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Cauleen Smith We Already Have What We Need

  • Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • May 25, 2019 - March 15, 2020

Cauleen Smith describes her work as a reflection on “the everyday possibilities of the imagination.” Trained as a filmmaker, the multidisciplinary artist creates visual and phenomenological experiences that ruminate on social, cultural, intellectual, artistic, and political liberation. Her stunning works draw on poetry, Afrofuturism, science fiction, and tactics of experimental film to conjure alternative narratives and what the artist has called “a cornucopia of future histories.” She engages topics and influences as disparate as the African Diaspora, the image of black women in film, the music and legacies of Sun Ra and John Coltrane, the post-hurricane landscape of New Orleans, the work of Dutch conceptualist Bas Jan Ader, the politics of land art, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings on “creative maladjustment.” She describes her subjects as “the fragile, the forgotten, the flawed, and the fugitive.”


Spanning the entirety of MASS MoCA’s expansive first-floor galleries, Smith’s exhibition — her most comprehensive to date — will feature a new immersive installation, a survey of her videos made over the last decade, new textiles, a selection of banners from her “In the Wake” series featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a written manifesto, and new works on paper. The artist has created a new series of drawings related to her Human_3.0 Reading List 2015–2016. Exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2017, this earlier compendium of 57 images of book covers proposes a new canon of must-read texts for a more advanced, better armed version of ourselves. Making its debut at MASS MoCA, BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019 engages the intersection of feminism, cultural production, care of the land, and theories of “black fugitivity,” a strategy of refusal and disengagement that moves beyond resistance in order to expose and escape the structures of state power. The new series of 30 drawings includes In The Wake by Christina Sharpe, Sula by Toni Morrison, Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman, and Whatever Happened To Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins, among others. (MASS MoCA is organizing a book club for fall 2019 that will focus on a selection from the list to facilitate discussions on the texts themselves and how their themes intersect with the exhibition.)

The heart of Smith’s exhibition at MASS MoCA, a new video installation, takes an ecological turn as it propels viewers into a revolutionary imaginary. The work meditates on many varied perspectives on what our basic needs are, from food, shelter, and medicine to music and art, our relationships to each other and to our ancestors, and to our environment. Images of landscapes from films, such as Eat Pray Love, Thelma and Louise, Fargo, and Erin Brockovich (all tales of white female self-actualization) are projected on five 22-foot screens that function like architecture within the gallery. Amidst this labyrinthine path created for visitors are 5 tables supporting an array of the “stuff” that we accumulate. Live-feed CCTV recordings of these still-lifes (featuring African figurines, plants, a model sailboat, musical instruments, and more mundane items) will be layered on top of Smith’s videos. The artist’s provocative arrangements of objects – which she calls “living rooms” or “space stations” – invite us to consider the mundane aspects of life on earth alongside its untapped potential, which, as the title of the work suggests, is within our reach. Up above, brilliant colors stream through the gallery’s eight large clerestory windows, throwing constantly changing bits of color on the walls. The hues move from blue to red and back to blue again. The work’s title, Every Sunrise and Every Sunset All at Once, refers to NASA’s description of the light produced by an eclipse of a Super Moon. The aesthetically transcendent installation, described by the artist as a “communal soul search,” will invite us to see anew – what is and what could be.

Smith’s explorations of our relationship to nature are related to a new series of textile banners made for the exhibition. Smith’s textiles are central to her practice and are often made for her public processions and activist interventions. Part protest sign, part flag, part pep rally accessory, these works are influenced by a long history of banners hoisted for celebration as well as social and political change, from those flown by labor unions or carried by activists in the Civil Rights movement. Smith has also been inspired by church banners, military regiment colors, and Vodun tapestries, as well as the heraldry of marching bands. Smith’s 2017 community street parade on the South Side of Chicago If Thoughts Could Heal, for example, featured banners, a brass brand, poetry by Krista Franklin, and a ritual cleansing with incense, and was described as “a revolutionary act of healing fueled by music, pageantry, and joy.” The most recent of Smith’s brightly colored, abstract flags represent “territories” that cannot be colonized, such as the dawn, the night, and the elusive green flash; instead, these zones can be occupied only through thought and imagination.

In Smith’s words: Midnight Darkness, Eventide, Dawn, Noon, Sunset, Twilight, Golden Hour. These are borderless territories ruled only by the tyranny of time. We—all of us—move through these territories thoughtlessly more often than not. These spaces cannot be parceled, portioned, or staked. These spaces are as transient as time itself. We—all of us—are without a home in space-time. And I am suggesting that that is how it should be. Meet me at Dawn. It’s cold. We’re tired. Have a fur pillow. Hover above the frosted earth on this lawn chair. Watch the light change. Can you feel the earth rotating around the sun? This is your spaceship. Act accordingly.

About the artist:
Cauleen Smith was born in Riverside, California, in 1967 and grew up in Sacramento. She earned a BA from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television. Her films, objects, and installations have been featured in group exhibitions at the Studio Museum of Harlem, New York; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the New Museum, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She has had solo shows for her films and installations at The Kitchen, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; and DuSable Museum, Chicago; and had a project at the ICA Philadelphia in Fall 2018. She is the recipient of multiple awards and fellowships including the prestigious inaugural Ellsworth Kelly Award of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. She has received a Creative Capital grant, a Rauschenberg Residency; Black Metropolis Research Consortium Research Fellowship; and the Director’s Grant at the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts. She is represented by Kate Werble, New York, and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago. Smith recently relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles where she teaches at CalArts.

Cauleen Smith, We Already Have What We Need, 2019
Multi-channel video installation with projectors, slide projectors, projection screens, rope, sandbags, plaid plastic travel bags, monitors, cctv cameras, tripods, c-stands, custom wood, metal, and velvet tables, leds, augmented antique and contemporary African figures, Dembe figure, tchotkes, plaster bases, augmented model sailboat, globe mounted on drawing, Japanese Suiseki stones, cement Suiseki, plaster lamp, ceramic incense burner, Kintsugi porcelain cups and saucers, Maneki-Neko, radio, polaroid camera, polaroid photographs, potted plants, rocks, stands, rock with copper sulphate, minerals, artificial Bonsai tree, bonsai pots, crow mask, books, porcelain, tuning fork, mallets, drumsticks, disco ball ornaments, acoustic foam, candle, toy excavator, New Orleans King cake baby, ceramic whistle, peacock feather, shells
Courtesy of the artist; Kate Werble Gallery, New York; and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago
Photo: David Dashiell

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