Patricia Spears Jones

Holding on When the Hand is Shoving You Back: Review of TOMASHI JACKSON Time Out of Mind

By Patricia Spears Jones


Often when confronted with complex economic and social justice issues, visual artists find themselves with this problem—how to make these concepts perceptible to viewers.  There are the crisply declarative poster art style works that blares the artist’s sentiment. There are large scale installations that attempt immerse the viewer. Then there is the thoughtful layering of the large wall works that Tomashi Jackson makes for her exhibition, Time Out of Mind, currently on view at Jack Tilton Gallery until June 29.

Property development is the toxic layer that goes through all of New York City history, from the trading of land possessed by the Lenape to Dutch settlers to the endless construction of ever higher buildings where wealth is measured in square footage for people who may never enter their lucrative residence.  How these “deals” are made, who makes them, who wins and who loses is the essential tale told in Jackson’s art work.

The African American property owners in what was called “Seneca Village” had few rights and fewer privilege, but they were homeowners.  They like Black people before and after, made a way where there was no way. But they were in the way of an even larger concept—a park meant to provide respite to all its citizens for what was an increasingly unhealthy city.  The land owners property was taken by eminent domain—some compensation was provided, but most claimed not enough and the hold outs were evicted in 1857. Jackson presents several works the explore that historic rupture and how it connects with current practices. In John Brown’s Body (Mr. Dorce in Red) and Heiresses (The Central Park Plan), she marshals skillful layering in her mixed media pieces—collage, digital printmaking, photography, muslin, vinyl, wood to narrate the ways in which government policies have been used to undermine Black achievement.

Press and Curl (Black and Brown People's Mortgage Free Homes), 2019 Silkscreen on mylar on canvas, on view at the Tilton Gallery

Press and Curl (Black and Brown People's Mortgage Free Homes), 2019
Silkscreen on mylar on canvas, on view at the Tilton Gallery

But it is her works focused on contemporary governmental land grabbing that truly stands out.  Mary Lyons, Yudy Ventura, & the Co-op Women (Blues People) and Mary Lyons, Yudy Ventura & the Co-op Women (Red Line/Red Scare)   powerfully conveys the steadfast resistance by people of color, esp. women of color to polices that are supposed to provide more “affordable housing”, but both take property from current owners and displace them with little or no compensation—a signature policy of the DeBlasio administration.  Jackson knows these women—you can feel it in this work and others. Their figures are prominent, the colors bright then muted as if the conversation go from shouts to whispers. These acrylics, oil and image transfer on paper and muslin with digital prints on vinyl serve as metaphors for a homeplace where paper, fabric and hard plastics abide.  Also, she encrusts these works with pearl pins and huge buttons—an expression of feminine elegance and eloquence. That one of the buttons says: “De Blasio Defends City Taking African American Properties” underscores the “same old, same old” city policies towards people of color.

Tomashi Jackson  Avocado Seed Soup (Davis, et. al. v County School Board of Prince Edward County)(Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka)(Sweatt v Painter), 2016  Mixed media on gauze, canvas, rawhide and wood

Tomashi Jackson
Avocado Seed Soup (Davis, et. al. v County School Board of Prince Edward County)(Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka)(Sweatt v Painter), 2016
Mixed media on gauze, canvas, rawhide and wood

Tomashi Jackson’s work is complicated, yet readable.  Her approach allows her to use layers of shapes, colors, techniques to narrate this tale —not even home ownership can protect any of us from racism.  Jackson is in full command of all her techniques and she really uses her materials-wood, vinyl, paper with panache. Her emotional connection to this topic combines well with her research.  As her gallerist noted this body of work:

is based on historical documents from archives on the creation of Central Park in the mid-1800s and draws upon the work by contemporary journalists Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt in the King’s County Politics New York newspaper and in Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s The Park and the People: A History of Central Park.

Ms. Jackson’s work on this theme is also in The Whitney Biennial 2019 and her show at The Jack Tilton Gallery ends June 29.






