‘Hello, Penumbra’ is what happens when artists and institutions trust each other
Performers inhabit the space of “Hello, Penumbra” at Living Arts on opening night.
Destiny Jade Green
Visitors can expect an entirely different experience depending on which door they walk through at “Hello, Penumbra.” The first floor of the several thousand square feet of Living Arts gallery space is divided among four radically varied artists from the Tulsa Artists Fellowship. The day you see the show matters, too: On opening night, there were live goats. What’s in store for its closing week later this month is anybody’s guess.
The goats were artist Heyd Fontenot’s idea. “Part of it was playing off the idea of a living nativity scene,” he said. He calls the work an “inhabited installation.” Fontenot also manipulates the imagery of biker gangs and the politics of fear in what he calls a comment on both “white supremacy and ethnic cleansing.”
While the animals did not receive any direction for their opening night performance, a group of actors did rehearse their tableau vivant and the “obscure rituals” conducted in silence with music accompaniment. Elsewhere in the space hangs a painting by Fontenot with common household latex paint that reads, in a bow to artist Barbara Kruger: A SHOW OF FORCE IS A DISPLAY OF WEAKNESS.
Fontenot was invited to transform the considerable amount of space along with Crystal Z. Campbell, Shane Darwent, and Florine Dèmosthéne. The show was curated by Jessica Borusky, artistic director for Living Arts. The result is an exhibition that activates the several thousand square feet into a politically-charged experience, however shrouded in layers of historical metaphor and allusion.
The show doesn’t necessarily work to human scale, but always in deep consideration of that scale within the gallery walls. Or sometimes just outside of it. Artist Shane Darwent made use of a loading dock for part of his contribution, which references architecture and features slightly askew takes on everyday objects, and what he calls “the moat of suburbia” around America’s cities.
Darwent and Dèmosthéne had especially busy Decembers, as both artists were showing work in satellite fairs and related activity at Art Basel in Miami. Dèmosthéne exhibited at the Untitled Art Fair on behalf of Mariane Ibrahim gallery. Her large figurative work combines glitter, ink, film, and various other materials, dealing heavily with mythology and a long overdue revisionism on what constitutes heroism. Darwent, meanwhile, was on location for a storefront installation in Little Havana.
The philosophical through-line between Tulsa Artist Fellowship and Living Arts is complete and total artistic freedom for anyone with whom they work.
“My curatorial approach is highly dialogical, in that I rarely work with an artist and ‘select’ work; rather, my working with artists is an ongoing conversation,” Borusky said. “I wish to work with an artist based on the conceptual and aesthetic integrity … of their practice, and then I begin to discuss with them what, out of the world of their work, would they like to work on and exhibit.”
Fontenot says the same regarding the policing of content, or lack thereof, for Tulsa Artist Fellows.
“There aren’t stipulations on what material we can deal with,” Fontenot said. “We are not censored, which is so important in a creative field.”
Fontenot was once director of the CentralTrak artist residency in Dallas, which was closed by the University of Texas at Dallas in 2017. He notes the difference in the culture between the residencies as he makes work on a TAF stipend of $20,000, which is not weighed down by the burden of being tied to any particular project, including housing and a studio. “There are just no bones about it,” he said. “It’s fully supported. They are not trying to scare us.”
Although it has changed locations several times over the years, the proximity of Living Arts gallery to the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is not a fact lost on either the directors or artists. Crystal Z. Campbell in particular has made the underreported tragedy a focus of her practice, which continues to evolve.
Her installation, “Model Citizen: Here I Stand,” continues the artist’s trajectory of work haunted by the Massacre, while drawing a connection to arguably one of the lost icons of the postwar era, Paul Robeson—a star athlete, actor, writer, and singer who was under strict surveillance by the American government and mistreated accordingly for his left-leaning political ideology.
Campbell envelops her section of Living Arts with two-sided banners featuring archival aspects of Robeson’s life on one side, both original and found. The five massive works display blunt messages on the other side: THIS IS NOT A MONUMENT. THIS IS NOT EQUITY. THIS IS NOT ORIGINAL. THIS IS NOT AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT. THIS IS NOT UNDONE.
Three original videos made by Campbell accompany the banners with Tulsa-based actors posing as nude stand-ins for Robeson, in the manner of a model frozen still for a figure drawing class. “I was interested in how he held space,” she said. “How his body was perceived, and the role of potential erotic power that was central to the narrative used to justify the start of the Tulsa Race Massacre and so many other violences of Americana.”
Campbell is planning a performance during the final week of “Hello, Penumbra.” The event will feature multiple performers and takes place on Tues., Jan. 15. The artist says she’s “quite nervous” about it, and attendees should be too. Judging by the work so far, visitors can expect something that will be hard to shake after exiting.