Beverly Buchanan, or, Saying ‘Yes’ to Modern Art

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Welcome to 2017, museum lovers! May it be filled with thoughtful exhibitions even better than the last.

With the new year comes the end of the Museo Files’ long hiatus from the blogosphere. This has been due to some life changes, foremost of which is my enrollment in a Museum Studies Master’s of Arts program in New York City. This has been terribly exciting but has also demanded much of my attention, especially in combination with a part-time position in a gallery.

The coming semesters will undoubtedly be equally busy, but I have made it a prominent personal goal for 2017 to resume writing about the many museums I encounter. While I plan to look back at some of the amazing — and less-than-amazing — exhibitions and museums I have seen in the past several months, I will also continue to expand my museum world with visits to new places and ideas.

A genre of art I often struggle with is modern and contemporary art, which is just where I headed with one of my first visits of the year.

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The opening gallery of “Beverly Buchanan — Ruins and Rituals”

On January 6, I visited “Beverly Buchanan — Ruins and Rituals,” a temporary exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The show is part of their “Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism,” which is meant to present “the history of feminism and feminist art while showcasing contemporary artistic practices and new thought leadership,” in celebration of the 10th anniversary of their Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Buchanan is indicated as one of the “lesser-known” artists included in the programming meant to “[push] back against conventional barriers while expanding the canon.”

Such an estimable, monumental undertaking is not uncommon for the Brooklyn, which is known to push boundaries and elicit controversy. Though at least one exhibition within the “Year of Yes” falls a bit outside of these objectives — I’m looking (in confusion) at you, “Infinite Blue” — “Ruins and Rituals” exemplifies these goals by showcasing the work of a black female artist, an identity often excluded from the world of modern art.

“Ruins and Rituals” is presented in the Sackler Center’s gallery area, which surrounds the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” This is an open space but is naturally divided into three areas, which are each given themes within the exhibition.

Buchanan (1940-2015) worked in sculpture, drawings, photography, and other media, all of which are featured in the exhibition.

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One of Buchanan’s earthworks

The first gallery space concentrates on her concrete sculpture “earthworks.” The exhibition immediately conveys through its design that this is an environment for modern art, which appropriately matches Buchanan’s genre, but personally tends to incite a sense of foreboding. This may have contributed to my first impression of Buchanan’s sculptures as somewhat unremarkable. The exhibition labels and video displays, however, helped me to understand and appreciate the act of rebellion and disquiet in her superficially-simple concrete blocks.

These casted sculptures were originally made in reaction to urban decay and social displacement, countering the Land Art movement. By the late ’70s, however, Buchanan created her sculptures to be placed at specific sites to commemorate black and indigenous life and loss. The exhibition is titled after one of these site-specific works, “Ruins and Rituals” (1979), which is placed in Macon, Georgia, near where pro-slavery novel Eneas Africanus was written.

As some of these sculptures remain in their original location, both photographs and a video installation of Buchanan’s artwork are included in the exhibition to show these works. This is particularly useful for demonstrating Buchanan’s intent for the sculptures and how they exist in their environment outside the museum. I find that museums tend to struggle with communicating the humanity of their objects; the photos and videos in “Ruins and Rituals,” however, do just this.

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Gallery two, which contains some found-objects sculptures and archives
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“Medicine Woman / Evelyn / The Doctor,” mixed media, 1992; Georgia Museum of Art

Moving clockwise, the next section of “Ruins and Rituals” is mostly dedicated to Buchanan’s archives. There are a few found-object sculptures Buchanan created early in her career, but the focus of the room lies within five long tables. Topped with glass, these tables hold photographs, drawings, letters, and other items that demonstrate Buchanan’s experimentation and development throughout her career.

This was especially fascinating. As someone who is interested in archives and the stories they tell, I found the inclusion of such materials as an appropriate storytelling device. Buchanan is particularly suited for this type of display, as she toyed with the unfinished/finished nature of her work and amassed a collection of her experiments and works-in-progress. I think visitors who have the time to look at each of the tables with the use of the gallery’s printed key will feel like they know something of the artist and the process that guided her work.

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The printed guide that accompanied the archive tables
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Shack sculptures

The final section of “Ruins and Rituals” contains some of Buchanan’s shack sculptures, which the museum calls her “best-known works.” Created later in her life, these small models emerged from Buchanan’s time in the South and her gathering of histories, stories, and architecture.

Shacks are one of the motifs visible in Buchanan’s works, perceptible even within this moderately-sized exhibition. A fitting icon of poverty and black lives, the shack sculptures were intriguing but also the least resonant elements for me in the exhibit, perhaps because of a lack of detailed labels.

……….

The Brooklyn Museum continues to push itself beyond the typical narratives of art and artists with “Ruins and Rituals,” which made for was an excellent start to my year of museum-ing. If you are local or close to the New York City area, I definitely recommend a visit to expand your own knowledge before the show closes on March 5.

Beverly Buchanan — Ruins & Rituals

Where: Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238; 718-638-5000; brooklynmuseum.org

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, open until 10 p.m.

Admission: $16 (suggested)

Details: Photography is allowed. The facility is fully wheelchair-accessible. The museum shop is well-stocked, open same hours as admission, and is available online. Hourly parking is available behind the museum, while the museum is incredibly accessible by public transit with its own MTA subway stop on the 2/3 line.

Note

If not hyperlinked, the included information comes the museum’s brochure or descriptive labels. All the photos are my own.

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