Patricia Spears Jones reviews STUDY by Yuko Otomo

  • Book: STUDY & Other Poems on Art
  • Author:  Yuko Otomo
  • Press: Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY 2013
  • 288 pages

 

Strolling Through a Life in Art—Review of  STUDY & Other Poems on Art

 by Patricia Spears Jones

Yuko Otomo has been writing and performing poetry and texts for three decades printing many in limited edition chapbooks.  Her poems offer a range of perceptions about art from her vantage as an artist, as a viewer, as a poet.  Reading the poems in STUDY is to relive the art world and its contents and discontents through those three decades. As she remarks in an epistolary poem, “A Letter to Christine”: “How visual I am!”  And yes, she is very visual.

As someone who has seen many of the same shows and/or artists she considers in these poems, I am intrigued by her approach.  Her well-trained observant artist’s eye pairs with psychological observation—deepening our understanding of image and image making.  As she notes in her introduction, “I noticed two things . . . One is the lack of poems of my “favorite” artists (e.g. Matisse; Goya; Pollock . ) & an abundance of poems on art I care less personally for.” Moreover, she sees how some work such as Louise Bourgeois invites her to enter both the poetic and critical world. As she looks at her output, she realizes that “I’ve learned one of the most vital truths: ‘liking’ & ‘disliking” have nothing to do with art.”

What her poems do is meditate on images or image-making to expand her artistic vision.  “10 Poems for “The Americans” by Robert Frank” concretizes in language the stark, erotically charged photographs that Frank is known for.  Otomo looks sideways at his images in these stanzas in “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey”:

 

LOVE meta-morphed

into different shapes

stands still

by the (window) frames.

 

Arms of a woman

Palms of a boy

 

An afternoon breeze waves

a flag of IDEALS, DREAMS & the VOID

rectifying HAPPINESS

 

But of course, this is Frank whose images of Americans are deeply engaged in his subject’s complications and the poem ends:

 

As cheers fill the streets,

a new sense of HUNGER

nails the interior darkness down.

 

Otomo is comfortable with exploring the abstractions : ideals, dreams, the voids in artists’ work.  Also, she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity especially gender in the artists’ work:  “a man is a man, a mother, a brother” is a line from “Joseph Cornell in his Garden (Hans Namuth 1969)” and in the Cornell Box Poems, she dynamically explores androgyny.  It seems to this reader that the poems about the photographs of Cornell’s studio are more expressive than the ones on the actual Cornell boxes.  It may be that focus on image making-what did the studio look like; what were the items he would use; how did the photographer orchestrate these images?  Indeed, “Studio Details of Storage Racks (Hans Namuth 1973)” is a delicious list poem that ends: snow flakes, birds, nest, feathers which pretty captures the basis for a Cornell box!

While many of the poems are lyric or meditative, the most notable texts here are epistolary—letters to specific persons both living and dead.  These pieces offer the reader a more intensive view of Otomo’s own artistic practice-how she thinks through her work and the work of others. “A Letter to Christine (for Christine Hughes)”  is a piece de resistance.  Back to the strolling—Otomo uses that well worn New York writer’s exercise, a walk around the city—and here the stroll sparks one side of what appears to be a very long and useful conversation between two artists. But more importantly, the letter considers Otomo’s own creative inspirations: that stroll; her love of music; the issue of location (where is one when one works) and her enthusiasm for her friend’s “botanical art” which leads her to a book on wildflowers.  Much like Maureen Owen and others who use lists to illustrate a particular point—she finds the wildflowers that grow in the city: “Loosestrifes; Milkweeds; Purple Cornflowers; Asters; Blazing Stars; Vervains; Bell Flowers; Gentians; Dayflowers; Chicory; Golden Rods .   . .”  and in the next stanza she notes: “Nothing is so mesmerizing as the colors and forms of plants”.  This letter allows the reader to enter into the intimacy of artistic conversation-the ways in which one artist recognizes and encourages the work of another and simultaneously, recognizes and advances her own.  I don’t know the work of Christine Hughes, but after reading this piece, I really wanted to see what she does with her “botanical art”.

