On ViewMarc Straus
October 21 – November 13, 2021
Renée Stout (b. 1958) grew up in Pittsburgh and studied at Carnegie Mellon University. Since the mid-1980s, she has lived and worked in Washington, DC, where she makes paintings that describe and celebrate Black life. Alchemy, the occult, and herbal medicine are other interests of hers. She also makes assemblages from old cameras, radios, etc., which are notable for their roughness of condition. Stout is too young to have directly participated in the Black Arts Movement, but she is very much a fellow traveler, someone committed to recording both the high points and struggles of Black culture. This show at Marc Straus, a combination of large and small compositions and several assemblages, gives us a good idea of how Stout, a gifted artist, is proceeding. Her work is varied and not given to sequential repetition, but the artist stays close to Black life and culture. Her vision is not always sanguine, being taken with the vicissitudes of Black culture and its capacity for joy.
The paintings are often mystical in their implication. Device for Stopping the Evil Eye (2020) is a vintage camera, covered with rust, whose large lens has been replaced by a mirror. Small enough to fit in one hand, the camera conveys long use and the inability to take pictures, making it an object rather than a functional device—and a deliberate wish on the artist’s part to capture the viewer not by film but by the mirror’s reflective gaze. It is a memorial to the past that includes the present through the agency of the mirror, which picks up whatever currently exists within its point of view. Elixir Eleven (2018) is not so immediately identifiable, being a wooden box embellished with all manner of random objects: on the sides of the box are gears and wheels with no discernible function; and on the top three small columns, one with a dark blue glass body, that look like miniature minarets. The blue-glass object might well contain the elixir referred to in the title. It is a compelling construction that makes very little rational sense, leaving it up to Stout’s audience to comprehend its vaguely mythic properties.
Vigil for the Children in Cages (Before the Fall) (2021) represents Stout’s very original revision, in a general fashion, of the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities. Three bodiless, skeletal heads, their features depicted in black, hover in the black sky in the upper register of the painting. Beneath them, but hard to discern, is a crowd of people gazing at the floating heads. This image may stem from long-practiced rituals, but it is entirely the artist’s own version. Stout has a way of reworking familiar materials into something very much indicative of her own view of spiritual life, healing, and ghosts in the dark. Vigil is a haunting picture in which the supernatural, however troubling it may be, comes close to the audience’s attention. Come Back Gil (Scott-Heron) (2021) is an offering to the now-gone poet and political troubadour, but the painting itself carries no likeness of the energetic singer. Instead, it looks very much like a landscape of space—against a night sky dotted with stars, we see a round, transparent head-like form dominating the center of the composition. It is filled with white spheres and amorphous forms, yellow-brown stripes, and, on the left of the form, a blue sidereal haze. Beneath the shape, on the right is a cloud with a spiral structure rising from its right side. On the high upper left is a curving red stripe of light, and on the right, three bits of orange-red. It is a complicated painting in which the title and the image don’t coincide.
Part of Stout’s complexity of theme comes from the various subjects she takes on; in The Forecast (2021), we see a dotted outline of an eye with a straight line running through it; on either side of that line is a gray square. Surrounding this schema are notes invoking astrology. Stout’s combination of the occult and belief systems found in the Black communities of the American Southeast and the Caribbean eclectically—and very successfully—generates insights developed by the merging of different spiritual foundations. The mythologies Stout creates in her art are not Christian, but inspired by African practices. Her choice of themes and materials enables her to find heavenly alignments with decayed, abandoned objects and pictures that reference the skies. The spiritual influences that guide us are never very distant from the themes of Stout’s art, which act as a bridge between worldly life and the realm of the barely known.