Marianne Vitale and Nathaniel Donnett

Colton & Farb Gallery, Houston

Through June 26, 2010
by Erin Kimmel

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      Marianne Vitale
      Presser, 2010
      Plaster, gauze, wood, found material, and acrylic paint
      Courtesy the artist and Colton & Farb Gallery

      View Gallery

      Nathaniel Donnett, Ring Shout, Gamin' On Ya; S.P.C., 2010
      For complete caption see image gallery

      View Slideshow

      It is easy, upon first glance, to attribute the synergy of the two mixed-media exhibitions on view at Colton & Farb Gallery to the recent critical and commercial success of Marianne Vitale and Nathaniel Donnett. Vitale, who is based in New York, was recently included in the Whitney Biennial, and Donnett, who is Houston-based, is a 2010 Artadia Award recipient. As disparate as they are in their style and subject matter, the wistful gravity engendered by the surrealist impulses at the heart of both artists’ practice unite Vitale’s Presser and Donnett’s Tha Paper Bag Kids in da Soulciestic Playground.

      Presser is a modest collection of prints, paintings and sculptures produced by Vitale within the past year. The dynamic neon scrawls in her six intricate prints entitled Flushed Up mingle with the dense, saturated brushstrokes of large-scale, abstract canvases such as I Got Rid of the Horse and Now There is Only You. Two sinewy relief sculptures of a navel and an elbow from her Healthcare Series are painted a burnt pink that recalls the color of an old hospital waiting room. On the floor, a discarded mini-motorbike appropriated from the area surrounding the gallery is encased in a plaster rock painted the same burnt pink. Moving back and forth between the individual pieces in the amalgam illuminates the forceful élan vital that is the modus operandi of Vitale’s practice. Her sculptures swell out of her prints and drawings with an automatism that she has described as “letting the work define itself.” The result is something akin to series of stills depicting an entropic explosion, or implosion, depending on the viewer’s choice of perambulatory path.

      While Vitale’s raw material is the stuff of the unconscious, Nathaniel Donnett’s raw material is the stuff of childhood memory, specifically that of the African-American community. Last year Donnett mounted a show at the Lawndale Art Center entitled Paper or Plastic?, which explored the intersection of racial hierarchies and the education system. Here he moves his exploration of the construction of African-American identity beyond the classroom and into the playground. After all, it is at recess, between dodging bullies and negotiating cliques that children learn the social codes not discussed in the classroom. Donnett’s exploration of these social patterns eschews the black-white racial binary in favor of an investigation of colorism: a social phenomenon in which preferential treatment within an ethnic group is accorded to persons of lighter skin tone.

      The installation seethes with racially loaded found materials, images and witticisms. Each of the twelve predominantly figurative collages is rendered on an assemblage of brown paper lunch bags. The canvases reference “the brown paper bag test,” a ritual that denied anyone whose skin tone was darker than the bag access to education. In one pithily titled collage, Luv Tha Way You Carry Your Self Love; A.J., a young girl whose head is rendered in black plastic bags kneels in the foreground hugging an iconic African statue. Suspended in the background of many of these collages are dreamlike playgrounds where, for example, swings and slides are replaced by living room furniture. A video of an empty playground and two sculptural installations round out the exhibition. In one room, Donnett constructs a basketball court out of a blackboard, a milk crate and a collection of black and white books. There is nothing akin to the multiple choice tests Donnett scattered on the desks and encouraged viewers to take in his Lawndale show, but the educational vernacular is the same. By materially and linguistically deconstructing early educational environments, shuffling their contents and deftly reconstructing them, Donnett creates a cerebral playground whose unpredictable twists and turns invite pause.

      Both exhibitions speak to the dialectical tension between unconscious and consciousness, whether it’s Donnett’s unexpected placement of a couch where one would expect a simple swing or the vitalism inherent in Vitale’s drawings dictating the content of what is to come sculpturally. Of art writing Eileen Myles has said, “The rupture with reality one feels when writing about art is that there is a tendency to make manifestos out of someone else’s play.” There will be no manifesto here. Neither Vitale nor Donnett’s play is prescriptive; it is simply and refreshingly provoking.

      Erin Kimmel is a freelance writer based in Marfa, Texas.


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