A more poignant piece is “Myself: Self Portrait (for Emma Bee Bernstein).   This elegy for the beloved young artist who took her own life in a kind of last “self-portrait” responds to the extraordinary body of work Emma Bee Bernstein made and to the issues raised by Bee Bernstein’s artistic practice.  Moreover, she interrogates that practice in light of her own well-considered self-examinations and how the younger artist made her consider the desire to see one self mirrored, reflected in control of one’s image.  “I don’t particularly/ like to face my reflected self in a cornered room with harsh/ artificial light  . . . but, for some reason,/ the situation always takes place in this kind of imagined space./Ah, how much I wish I wee a Narcissist, but I am not.” As she shies from the kinds of staged works the young artist made, she also notes: “I know that she knows me better than I know her”.

Throughout the piece she lists titles of Bee Bernstein works, which go from abstractions “Faith/fate” to nature “a Tree/Trees”.   In the second and most complicated stanza of this text, she offers the artist’s view of  boundaries—going from abstract to concrete and back again:  “I once told my dear friend that I was not curious/ about what’s behind the wall, but about the wall itself & what I/was looking for was not who/what I was, but what I was made/ of.”  Bee Bernstein’s important conversations with older women artists offered her a way into audacity.  That she left the world so early confounds and in Otomo’s delicate re-working of her ideas in this text, we see what the art world lost.

Otomo’s often works with her partner, Steve Dalachinsky and Study includes a major collaboration entitled “Arena”, based on a Joseph Beuys artwork.  It has moments of clarity, hilarity and occasional frustration—one can hear the marriage of two different, but equal voices, a true rarity (Steve Dalachinsky =sd and Yuko Otomo ==yd).

 

sd                    you listen to air through copper tube & wax

yo                    I see the heart beat of the air

a perfect loop, a perfect malice, a perfect dust

 

sd                    the wildlife on stilts is frozen by removing its innards

yo                    I am crossed with an triangle & my bones ache

to be with time is tearing me apart

 

sd                    I hang like a hand like a hangar on a hand on a nail

on a cross where I hang

 

yo                    a perfect bath tub, a perfect profile

 

 

As one can see, Otomo is in search of that perfect line, the perfect loop, the right word to say what she needs to say about Sarah Sze, Bourgeois, Caravaggio, Beuys, Cornell, Bruce Nauman, August Sander. At times, that word is not found—the poems in response to Nauman’s exhibition don’t quite work. But when she goes into depth, it can be startling.

 

In one of the last and most ambitious poems in this book, she delves even more deeply into women’s lives and art—the poem “Intra-Venus” that is in part dedicated to Hannah Wilke. I met Wilke before cancer began to destroy her almost other-worldly beauty, so I am always interested in the ways in which people approach her work, not only her early work, but also her end of life portraits that are harsh and powerful.  Otomo does not disappoint here.  In deft stanzas she catches the artist’s work, but also that decay and in her own way, the particular significance of women, women’s bodies and how they are used in art.  Here are excerpts from “Intra-Venus (for Hannah Wilke and Lona Foote)”

 

time to timelessness

you witness

your physicality

assaulted & forced

is it your eyes that we are facing?

is it your navel that we are looking at it?

is it your thighs that we are marveling at?

 

see-sawing

in a sense of metaphysics

 

******

how a raw road leads

to the bottom of the well

where all those inspirations

for life pour out

 

*******

 

see-sawing

in a sense of metaphysics

 

a river

a morning

 

a luster

a monument

a flower petal—

 

remember that

 

to be or not to be

 

in the Origin

 

the sun was a woman

 

The poem in many ways sums up Otomo’s sensibility-she seeks the eternal in art, but always is in touch with the ephemeral-art may endure, but each of us will die.  Wilke, Beuys and Bee Berstein’s art endures.

Ugly Duckling Presse has made it possible for readers to see a poet’s confidence grow as she considers art in our time.  Yuko Otomo’s  Study is a great addition to the proud New YorkSchool sensibility of connecting poetry and visual arts.  Her strolling through galleries, museums, in and out of friends’ studios and in and out of her own is a major document of the past three decades.  It was a pleasure to join her.

