Conjuring Art from Castoffs at Visual Arts Center of Richmond

Details of works by (l to r) Marcus Kenney, Vanessa German, and Shawne Major.
Details of works by (l to r) Marcus Kenney, Vanessa German, and Shawne Major.

Scientific research on honeybee populations shows that by performing a ritualized body movement called “the waggle dance” bees are able to communicate and process their orientation in space and time. Based solely on vibrations, this dance is essential also to their communication and memory development. Bees’ lives center around choreographed rituals like collecting pollen, building hives, and producing honey, which some may say is simply commonplace insect behavior. Yet no one can speak for bees’ intuitive sense of touch or their ability to follow celestial queues when traveling from place to place. Likewise, that is much of what “Conjurers: Artists Imbue the Ordinary” considers: the spatial relationships between art and life, memory and material, ritual and accumulation.

Vanessa German, white american cheese, 2014; mixed media, 41 by 24 by 10 inches.

Curated by Melissa Messina (recently appointed curator of Flux Projects in Atlanta), the show, on view at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond through December 23, features works by Shawne Major of Louisiana, Marcus Kenney of Savannah, and Vanessa German of Pittsburgh.

Aptly titled, “Conjurers” highlights the artists’ devotion to their environment and creating art based on the human experience. Their works index alternate rituals of everyday life that incorporate formal elements of assemblage, painting, and performance, each using raw material often associated with urban and rural landscapes. Together their works rightfully evoke the spirit of Arte Povera during this crucial moment in history, drawing from the past and present.

Conjurers: Artists Imbue the Ordinary from Visual Arts Center of Richmond on Vimeo.

Shawne Major’s elaborately embellished tapestries are suspended from rods on the wall. Each of her stunning pieces, ranging from 5 to 7 feet on a side, is a hand-stitched, interconnected web of small objects, toys, electrical cords, and other ubiquitous items. Depending on where you stand, the surfaces change in depth and dimension, like a topographical map of materials we interact with daily. As a whole, her works appear tangible, familiar, and yet deeply mysterious.

Shawne Major, Maelstrom, 2012; mixed-media, 81 by 66 inches.
Shawne Major, Maelstrom, 2012; mixed media, 81 by 66 inches.

Marcus Kenney’s works invoke the fiery spirit of Delta blues. Comprising a harmonious blend of sculpture and collage, Kenney’s elaborate works borrow from grotesque and darkly humorous motifs associated with ornament and the Deep South. His ongoing Timeline sculptures consist of freestanding metal buckets filled to the brim with pipes, broken tools, and used paintbrushes. Works such as Double Headed Snake and The Eye (both 2016), culled from his grotesquerie of personal and found detritus, combine animistic symbolism with the spirit of Dada—Kenney’s most persistent themes—to explore the origins of folklore and memory.

Marcus Kenney, Saint Laree, 2012; mixed media, 53 by 23 by 30 inches.

The potency of myth and lure of magic coalesce inside Vanessa German’s assembly of iconic statuettes. Disparate dimensions of the African diaspora appear to unite in her selection of works. Each piece is crafted with exquisite detail, showing various elements of Kongo, Yoruba, and American iconography. Steeped in symbolism, they beckon the viewer to look closely and think critically. German evocatively transforms common objects such as tchotchkes, clocks, and dolls into metaphors that resist time and categorization. Her unconventional artistic practice combines collage, poetry, and performance, and is permeated with femininity and revolutionary power. Each figure carries something in her hands — toy guns, babies, telephones, tools, or hand mirrors that reflect the viewer’s gaze. German’s clever use of contextual associations and object repetition (i.e., alligators and skateboards) charges her sculptures with social messages on life, meaning, and mobility.

“Conjurers: Artists Imbue the Ordinary” is on view through December 23 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

Kimberly D. Jacobs is a curator and critic from Jackson, Mississippi. She is currently a
Ph.D. student in art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

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