Sanford Biggers, Roderick Kiracofe,
New Bed: Site specific installations by Roderick Kiracofe, Karen and Malik Seneferu, Nicole Shaffer; video by Sanford Biggers
Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 work Bed represents a watershed in the history of art, one cited as signifying the moment when the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism in America let go. But the piece is far more radical than simply an invisible line in the art continuum. The work hangs on a wall like any painting, yet its central element is a quilt. The eponymous bed is “made,” so to speak, with its corner turned invitingly down and a fluffed white pillow above; but the invitation is moot because the artist stained and closed off this opening with thick, brightly colored oil paint in drips and mottled strokes. Rauschenberg created a bed into which we, the viewers, cannot possibly climb, a bed in which we cannot lie.
And, yet, still, the artist has not made this great effort to bring the private into the public view only to thwart it. These lines are not so pure or clean as society (or the art world) often wants to believe, Rauschenberg posits. Bed alludes to his relationship with Jasper Johns, scandalous in the mid-century. Likewise, the use of the quilt, acquired in his native South, invokes gender, race, regionalism, and authorship, topics often omitted from polite (art) conversation at that moment. With this work, Rauschenberg begins to question and undo the fixed nature of the perception of all of them, showing them to be interconnected in art as in life. It is this great tension between attempts to share personal history in order to push public boundaries that unites the artists in this exhibition, New Bed.
In this present show, multi-media, multi-sensorial sculptural installations by artists Roderick Kiracofe, Karen and Malik Seneferu, and Nicole Shaffer, along with a provocative video by Sanford Biggers offer insight into these boundaries between the personal and the public, private and shared history, exploring the disparities between the rhythms, expectations, and emotions of each. When that line is breached, purposely or involuntarily, the bed, normally a site of safety and comfort, intimacy and privacy, instead becomes one of potential anxiety or fear. Dreaming is exposed to the possibility of nightmare. Control is lost. But it is only in this public breach that society’s expectations around the private, individual sphere can be shifted, and the implications for both history and future can start to be more comprehensively and honestly understood. As with the vulnerability that facilitates and makes possible any relationship, it is a risk, but it is also a chance.
Sanford Biggers, an internationally recognized artist originally from Los Angeles, has in recent years incorporated quilts and quilt-making into his art making, as part of his more general inquiry into identity politics and cultural symbolism. He often paints directly on historical quilts, integrating designs that are sometimes gestural and painterly, but more often tend to illuminate almost ritualized, universal signs, combining them to create his own signature maps. Or as he has called them in the past, “constellations.” For, in fact, quilts did serve, historically, as signposts for stops on the Underground Railroad. But now, under his hand, these woven pieces enter into 21st century multi-dimensional space, where directions are no longer physical but virtual, existing in the imagination and beyond the known spheres, both inside and out of time. That is what the work presented here, a video called Moon Medicin, achieves. In it we see an interstellar capsule whirl through outer space, arriving at a patch of rural Earth. It has delivered a naked man to this new-America, one who seems to be coming out of a long sleep or perhaps is even newly born. His only signpost is the quilt he is curled up on. The work’s soundtrack mixes Hip-Hop with deep cantos that describe the life of Harriet Tubman, referencing the constant renewal of history through language and place--a force of history that even this space traveler, who is black, must face. With this he sets off with the quilt, his only bed, as a guide and begins to explore this new, renewing, yet historically fraught universe.
Roderick Kiracofe presents an installation of actual historical quilts, displaying their backs only, building in the project room an intimate cave that in essence inverses Rauschenberg’s bed. Now we are seeing these historical pieces literally from under the covers. Onto one of these he projects a video that he made in conjunction with artist Jason Hanasik that functions almost like found home-movie footage. Quiet and understated, this video shows intimates in their lives; it ends very personally with a long shot of Kiracofe’s life partner, Jack. Over the past thirty years, Kiracofe has found refuge and correspondence in these anonymous covers, whose potent symbolism as beautiful yet unacknowledged sites of warmth and desire was not lost on him as a gay man in his native Indiana. Kiracofe is the author of two major books on American quiltmaking, has made a concerted effort to bring these quilt artists, always women and very often black, out of anonymity--even if their names can never be found. His most recent book, Unconventional and Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000, posits these quilts as abstract contemporary art, not separate from the "fine" art that was being done simultaneously, and as valid in its historical reach and aesthetic investigations.
Karen and Malik Seneferu are each nationally recognized artists, who are also a married couple, and it is that partnership that forms the core of their installation at Krowswork. Malik is primarily a painter, whose central ethos revolves around his use of art to envision a creative, not destructive, world around him. This quest has been very personal, having lost close loved ones to violence and crime, but it also comes out of a desire to see these current, day-to-day struggles in the context of a larger history, and light a spiritual, yet practical, path toward their collective resolution. Karen works often with site-specific space, sculpture, and video. She brings a bold, yet nurturing presence to her sculptures that corresponds to her philosophy that “Space dictates meaning.” Which is to say that that you either change that space or you are dictated to by that space, and it is a deliberate choice. Her extensive work with Kongo kingdom ancestor totems updated through technology are just one of many ways that she is attempting to re-view and re-dress history. Both are Bay Area natives, who together have come to represent a bedrock within the African American art community here. This installation addresses the possibilities and pressures inherent in taking on that role, as well.
Nicole Shaffer presents a body of work she created after separating from her husband. She deconstructed her marriage bed, literally using each piece as a sculptural element in a personal ritual. She stained, wrote on, cut, and embroidered the sheets, pillow, and blanket, marking them in a very deliberate and personal way. Then the artist used them as the central elements of a 3-day performance that took place outside in the Orinda hills. Working in collaboration with photographer, Gina Cholik, and video artist, Anne Klint, Shaffer produced an expansive record of these three days that represented a transition from one type of shared space to another. This installation presents these ritualized objects, including additional sculptures and clothing and painted sheets stretched as 2-D wall hangings, alongside the photographs by Cholik and a video by Klint, which features Shaffer staining her face and body, and in the process offering a renewal of the self.