Tschabalala Self’s figures cannot be confined to the canvases onto which they are painted and stitched. The fabric wrinkles, bunches and moves into three-dimensional space; pieces of cloth hang over the edge of the stretcher; she even paints figures directly on the gallery walls. Incorporating patterned and hand-printed fabrics, paint, pencil, socks and plastic bags, her works draw on her experience growing up in Harlem to present a mixed-media and multifaceted depiction of black urban life in the United States.
Out of Body (2015) – from which this solo exhibition derives its title – depicts two figures, one with brown skin and the other with turquoise. Both are shadowed by ghostly,dark-brown silhouettes. The turquoise woman’s torso and upper thighs are clad in a bright yellow found fabric with a printed pattern of strawberryfilled baskets, while her outstretched hands display matching blue nails. Her companion’s one visible hand (portrayed in a blue patterned fabric) presents sharp orange nails while her foot is clad in a black-and-white floral pattern, like a sock.
These details complicate the resemblance of these voluptuous figures –.protruding butts, breasts and lips – to caricatures of black women. Rather than refute those representations, Self’s work reclaims them by using signifiers including patterned fabrics to convey individual personality, taste and preference within specific cultural constructs. These fully formed women seem to emerge out of the doubled, monochrome and generic brown figures behind them.
This small survey show spans three galleries with fourteen works on canvas, four sculptures, and wall paintings, arranged by theme rather than chronology. Ol’Bay (2019) shows a woman standing nude in a space that can be identified as a kitchen by a square of fabric adorned with images of teapots, plates and cookware. This is the fabric, according to the exhibition wall text, from which Self’s mother fabricated the curtains in her childhood apartment. The shelves are lined with cans of Goya and La Morena-brand beans, familiar from the bodegas that Self recreates in her Bodega Run series of installations – which replicates these corner shops and social spaces in the gallery – while the title namechecks the Cajun spice that is a signature of the cuisine of Self’s home neighbourhood.
While a bodega installation is not included in the show, many related works are. Next to Ol’Bay is Racer (2018), showing the back of a man squatting down to examine a wall of Tide bottles hand-printed onto the canvas. On the back of his jacket, the same brand of bottle is rendered as a logo made out of collaged and hand-painted fabrics. On the other side of the same gallery, Thank You (2018) uses the same hand-printed Tide backdrop, while the centre of the room is occupied by two Milkcrate (2019) sculptures, outsize duplications of the containers familiar from bodegas. In the gallery, they are elevated to the status of plinths on which Self has placed two wire-and-plaster-gauze sculptures of legs. They are painted in a shade of purple matching the figures rendered directly onto the wall, whose legs spread out behind the canvases.
The references in Self’s paintings suggest an attempt to memorialise the culture of the Black and Hispanic communities increasingly displaced by New York’s gentrification. And so the woman in the painting stands looking over her shoulder at the viewer, asking us to look at her, and to acknowledge her body and the materials by which she is surrounded as the proper subject of art.
Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston 20 January – 5 July 2020
From the March 2020 issue of ArtReview