Review of Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Review for The Gathering of the Tribes www.tribes.orgReviewer:  Patricia Spears Jones December 29, 2008

Author/Editor    :    Toni Morrison Title:            A Mercy Publisher:        Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York Publication Date    November, 2008 ISBN            978-0-307-26423-7 Price:            $23.95

REVIEW:

A funny thing happened on the way to my reviewing A Mercy-about ten thousand other reviews all praising the work, some with restraint, and some lavishly have already been printed, blogged, audio taped.  I sort of had to step back and see if the commentary was about the book or the writer? Well, it seems a bit of both, so be it.  I agree that Toni Morrison is one our most important and impressive writers. She has a well-deserved Nobel Prize to show for her imagination, curiosity and craft.  Her characters, particularly the women, are complex, befuddled, brilliant, brutal, terrifying, sensual and moral.  There are types in her work, but no stereotypes.  She also understands the use of place, thematic construction, and moral import of those themes, which does not allow her novels to simply live in some rarefied arts for arts sakes space.  Toni Morrison is not interested in wasting her time on small ideas or issues, and yet there is a great deal of intimacy and intricate detail in her best work—some of the it, like the scenes in Beloved and even the opening to The Bluest Eye—are almost too brutal to bear.

In A Mercy she explores a number of issues that she’s looked at in other works: the psychological and experiential experience of enslavement; the destructive aspects of Christian piety and the spirituality of resistance; the brutal development and destruction of continent’s landscape from development and/or neglect; and how these crisis’s effect relationships between men and women.  But most of all she looks at how, why and when women come together in comradeship and how and why those groupings often fail.  This is a lot for a 167 page book to do and for the most part, she pulls it off.

A Mercy is narrated by a small group of characters who find themselves in 1690 somewhere in the southern part of what is now the United States—most likely Maryland.  Florens, a precocious African girl “confesses” at the beginning of the novel, telling the reader “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you . . .” And ironically the story begins with her desire for shoes.  Her willfulness and her desires will be put to the test in the next 100 or more pages.  Most revealing, she is literate and writes her story on the walls of her master’s house, a house that starts to fall apart as soon as it is finished.  Florens’ fear of and rage against rejection flows from her relationship with her mother, who gives/shoves her away at the very moment she seeks protection.  But it is for her protection that her mother gives/shoves away as her mother declares at the book’s end.

Women’s powerlessness is stated from the book’s very beginning.  How women respond and resist these limits tests all of their relationships, particularly the maternal ones--is that my mother? Why did she contract me or send me away or why can’t she feed me?  The disconnection between mothers and children was in full flower in the 17th century—whether African, native or European because of wars in Europe and Africa; imperial aspirations, new products and new markets.  A Mercy shows these things becoming.  And in that, it examines how the position of women helped to advance these new and dangerous phenomena, particularly the exploitation and sale of children into bondage.  Women owned nothing of their lives except their spirit and much was done to break or compromise their language, rituals, familial connections, and beliefs.

Thus, Florens writing her own story on a wall represents pure resistance.  First, she’s not supposed to be able to read or write.  Moreover, Florens reads signs as well as words. Second, she enters and writes on the wall of her master’s house. And finally she tells her truth and it’s pretty horrific. Florens story follows the trip she is made to take at her mistress behest.  She is to find and bring back a blacksmith, a healer who also happens to be a Free Man of Color.  This journey is both physically and psychologically dangerous to Florens and to the other women and men left behind on the farm.  When Florens arrives at the point where she must continue to follow her mistress’ instructions even though it is very late, Morrison writes:  “Hard as I try I lose the road.  Tree leaves are too new for shelter. . The sky is the color of currants.  Can I go more, I wonder. Should I. Two hares freeze before bounding away. I don’t know how to read that.”  At the end of this passage, Florens states: “My plan for this night is not good.  I need Lina to say how to shelter in wilderness.”

