FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
SEPTEMBER 14, 2017 - JANUARY 7, 2018
BY ELIZABETH L. DELANEY
RESPONSE > WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
JANUARY 25, 2018
Sonya Clark’s art addresses notions of physical and social identity and the ways in which it roots a person in space and time. Connecting the past with the present, this work ignites a discourse about the evolution of culture and the experiences of people of color. By utilizing such personal yet common items as plastic combs, beads, and hair, Clark embodies complex stories in clean, recognizable forms that engage on intimate and communal terms.
Entanglements, recently on view at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was a sizeable survey of Clark’s work spanning the past two decades, including two new floor sculptures, Passing and No Passing, consisting of Clark’s signature black plastic combs in abstract, geometric arrangements. The exhibition featured three-dimensional wall pieces, sculptures, photographs, and a digital slideshow, all centered on individual, relatable markers that encompass identity, particularly within the African American community.
Clark’s primary materials function as both literal and symbolic emblems in a narrative that acknowledges hair styling as an African American art form for the ages, heralded and unrelenting in the face of judgment and oppression. The weaving together of hair (which contains DNA) connotes the merging of ancestors and progeny, disparate histories, and the celebration of expression—often under subjugation. Triangle Trade (2014), for example, presents braided fibers in a series of concentric equilateral triangles. Referencing the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 1700s, the organic, textured lines move around and around, back and forth, connecting with and feeding into one another, but never breaking free from their carefully calculated pattern.
By choosing black plastic combs, Clark plucks a utilitarian item from the pop culture canon and plays on its iconic nature as a tool for styling hair and therefore helping to define one’s unique character. However, Clark also highlights the contrasting nature of these lightweight, malleable objects—they serve to create and define, but depending on who uses them, they also erect barriers. As the artist suggests, sometimes the tools we are given are no match for the hair they’re supposed to tame. In that vein, Toothless (2015) at once evokes strength and disparity, as structured rows of combs cascade downward, disintegrating before our eyes. A heap of broken plastic teeth lies formless at the bottom of the piece, disabled parts of the whole and reminiscent of failed attempts, perhaps to style hair, perhaps to break down cultural and social barriers. Clark wields these symbols deftly, delivering a heavy message in delicate, intricately constructed formations that connect with viewers formally and intellectually.
Overall, the assembled work in Entanglements spoke in purposeful, striking elements, making the artist’s point swiftly and with resolve. The meticulous array of heady lines, textures, and social symbolism highlighted visual and cultural contrasts, at the same time prompting consideration of a path toward unity, despite a history fraught with discrimination at the hands of an oppressive white race. As noted in the exhibition text, “Clark uses her powers as storyteller and her materials—hair in particular—to untangle the snarled knots of race, culture, gender and class, revealing interconnectedness as our fundamental condition.”
All photos courtesy SECCA and the artist.
Sonya Clark is a distinguished research fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She earned her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More than 350 museums and galleries have exhibited her work in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia. She is the recipient of a United States Artist Fellowship and a Pollock Krasner award, among others, and has completed various residencies around the globe, including a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency in Italy, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a Yaddo Residency, and the Knight Foundation Residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a native of Washington, D.C.
The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, began in 1956 as a nonprofit visual arts organization focusing on works by local artists, and quickly grew to encompass art from all eleven southeastern states. Today, it continues its legacy of connecting audiences with noted contemporary works by artists from the Southeast, United States, and abroad.
750 Marguerite Drive,
Winston-Salem, NC 27106
Tuesday: 10am – 5pm
Wednesday: 10am – 5pm
Thursday: 10am – 8pm
Friday: 10am – 5pm
Saturday: 10am – 5pm
Sunday: 1pm – 5pm
Elizabeth L. Delaney is a freelance arts writer and editor whose work has appeared in Hi-Fructose, Art Papers, and Burnaway.
A feature of project reviews experienced in person. Response will provide artists with much needed critical response to their work. Response is opinion-based but is not an op-ed.