Stacy Lynn Waddell: Mettle
On ViewCandice Madey
September 10 – October 22, 2021
“After all, who shall describe Beauty? What is it? I remember tonight four beautiful things: the cathedral at Cologne, a forest in stone, set in light and changing shadow, echoing with sunlight and solemn song; a village of the Veys in West Africa, a little thing of mauve and purple, quiet, lying content and shining in the sun; a black and velvet room where on a throne rests, in old and yellowing marble, the broken curves of the Venus de Milo; a single phrase of music in the South—utter melody, haunting and appealing, suddenly arising out of night and eternity, beneath the moon.”1
Stacy Lynn Waddell’s Mettle, the artist’s first solo show in New York at Candice Madey gallery, presents new paintings in gold leaf on canvas and works on handmade paper.
Mettle refers to a 16th century spelling of the word “metal,” which today is still actively used to describe a resilient and fighting spirit. Mettle—taken up in all of its material, historical, and affective force is a powerful attribute that Waddell wields to both investigate historical structures of value-creation as well as to reorganize worth and worthiness. Waddell’s use of innovative techniques and traditional handicraft levels the hierarchy of medium specificity through a tribute in gold to celebrations of hope, from the photographs of Malick Sidibé marking the “Golden Age” of colonial Mali’s official independence from France to the reworking and manipulation of history paintings by Robert S. Duncanson.
Fine art, handicraft, and institutional critique all happen at once in the situated experience of Waddell’s luminescent paintings. The attention the artist gives to each of the demands placed on as well as those felt by any Black artist working today contributes to the aesthetic, spiritual, and financial matrixes at the heart of the most pressing and long-standing questions on art and freedom.
The 19th century U.S. landscapes laser-burned on handmade paper with variegated metal are absorbed into a wider narration of African diaspora when juxtaposed with Waddell’s reimagining of the subjects in the photographs by Sidibé. For example, in THE TWO OF US CROUCHING DOWN WITH HATS AS HALOS (for M.S.), 1973/2021, the artist utilizes a slow-build technique, carefully placing thin layers of gold leaf to pay homage to the value of Black joy (always under erasure in the traditional landscape’s imaginary, for example). By reordering the technology of image creation and dissociating medium and subject from their received ideological status, Waddell raises the specific subject of this photograph—Black women’s joy—to signify our liberation and pleasure from any angle of representation.
In the early 20th century “science of signs,” or semiotics, philosophers of language and structuralists attentive to historical materialism attempted to formally analyze the ways in which our communicative world(s) are constructed in the context of rising mass industrialization. In Mythologies Barthes writes: “…signifier is empty, the sign is full” to refer to the complex organization of arbitrary symbols organizing the determining conditions of value in modern societies.2
Waddell carries out a similar investigation through her recognition of the simultaneous meaninglessness and ongoing cross-cultural significance of gold across human societies. Across various myths and religions, throughout many human cultures’ “Golden Ages” (usually entailing cycles of conquest and liberation from conquest), we humans seem to be enamored with shiny objects. But what are the different kinds of currencies in circulation and still in need of historical contextualization, especially as we reorganize signs of value in art, history, and culture writ large?
It is in Waddell’s understanding of the physicality of the light wherein she changes the viewer’s access to seeing, both literally and figuratively. The luminescent canvases give off different shades of shine depending on the position of the viewer in relation to the paintings, and we are encouraged to play with the sunlight and shadow showing off the vitality of the photograph or painting-derived underneath. Waddell’s compositions go beyond an appropriation of gold to physically bring viewers into reflection on overlapping “Golden Ages” belonging to interconnected human cultures. The decisions about where to reveal the canvas beneath the gold, as in WOMAN IN A CHECKERED DRESS IN CONTRAPPOSTO (for M.S.), (1971/2021) requires the discipline of an artist who is brilliantly organizing the temporality of her work and career on her own terms.
Waddell’s ingenious innovations on the value of currency, including her own, capture and comment on Dutch 17th century vanitas still life painting in Untitled (Floral Relief 1665), (2021). The work reminds us of the wisdom of Diogenes the Cynic on restamping the currency of cultural values as much as operations of commodification articulated by Nancy Leong’s notion of “Racial Capitalism” or economist Thomas Piketty’s research on the importance of kinship relations in his analysis on the accumulation and retention of inherited wealth in Capital in the 21st Century. 3 Waddell recognizes that certain painters at the heights of the Dutch colonial era recognized the violence and ramifications of greed through the use of moral symbology intended to show the imbalance between the impermanence of pleasure and the inevitable decay of decadence.
The phrase “to test one’s mettle” survives today and references the real and metaphorical—physicality made manifest through the resolve of the inner spirit. Eliding the strength of metal to the fragility of working in gold leaf, Waddell’s complexity of technique and intellectual insights made manifest are given experiential terrain in the situation of the gallery. Only the subtlety of the viewer’s attention to their own perspective will offer new insights.
- Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Criteria for Negro Art” in The Crisis, October 1926 delivered in an address on the occasion of the celebration of the recipient of the Carter Godwin Woodson Twelfth Spingarn Medal at the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
- Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. London: J. Cape, 1972, p. 113
- See Christina Sharpe’s upcoming book Black. Still. Life.