It is the character of Lina that Morrison brings out a wide range of values, ideas, and intuitions.  Lina is native to the continent.  Hers is the land that has been seized by Europes”.   She survives a small pox epidemic and is taken in by “kindly Presbyterians.” But they can’t quite Christianize her.  When the opportunity to leave her happens, they do so “without so much as a murmur of farewell.” But Lina finds a way to live and work for “Sir” (JacobVaark) and his new wife, Rebekah.  The novel shows how Lina and Rebekah forge an unlikely friendship as they work a farm owned by a man who hates farming, even as he idealizes the farmer’s life.  Lina’s critique of the Vaarks is not so much unique as appropriate.  These newcomers-- the Europes-- to the land and their brethren (Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Papists) bring religion that excludes and dis-empowers people such as her, and allows for the misuse of natural resources.  She resists these beliefs with what she remembers of her people’s language and rituals.  She compromises where she can and she tries to “mother” Florens and neutralize Sorrow, who is pregnant and listless, whom she sees as cursed.  She tries to be the best servant ever to her mistress.  But the master’s death changes these precarious relationships and Lina loses her capacity to keep her own faith; to follow what is left of her culture.

The Vaarks-Jacob and Rebekah-Europes whose farm brings these and other characters together are interesting in that they articulate competing ideas brought from Europe.  Vaark supposedly hates slavery and yet takes on Florens as part of a debt payment from a Portuguese slaver.  Rebekah is a mail order bride. Had she not found a husband, she would have been indentured like Scully and Willard, the two white males working on the farm (and as amiable a gay couple as you’ll find in American fiction).  The idealized self-sufficiency of this couple is undermined by their children’s deaths, thus no heirs; their religious beliefs that leave them spiritually deficient; and finally by Vaark’s death.

Throughout A Mercy, Morrison looks at how certain issues and ideas that would become part of our nation’s culture and history are in the making in the seventeenth century—the nascent Golden Triangle: slaves, molasses, rum; the conflict between Protestants and Catholics as a stand in for empire building between Northern and Southern Europe; the lack of any kind of business ethics especially when it came to the contracts for indentured servants--Scully and Willard’s difficulty in figuring out just how much longer was their service to Vaark); the fear and ignorance of the European settlers and how that ignorance was used to demonized Africans and native people; how the putdown of rebellions led to Black Codes—a way to divide and conquer oppressed people.  And again, she does this with extraordinary economy using her characters’ experiences to advance the narrative and to reflect upon these problems, all flowing from the death of the patriarch.

Indeed, another name for this book could have been The Death of the Patriarch.  Much of its narrative power comes from Rebekah, Florens, Lina, Scully and Willard, even Sorrow’s reactions to Jacob Vaark’s death.  Those left behind are bereft of a place in a fluid yet hierarchical society.  Rebekah who had been seen as kind and fair becomes a pious and brutal mistress.  Rebekah’s changed behavior symbolizes her loss of status and her fear of the future.  As Scully muses near the end of the book: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate . . .”

And as Florens writes on the mansion’s wall, that future is a dark and awful one.  Not only does she lose the shoes she so desired, but also the man she thought wanted her –the blacksmith.  Her story includes a description of the hurt she put on him after he rejects her calling her a slave, but what he really rejects is her sense of sexual agency. Morrison’s skill in showing female rage is a wonder to read/behold.  “You say I am wilderness. I am.  Is that a tremble on your mouth, in your eye? Are you afraid? You should be.”

But ultimately, it is not that rage that Morrison wants us to look at, it is that lack of agency by these women; the impossibility to mother children when you cannot protect them.  In the final chapter Florens mother says her piece.  And here is where A Mercy gets too tidy for me.  The mother’s commentary on her daughter’s pubescence is important and her “Sophie’s choice” idea of giving her girl to a man who seemed unlikely to harm her makes sense for this story.  But while her choice will only buy a little time for her child, the novel ends with these ringing but I almost think too easily rung words:

“ to be given dominion over another is hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion to another is a wicked thing.”  I certainly agree with this expression, but it reduces the emotional power of the novel—it is as if she wants to say Reader I want to make sure you understand just exactly what I have been saying for the past 160 pages or so.  I think she should have trusted her readers to get it.  In many ways, the novel really ends with the hard soles of Florens unshod feet.

