blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
JOHN RAVENAL  |  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Some Recent Acquisitions

One of the goals of VMFA’s modern and contemporary acquisitions plan is to diversify the collection. For me, this means building holdings that include more artists of color, more women, and more global representation. Several recent purchases help further this goal.

Roll over to magnify detailHank Willis Thomas
American, born 1976
In collaboration with Sanford Biggers (American, born 1970)
Zero Hour, 2012 from the Wayfarer series
Digital c-print and plexi with Lumisty film
40 ½ x 180 in. overall (6 panels, each 40 ½ x 30 in.)
Edition 2 of 3, with 2 artist proofs

Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr. Fund for 21st-Century Art and National Endowment for the Arts Fund, 2013.232.1-6

Hank Willis Thomas’s work addresses the intersection of race, history, and visual culture. He appropriates mass-media images and texts and manipulates them to expose assumptions and attitudes about black identity. He first gained notice for the photographic series Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America, 1968–2008. By subtracting all the branding information from advertising images culled from old Ebony magazines, Thomas created enigmatic images that encourage viewers “to think more deeply about how advertising reinforces generalizations surrounding race, gender, and cultural identity.”

Thomas made Zero Hour in partnership with Sanford Biggers, an artist who has taught at VCU. In six side-by-side images spanning fifteen feet overall, Biggers sports a tuxedo, tails, gloves, and top hat. Crisply divided, the right side of his face and body are white, the left side black. Biggers assumes the persona of a late-nineteenth-century minstrel whose image Thomas found in Emory University’s archives of African American life. Thomas liked the picture’s “dandyism, but also its hybridity.” Further: “We talk about ‘post-racialism’ now, but this is somebody who’s unknown and dealing with those things in the late nineteenth century.” Zero Hour updates this minstrel to a twenty-first century emblem of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic hybridity. A coating of Lumisty film on the images shifts from clear to unclear as viewers move—a striking optical effect and ready metaphor for the increasingly blurry lines of race itself. Says Thomas, “I’ve always felt more comfortable in the gray space. I think it’s closer to the truth of any given scenario.”


Radcliffe Bailey
American, born 1968
Vessel, 2012
Tarp, thread, iron, vintage model ship, African sculpture, wicker basket, and glass
ca. 120 x 188 x 89 in. (dimensions variable)

The Pamela K. and William A. Royall Fund for 21st-Century Art and NEA Endowment Fund, 2014.5

Radcliffe Bailey’s mixed-media paintings and installations include found objects and materials with rich historical allusion—tintypes of distant family members, African figurines, disassembled piano keys, and Georgia red clay. He grounds his works in personal and family history but presents them as part of a greater whole. One of Bailey’s grandfathers assisted with the Underground Railroad in New Jersey. Another worked at Jefferson’s former plantation, Monticello. Bailey weaves the elements of his family story into larger narratives about slavery, the black diaspora, and recent natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

Vessel creates a dense tableau through found and manipulated materials: a weathered marine tarp with embroidery depicting constellations, regiment numbers for African American troops, the Mason-Dixon line and its nearby states; three rustic French grape harvesting baskets filled with crushed white glass that recalls the Pink Lake in Senegal and the connection between salt, glass, and sand; and an antique wooden toy ship, jutting from the tarp and carrying a small African sculpture that serves as both an emblem of human cargo and a potential guardian figure for those same unwilling travelers.

The work offers an open-ended narrative with multiple readings possible but none definitive, as Bailey mines themes of travel by land and sea to probe issues of diasporic displacement and migration.

Roll over to magnify detailAngel Otero
American, born Puerto Rico, 1981
Untitled (SK-MY), 2013
Oil paint and oil paint skins collaged on canvas
96 ½ x 72 ½ x 4 in.

The Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr. Fund for 21st-Century Art and Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund, 2014.6

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Angel Otero left at age twenty-four to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now in New York, he makes both painting and sculpture, each body of work emphasizing process and openness to chance.

VMFA’s new painting belongs to an ongoing series begun in 2010 called Skins. Otero starts each work by painting a recognizable scene on a vertical sheet of Plexiglas using brushes and oil paint. When finished, he lays the plexi on the floor and covers the scene with layer upon layer of broad abstract marks, completely obscuring the original image. It takes approximately a month for the paint to reach the desired partially dry state on the Plexiglas. At this point, Otero scrapes it off with blades and squeegees and slides it to a sheet of cardboard for further drying before he affixes it to a canvas covered with adhesive. Often this is the final step, and Otero welcomes the distortions that have entered as part of the transfer process. In some cases, Otero further works the torn and wrinkled surface with painted words and scratches.

While the images that underlie the abstract surfaces often derive from traditional paintings, Otero generally keeps the source secret and sometimes claims to have completely forgotten it by the time the work is finished. But by titling the series Skins, he affirms his interest in the overall tradition of painting. Oil paint became popular in the Renaissance in large part for its capacity to render the quality of human flesh. Otero’s innovative process pushes the boundaries of the medium well beyond representation but still—in presenting thick skins drooping from canvases as if flayed from their subjects—emphasizes the unique properties of paint and its close connection to the body. This was the first work by Otero to enter a US museum collection.

Roll over to magnify detailHenrique Oliveira
Brazilian, born 1973
Xilempasto 6, 2013
Plywood and pigment
124 x 94 ½ in.

The Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr. Fund for 21st-Century Art and the Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund, 2014.4a-b

Born and raised in Brazil, Henrique Oliveira recently gained international attention for installations that surround viewers with environments of color and form while dissolving the distinction between art and architecture. Xilempasto 6 also blurs boundaries, in this case between painting and sculpture. A wall-mounted sculpture, the work echoes a composition of loaded, free-flowing brushstrokes. The presence of “empasto” in the work’s title makes reference to thick strokes of pigment and to Oliveira’s training in painting, which he continues to practice, often with large brushes and brooms on canvases laid out on the floor.

Xilempasto 6 translates the language of gestural abstraction into three-dimensions, using scraps of salvaged wood adhered to an elaborately shaped substructure. The wood has a patina of use and age, which Oliveira augments with earth tones of umber, ochre, tan and brick red, lightened by subtle pinks and pale blue. Bulging volumes and deep voids, marked by fibrous patterns and interwoven organic forms, suggest the interior of the body, while also resembling both driftwood and a dense flock of birds. This is Oliveira’s first work to enter a US museum collection and the first work of contemporary Brazilian art in VMFA’s holdings.  end of text

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