Above: Ebony G. Patterson, install of …while the dew is still on the roses…. All installation images courtesy of Sarah Lyon.
…while the dew is still on the roses…
Expanding across the second floor of the Speed Art Museum, an otherworldly garden, an oasis, teems with life nestled into the larger confines of the building. Flowers line the walls and float from the ceiling while sounds of the forest ring throughout the galleries. Entering the exhibition transports the viewer into a dark and mysterious garden of earthly secrets. As one walks deeper into the forest, they start to realize that what was thought to be life is poison and hidden beneath the flowers is something unexpectedly deadly.
…while the dew is still on the roses… showcases work finished in the last nine years by Ebony G. Patterson, a Jamaican artist formerly based in Kentucky who grapples with themes of death and violence pertaining to black and brown communities. Her work embodies trends in “additive subtraction,” a term originally coined by Jasper Johns in 1964 when referring to Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953). In Patterson’s exhibition, this technique manifests in a process of adding imagery in layers continuously to the point of illegibility, forging connections between her work and that of contemporary artists like Idris Khan and Jibade-Khalil Huffman. This process results in a subtle revelation of sustained violence on bodies hidden within her tapestries and installations. ...while the dew is still on the roses… investigates the politics of visibility as they relate to violence and images of Others within the contemporary, digital context. Patterson reveals how image consumption may have marginalizing effects on communities of color and responds by creating a memorial site that fosters respect and remembrance when faced with collective trauma.
In her tapestry Golden Rest - Dead Treez (2015), Patterson investigates the internet’s image literacy––as well as its ability to look ethically––when confronted with violent and othering representations of black and brown victims. The surface is rich with ornamentation: boldly colored textiles with glitter, patterns, and florals are packed together, edge to edge. Jewels, broaches, and beads catch the dim gallery light, shimmering bright against dark wallpaper. Viewers become lost among the glitz and glamour. In a way, Patterson’s work functions much like the deep sea anglerfish, drawing onlookers in with light, flashing colors, and beauty. Viewers become enthralled with the attractiveness of what they see on the surface. However, just beyond the light, lies something dark and deadly. The audience slowly begins to recognize the bottom of a shoe, a pant leg, a bend of the knee, and suddenly, the tapestry reveals itself as a gravesite. The skin of the victim remains invisible, making it difficult to distinguish at first glance. The decision to hide the skin fosters respect by hiding the violence that may have occurred. It also turns this specific act of violence into a symbol, allowing the victim’s martyrdom to reach beyond the confines of their image and into the public conscious. The paradox of hiding what is already invisible––the slow revelation––is what is so powerful in the work. Patterson sheds a dignified light on an issue that would have otherwise remained unseen in mainstream discourse.
Patterson often disguises black and brown bodies within her tapestries, their poses inspired by images of violence spread on the internet. Each time a story of violence is shared online, death in these communities becomes increasingly objectified, rendering the victims’ identities invisible. Audiences only see violence detached on their screens, forgetting it happened in real life, details about the crime and the victims’ lives lost in circulation. Patterson follows these images as they lead her to question mass media’s ceaseless consumption and archiving of violence against racially marginalized communities. In her artist talk at the Speed Art Museum in 2018, Patteron recalls the age-old question in reference to this body of work, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” What if everyone hears trees fall everyday, is this sound, or does the fall become white noise, normalized?1
...found among the reeds-Dead Treez (2015) camouflages a body through ornamentation. Another paradox arises: the same glamour that is used to validate a body is also the element that hides it. One recalls the ways in which people in a capitalist society use materiality to signal their social worth. Patterson draws upon dancehall, sneaker, and bling culture to inform her aesthetic approach to this series. In her presentation at the Speed Art Museum, the artist recounts a story of her grandmother dressing in her “best Sunday clothes” to apply for a loan at the bank2. Patterson talks about how materiality functions in communities of color: when mainstream society refuses to value marginalized people on the basis of race, they must turn to materialism for social value. When viewing ...found among the reeds-Dead Treez, the audience does not immediately recognize the body hidden underneath because of the surrounding embellishment. Paradoxes born of additive subtraction in Patteron’s work function the same as contradictions and injustices within our own society.
At the same time that Patterson points to the digital era’s flawed image literacy and the racist and neocolonial society within which those flaws exists, she is also creating an area in the museum where viewers may memorialize the victims. In her site-specific, sculptural installation ...moments we cannot bury… (2018), Patterson simulates the audience’s own burial, effectively situating the viewer in the same position as the bodies in her tapestries: lost, underground, and surrounded by beauty. The sculptures consist of handmade silk flowers in large mounds, sitting high above eye level. Light shines down on the colorful flowers while casting the pathway through the mounds into shadow. Jewels and shoes start to appear sitting atop the flowers. One may think of traditions where valuable belongings are buried with bodies or the urban ritual of throwing shoes high above onto power lines after a death in the community. As the viewer navigates their own burial, they start to sympathize with the fate of those hanging in the galleries prior.
Walking through the dark forested gallery and back into the light of the museum is a jarring experience. Patterson leaves little space for relief as complex layers of visual markers and ideas reveal themselves one after the other, and yet the aforementioned ideas are few of the many facets that make up Patterson’s work. The conceptual substructures operating here are as rich as the surfaces she presents. Most importantly, she creates a space that dissects incredibly pervasive issues and fosters respectful remembrance of the traumas marginalized groups are constantly facing.
Ebony G. Patterson’s …while the dew is still on the roses… will be on display through January 5, 2020. The Speed Art Museum is located at 2035 S 3rd St, Louisville, KY 40208, and is open Wednesday-Sunday.
- Ebony G. Patterson, Artist Talk at the Speed Art Museum, 20 April 2018.
Ebony G. Patterson, ... moments we cannot bury ... ,(2018), Mixed media with fabric plants, cast glass objects, wax toys, Styrofoam, fabric, and beads, Dimensions variable.
Ebony G. Patterson, install of …while the dew is still on the roses… with artwork detail of The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative (2012).
Ebony G. Patterson, Golden Rest - Dead Treez, (2015), Mixed media jacquard tapestry with handmade shoes and crocheted leaves, 84 × 113 1/2 in. (213.4 × 288.3 cm.).
Ebony G. Patterson, install of …while the dew is still on the roses….
Ebony G. Patterson, detail of …moments we cannot bury….