A Mercy is an important book with a strong central narrative, women characters you find yourself caring about as they try, but cannot be family because there is no way in which they can act on their own or in their own interests without becoming “wilderness.”  Morrison started many years ago to explore the untold stories in American culture and here she is three decades later still finding stories to tell.  With this book, she fights against our collective cultural amnesia about property rights, marriage, and bondage that relies on and upholds the power and abuses of the patriarchy.

Morrison is novelist who uses her vast intelligence, intense passion and growing sagacity to express her version of what matters this new world was founded upon: morally, legally, philosophically.  Race and gender play crucial parts.  Her telling can’t hurt us because she understands that with this telling the lives of women and men at a particular moment when a culture was in formation is only now starting to be more fully told.  Florens’ story written on the mansion’s decadent wall is an act of extraordinary generosity.  It is as if Morrison is saying we need to see how much wilderness we need to be if we are to really see/read our national identity.  Or as Dolly Parton sings “wild flowers grow where they grow.”

Patricia Spears Jones’ Femme Du Monde Review by Soraya Shalforoosh

Patricia Spears Jones’ second collection Femme du Monde is a passport into the soul of a sophisticated lady, a rich and engaging interior voice that explains her journey inward, outward.

We embark on Patricia Spears Jones’s journey at a place physically and metaphorically called “Hope,” Arkansas. The young college student with her mates on their way to a wedding, stopped at a place of seeming normalcy, a “golden arches”. The young Jones pioneers here have maternal instincts, protective of the young white girl in the car next to them:

“But who is this man to this child? Father, lover, dirty old uncle.”

Later,

“ We want to rescue this child.


But where would we take her?

And what would happen to all that money?”


Straight away, the poet makes it clear she is not a passive traveler; we find a woman always paying attention, curious, question, and full of wonder.



So many of the poems in Femme du Monde focus on self exploration as in “Days of Awe”


“I feel as if my life were held together by wishful thinking

And Krazy Glue. Somehow it works.”


Several lines down

“…God gives

and God thinks things over. And while the pondering abides,

Each of us has the time to act one way or the other.

Give, get. Build, destroy”


The poet is not just a mind in motion; being and God are equally in motion. Nothing is finite in this larger process. It is not necessarily in synch, also moving, a constant state of giving and getting, building and destroying. Process, is the nature of things, and she so eloquently and vividly ends this poem:


“As trees old and young

starve their leaves into gold, flame, rust.”


Yet, another metaphorical journey that appears in Ms Jones poems is the social and political one. In “Saltimbanque” we find tribute for those who struggle and an outstanding homage to Martin Luther King. Ms Jones chronicles the student riots, the Paris riots. And, all the progressive movements she captures, they are met with a violent response, but the people stick together:

“people make a song, new song, riot song”


Her beautiful end to the poem, the homage to Martin Luther King, I mentioned, shows again the transcendental nature of those who sacrifice for all of us. These are people who are larger than the movement they embody.


7. “Martin Luther sat bleeding in a Birmingham jail. He worked

his mind along the sacred stations of the cross and found,

if not solace, then the tattered cloth called dignity,

as he prayed for the souls of his jailers.


Tracing Alabama dust, his cross just heavy enough to bear,

Word could have been miracle, joy, power.

It was likely to have been song, people, or alone.

He made, in private, a face mimicking the fat, snuff-dipping guards.

Clown face turned towards the jail-floor dust.

His tears roll away holy laughter. Saltimbanque

In a moment of amazing tenderness and pure rage.


Under the paving stones, the beach.”


This book continues to take us all over the globe, bringing us inside the over- priced lingerie shop in SoHo, NY; the Paris underground, and wherever we go, there is music. This is a lyric collection that is engaging, honest, and with sprinkles of delightful humor.