Shawanda Corbett: To the Fields of Lilac
On ViewSalon 94
January 19 – March 5, 2022
Shawanda Corbett’s first solo presentation in the United States, To the Fields of Lilac at Salon 94, confirms her ascending star. Though born in New York, the artist has exhibited most widely in the United Kingdom, where she earned an MFA, is pursuing a practice-based doctorate, and, in 2020, won one of ten Turner Bursaries that replaced the famed Turner Prize in acknowledgement of the financial pressures occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. At Salon 94, Corbett presents sixteen gleaming ceramic vessels ringed by twenty acrylic paintings on black paper (all 2021). In the latter works, thick black lines demarcate textures within bold-hued triangles, rectangles, and semicircles that in combination read, like alternate cartographies or choreographies, as simplified renderings of urban spaces seen simultaneously from eye level and bird’s-eye view. These linear notations echo those on the vessels, which stand out in a copper-colored luster against royal blues and purples so deep (as in Just the blind leading the blind) that they approach black, alongside fields of teal and pale pink. With this darkened palette, Corbett shifts from previous works adorned with washy glazes of pale red, light yellow, hunter green, and other more buoyant hues, demarcating the current grouping as a distinct body of work.
Corbett’s vessels do not represent specific individuals, but merge fictive and real aspects of what the artist imagines as a collective personality, or shared traits among groups. While for her 2020 showing at London’s Corvi-Mora Gallery the ceramics gestured toward her neighborhood’s contemporary inhabitants (Candy lady, Ole girl from down the street, Basketball boys), the new works seem to suggest a change in Corbett’s thinking to encompass also a history of Black experience in the United States. The artist explained to me over the phone that the phrase “To the Fields of Lilac” came to her in the studio, after the work for this show was complete, while listening to Pharoah Sanders’s transcendent free jazz, which for her relates to the invisible but nevertheless acutely felt process of working toward mental freedom after obtaining physical freedom. In the press release, Corbett references Toni Morrison’s Beloved as inspiring her meditation on racism as a form of cultural haunting, opening the work to a historically-specific matrix of experiences including resilience, remembrance, and embodiment.
Historically, the vessel was a crucial survival tool, an invention that brought energy home, as Ursula K. Le Guin put it, rather than expending it outward in acts of violence. But the vessel and the water it holds connote somewhat differently in the context of Black American experience, where ships brought people across the Atlantic to slavery as well as carried them, under the cover of darkness, toward freedom. Indeed, for Morrison’s protagonist Sethe, the Ohio River, that “one mile of dark water,” washed away the past as she gave birth on a rickety boat, water merging with water, the vessel of the womb giving way to another. In Corbett’s hands, the vessel is remarkably capacious as both a concept and a physical entity. To the artist’s great credit, she has identified a creative idiom that is both entirely personal and capable of engaging political and theoretical stakes that are much larger than any one person.
Materially and structurally, Corbett’s work addresses questions of subjectivity, autonomy, the individual within community, and the imperative to write one’s own history—themes that have likewise preoccupied Black and feminist writers. Corbett begins by forming the components of a ceramic work on a potter’s wheel and then, after they are all complete, assembling them. The process of forming the pieces on the wheel is a feat of problem-solving in itself, as Corbett, who was born with one arm, learned to wield the centripetal force of spinning ceramics to her benefit. In their finished form, most have three “bellies,” three “necks,” and a “foot.” Despite this shared morphology, there are differences in height, shape, color, and most compellingly, tilt that intimate a series of questions about difference and similarity among clay bodies, including what characteristics a vessel needs to be identifiable as one.
Just pissing in the wind, You don’t have to pretend, and, most obviously, Stop all that slouching, boy lean dramatically in one direction, like a person bending to one side. More than anything else, the accident of tilt that Corbett courts in the firing process anthropomorphizes the vessels, attributing to them whatever personality traits one might associate with the bent human form. That the vessels approach the human despite their abstraction is due in large part to their display on four white plinths in irregular groupings (only What tomorrow brings stands alone) that suggest the coherence of individuals in chosen communities. Designed to present the vessels at a height tuned for viewers in wheelchairs, the plinths are irregularly-shaped—a T, a line, a circle low to the ground—so that seeing the work forces a navigation akin to ambling through an unknown city or park.
With this comes a sense of possibility derived straight from the work. Although the artist will not perform in the gallery for this show, her vessels suggest potential uses: a visitor cannot help but visualize them raised, cradled, overturned, or even filled and emptied as they themselves move through the gallery. The paintings are instructive in this regard, since they index improvisational marks Corbett put down to music in the studio, providing another instantiation of the imagined, unscripted act. If we understand the world Corbett’s art builds through the pressure of fingers and brush to extend beyond the gallery’s reach, we find a powerful model for problem-solving poised to yield an ever-adapting environment flexible enough to accommodate needs that are, as of yet, unknown.