on foam laid in shadow boxes, three decorative portraits depict women with voluminous, colorful headdresses. The fourth, Rebirth I is a black silhouette with white hieroglyphic signs, inspired by symbols used in Ghana. According to the artist, the naive designs could adorn hair sticks and are a reminder of the prominent role of women as nurturers.

These light-hearted pieces are an introduction to more elaborate works like four small wooden carts carrying ceramic vessels filled with agricultural goods displayed in glass cases in the center of the room. They represent commodities which sustain agrarian economies in societies where the quality and quantity of the harvest are still a matter of life or death.  Alluding to the cultivation of crops on floating gardens in the Mississippi DeltaFloating Seedling, 2010, is a reminder that crops are more efficient if adapted to the local environment.  In Sweet Coals, 2010, the artist substitutes the word "coals" for sweet potatoes which were used as a mold for the piece and in the process raises the awareness to  the sources of energy in developing countries where the use of coal for the production of electricity is fueling a heated controversy. Return 360 Nesting, 2012, is an allegory of Spring and rebirth, with flocks of birds aggregating around a rich harvest carried on a wagon, ready for migration.
Cotton Fields #1 and Cotton Fields #2, 2008, cut outs of cotton in white paper on a brown background with a few red dots lost in the whiteness, are a not so subtle reference to the blood shed by cotton field laborers. Cotton as a commodity and the subsequent hardship endured by workers for its production is a recurrent theme in the artist's work.

The back wall is lined up by three calm, muddy-green paintings representing pools of water in the Mississippi Delta at night as seen on the screen of the artist's GPS. Individually carved and painted pieces of ceramic in the shape of leaves, represent the land, with islands, inlets, shorelines. They can be removed or added, reenacting  the action of natural and human interventions on the land. Floating from Afar #1, 2 and 3, 2012, are some of the latest works from the artist who experienced the atmosphere of the Delta at night and its "visual silence".

Massive abstract black shapes, Retro Boli #1 and #2, 1983-2012 are inspired by boliw, sculptures of a highly simplified cow or mythical animal, embodiment of spiritual powers in the Bamana culture of Mali. Made of organic elements mixed with mud they are a symbol of life and hold magical powers.

Two major pieces, on opposite walls, bring the visitor back to cotton. In Bloodlines, 2009, twenty five squares in terracotta design a grid and identical cotton bolls are nested on each, creating a relief. Petroglyphs inscribed on some of the squares give a sense of timelessness and the cotton bolls are decorated with black Victorian flower designs. Repetition and uniformity create a link in time and space, a history of cotton through the centuries and across continents. The second piece Untitled Cotton Sky, 2012, also a large composition of wooden squares, painted dark blue-black, like the sky on a moonless night includes also cotton bolls, this time randomly spread like stars. Black inscriptions on the bolls evoke drawings of constellations. The sky becomes the connection between cultures and continents.

The well organized display allows the visitor to navigate through the diverse works without distraction and the exhibition is a stimulating experience bringing up thoughts about cultural ties between agrarian societies, connections between economies and our common roots.
With her powerful works, the artist brings us from the object to the symbol, from the Mississippi Delta to Africa, from the earth and water to the sky and the universe.

Photographs courtesy Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art

Photo credit: Dupree G. Bostic

Eastern Gardens, 2001
Paper and foamboard
23" x 15" x 3"
Collection of the artist

Return 360 Nesting, 2012
Hand built stoneware & porcelain with slip casting. Celadon glaze reduction cone 9.
16” x 27” x 10”
Collection of the artist

Detail from Floating from Afar, 2012
Ceramic and paint
5’ x 6’
Collection of the artist

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