At ICA Philly: Powerful words about race, and a Memphis Group it-girl's work

Detail from Nathalie du Pasquier’s “Con la foglia di magnolia” (2005-06), oil on canvas, courtesy of Kunsthalle Wien and the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

This fall’s exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art couldn’t be more different.

“Speech/Acts,” on the ground floor, is all about language. Nearly everything on the walls is a word, a fragment of a word, an erased word, a distorted word. The gallery’s multistory space ends literally in a wall of words.

By contrast, once you get beyond the verbose title of “Nathalie Du Pasquier: Big Objects Not Always Silent,” there are no words. There are no labels, no dates. It invites us to look at colors, forms, patterns, and materials, but it tells us next to nothing about them.

Both shows run through Dec. 23, and though they are clearly aimed at different audiences, they have a weird synergy. Each makes the other better.

Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing either one of them, though for very different reasons.

With the Du Pasquier show, my reluctance had to do with embarrassment over a youthful infatuation. For a short time in the early 1980s, I was bedazzled, along with many others, by the Milan design collaborative Memphis. Ettore Sottsass was the undisputed star of this supergroup, but the French-born Du Pasquier was, as she says in an interview in the catalog, “the girl,” a very young woman who created many of the wild patterns for which the group was known.

“Speech/Acts” is a group show of six African American artists born during the 1980s who, in the words of ICA assistant curator Meg Onli, “utilize aspects of experimental poetry in their work as a means to interrogate such forms of power, rendering the experience of blackness more exact.” My hesitation here was that I sometimes wish artists would interrogate less and imagine more.

In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised. “Speech/Acts” is dense and demanding to look at. But the artists are thinking visually as well as verbally.

Meanwhile, Du Pasquier’s installation of her life’s work is a playground of visual thinking, a menagerie of highly animated inanimate objects and forms. In fact, visual expression can be even more powerfully coercive than the written word, but she invites us to explore rather than interrogate.

Camera icon Kameelah Janan Rasheed, courtesy of the artist
From Speech/Acts at ICA, installation photograph of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s “A Supple Perimeter (the second activation)” (2017) archival ink-jet prints, monoprints, vinyl, Xerox copies, wheat paste, text fragments, self-authored poems, and fabric.

In terms of sheer size and ambition, the artist who sets the tone for “Speech/Acts” is Kameelah Janan Rasheed, a California-born artist working in Brooklyn. She uses a photocopying machine to reproduce and distort fragments of texts, some of which she wrote, others apparently found. Often, she distorts the words so they become more like brushstrokes or blurs, but they can almost always be read.

In A Supple Perimeter (the second activation), made for this show, she arranges these elements on a long wall. Their arrangement looks provisional, and, indeed, the artist intends to rearrange them as the show goes on. You don’t quite know whether to look or read, and if you read, in what direction. “2015 Death Benefit and Walmart gift certificate enclosed,” one fragment reads. You may not know what to make of it, but you probably won’t forget it.

Camera icon Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Courtesy of the artist
Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s “Going, Going, Going” (2017), archival ink-jet print, part of the installation A Supple Perimeter (the second activation).

Rasheed’s because gwendolyn brooks said “we occur everywhere” is even larger but simpler conceptually and more repetitious. It consists of 2,500 8.5- by-11-inch Xeroxed sheets pasted on the gallery’s enormous end wall. What she is saying is elusive, but it is unquestionably a statement.

Chicago artist Tony Lewis likewise concentrates on the appearance of words, though to opposite effect. His large graphite drawings begin with a word or a phrase and then distort it and erase it until there is barely a ghost of a meaning there.

Steffani Jemison examines cliché. You Completes Me (2012-ongoing) is mostly a wall of short phrases apparently from newspapers, magazines, and advertising that communicate fantasies of success. In Untitled (Affirmations for Living) (2011), she copies words of inspiration from a book aimed at black youths. Each phrase begins “If I Could” and suggests a resolution to be followed. “I would learn to say NO.” “I would save money for a rainy day.” “I would surround myself with people who bring out the best in me.” Jemison became interested in these sayings because they hung near the desk of a young black Chicago honor student who was beaten to death.

Philadelphia artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s Brad Johnson Tapes, X-On Subjugation (2017) is at once the most in-your-face and the most ambiguous of the show’s works. It consists of a scaffoldlike frame containing a screen on which we see the artist hanging upside down by her ankles from the same structure as she recites a poem by Brad Johnson, who died of AIDS in 2011. The work seems to be, in part, a celebration of dominance and submission sexuality. The words rage against subjugation, but being verbal is part of the ritual. Is the artist saying that taking the role of slave can be a thrill?

The show also includes Los Angeles artist Martine Syms’ series of “30-second commercials for the Black Radical Tradition” and Brooklyn artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s three-screen video depicting small insults felt by blacks in everyday urban life.

Camera icon Nathalie Du Pasquier rug photographed by Roberto Genari, Courtesy Keith Johnson + Celia Morrissette (NYC).
“Arizona” (1983), wool rug by Nathalie Du Pasquier.

In contrast to all the pain downstairs, the Du Pasquier show upstairs focuses on delight. There are rugs on the floor you can walk on, and others hanging high in the air. There are monumental vases, and many drawings and paintings filled with brilliant colors, geometric and mechanically inspired forms, sensual pleasure, and no guilt.

The show, which originated at Kunsthalle Wien, in Vienna, incorporates work from throughout Du Pasquier’s career — first as a fabric and carpet designer, then as a creator of objects and architectural settings, and, for the last three decades, as a painter, primarily of wooden sculptures she creates in order to paint canvases of them. However, it does not deal in either interpretation or chronology.

Her characteristic form is the still life, a study of juxtaposed shapes and colors, almost always unpeopled. Her strength is in bringing tension and vitality to these relationships. And this show is like one of her works writ large, a lively dialogue among different works from different times — only one of them a Memphis piece — all of which share a distinctive sensibility.

Many will find her art somewhat derivative of 1920s mechanical modernism, but as a designer, she knows how to make things come alive. I expected the show to be about a bygone style, but it is instead a demonstration of a lively mind. Best of all, her installation fully engages the ICA’s lofty architecture, which most shows there seek to suppress. Sometimes you don’t need words. Looking good might be enough.

AT ICA

"Speech/Acts" and “Nathalie du Pasquier: Big Objects Not Always Silent"

On exhibit through Dec. 23 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.

Hours: Wednesday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: free.

Information: 215-898-7100 or www.icaphila.org.