Holcha and Willie’s First Dance
Archival ink on Arches water color paper
30″ x 22 1Ú4″
Photo: courtesy Steve Turner Contemporary
For over a decade, New York-based artist Deborah Grant has mined the visual legacy of luminaries including Picasso, Bacon, and Basquiat, along with self-taught icon Bill Traylor, combining art historical languages with her own complex idiom. In her current body of work–her third solo show at Steve Turner Contemporary–she looks to the lesser-known biography of William H. Johnson for inspiration. Johnson, an African American born in rural South Carolina in 1901, moved to New York in his teens to study art before moving to Europe in 1926, where he married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. The pre-currents of World War II brought the pair back to the States, where Johnson’s work slowly morphed from the influences of German Expressionism into simplified figurative depictions of urban life in New York and the rural South. Johnson’s later life is marked by tragedy: his wife died of cancer in 1943, and three years later Johnson was institutionalized for mental illness, where he spent the final 23 years of his life without producing a single known work.
It is this ill-fated legacy that provides the narrative of this exhibition by Grant. In the majority of the multi-media panels on view, Grant’s intricate backgrounds consist of undecipherable black graffiti on wood panels. Her obsessive style of mark making is a teeming amalgamation of abstract patterns, hieroglyphs, Dada-esque machinations and electronic-inspired doodles upon which she layers collaged photographs, and stark monochromatic silhouettes in black or red. The figures are deliberately rendered in Johnson’s style and appear to depict moments in the artist’s life–conjured from factual accounts as well as GrantÕs vision of the artist’s final decades lived in relative isolation. Grant’s exploration of personal and social issues, through the lens of the older artist’s biography, proves most compelling. In works such as Final Destination (From Oslo to Long Island) and Rest in Peace (both 2011), Grant’s complex backgrounds seem to diagram the paths leading to Johnson’s greatest sorrows. Conversely, his life story becomes a virtual roadmap illustrating episodes of racism and misfortune in large-scale works Thieves in the Night (2011) and The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun (2012). Although these two works are quite distinct visually–offering distilled imagery on wood panels in one, and a chaotic layering and juxtaposition of imagery in the other–the works strike parallel chords. Grant weaves together the universal with the personal; through charting the course of Johnson’s biography she reveals the complexity of his identity–and by extension, our own.