Joy Ray and Samuelle Richardson at Launch LA

Kristine (6)
Beyond/Within, Launch LA; Photo credit Kristine Schomaker

Avian Hieroglyphics

Launch LA, Los Angeles
through September 28

Curated by Andi Campognone

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” ~Francis Bacon

Written by Betty Ann Brown
Imagine a world in which trees could communicate with each other and birds could communicate with us. Actually, you don’t have to use your imagination here. We already live in a world where trees communicate with other trees: check out Peter Wohleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) or Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018). And Cambridge zoologist Claire Spottiswoode has documented communications between humans and African honeyguide birds.

So what about imagining how birds might write to us, how they might communicate with us symbolically? As it happens, you don’t have to use your imagination there, either. Samuelle Richardson, who makes some of the art world’s best birds, has collaborated with Joy Ray, who creates beautifully wrought abstractions and writes in a secret bird-like alphabet, have collaborated on an exhibition that pairs cloth crows with iconic “texts,” inviting viewers to observe the remarkable aesthetic interaction.

The artworks of Joy Ray and Samuelle Richardson are linked in three intriguing ways: Both artists use fabric as a primary material; both artists favor black and white; and both artists reject photographic realism in favor of creating mysterious new realms.

Joy Ray is based on the Big Island of Hawaii. Her current body of work–“Post-Apocalyptic Petroglyphs”–might have been excavated from ancient indigenous sites there. With spirals, bars, crosses, and squares, Ray’s oeuvre deploys primal abstract forms much like the thousands of rock art images etched into volcanic stone in Pu’u Loa National Park. Further, the artist has developed a private language of forms–lines, circles, dots, etc.–that resemble runic texts. She stitches her geometric alphabet onto irregular rectangles of heavy cotton in compositions that read like ancient palimpsests.

Most of Ray’s work is done on Osnaburg, a coarsely woven cotton traditionally used for draperies and upholstery. She enriches the texture of the cotton fabric with heavy yarn and with roving, i.e., long bundles of pre-spun fibers. Both are stitched down then painted. The adamant physicality inherent in Ray’s use of materials recalls the work of Antoni Tapies (1923-2012), the Spanish master who worked with everything from socks to shirts, barbed wire to honey. Like Ray, Tapies developed his own language of marks (bars, Xs, crosses, etc.) and arrayed them across canvases that resemble ancient artifacts. American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) and Italian master Alberto Burri (1915-1995) similarly explored mark making–scribbles, graffiti, and calligraphy–as the essence of their paintings. Tapies, Burri and Twombly stand as potent predecessors for Ray.

Samuelle Richardson creates stuffed textile birds and human heads that, for the current exhibition, she erects on whitewashed wooden plinths. The birds are black or bluish-gray. Their beaks are rust orange. They have wire legs and oversized wings. Some appear startled, about to take off, their mouths open in cawing protest. Others are calmer and more contained. Some of them interact, others are solitary. Richardson doesn’t elaborate on their relationships, so it is up to the viewer to generate a narrative. Are they predators? Or pets? Crows? Ravens? Bluebirds? Jays? Perhaps warblers? Herons? What is the nature of their communications? And how do they relate, in turn, with Joy Ray’s abstract icons?

Interspersed among Richardson’s birds are severed human heads stitched from thick brown fabric. They have crudely shaped white wooden teeth in clinched mouths that vacillate between smiling and grimacing. (I think of George Washington’s ivory teeth and how much they bothered him.) The heads have no hair, no ears. Their eyes are sunk deeply into their lumpy cheeks. They have a rough, primitive look (unlike, for example, Nancy Grossman’s slickly designed leather heads from the 1960s.) They threaten even as they charm. And they have a strange similarity to the late 1940s-early 1950s series Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) called her “Personages.” Bourgeois’ “Personnages” are totemic figures inspired by the work of her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, who was famed for his studies of how modern art was influenced by what he called “primitive” art.

Richardson allows the fabric ends of her birds’ wings to loosen and fray, giving them the illusion of motion. But they don’t fly a way. Instead, they have a taut stasis. Perhaps Richardson’s birds are captives of the head people who have written the mysterious missives (created by Joy Ray) that surround them. Perhaps the birds themselves limn the texts. Perhaps this exhibition gives us insight into an alternative existence when birds read runes. Perhaps they worship in the Rothko-like stillness framed by the black voids of Ray’s paintings.

The relationship between the birds and texts remains mysterious. You will have to go to the chapel-like installation at Launch Gallery to decide for yourself.

Launch LA
170 S. La Brea Ave., Upstairs, Los Angeles, 90036

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