The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue

Lumin Wakoa: In Time

Lumin Wakoa, <em>Blooming Tree at Trinity Cemetery</em>, 2021. Oil on linen, 12 x 9 inches. Courtesy Deanna Evans and Etienne Frossard.
Lumin Wakoa, Blooming Tree at Trinity Cemetery, 2021. Oil on linen, 12 x 9 inches. Courtesy Deanna Evans and Etienne Frossard.

On View
Deanna Evans Projects
October 22 – December 4, 2021

Lumin Wakoa made all of the 17 paintings on view at Deanna Evans Projects this year, beginning many at outdoor sites—including her own front garden—near her home in Ridgewood or her nearby Bushwick studio. This was in part occasioned by the pandemic, which made commuting via public transit inadvisable. The result is a body of work self-confidently located within the tradition of plein air painting, especially in comparison to the fractured abstract space and amorphous protagonists of Wakoa’s canvases from recent years. At Deanna Evans Projects, a pink tree trunk melts alongside a reflected golden gate (Blooming Tree at Trinity Cemetery), the lowermost branches in Mid Day at the Night Barn dissolve like licks of fire into the periwinkle sky behind, and the smooth taupe poles and roiling whites of Walking Near Water at the Night Barn create a shallow stage for delicate daubs of black, brown, or deep blue, which read as the ripples of waves or irregular patterning on variegated leaves. The paint is scumbled, almost gnarly, and evidently piled up over time, as in the top left corner of Trinity Cemetery, where peaks and streaks of blue-gray oil do not quite cover a pale yellow ground. Though Wakoa’s impetus is clearly the stuff of the outdoors, the kind of space the paintings evoke is compellingly imprecise. We are in both a forest and underwater, in the tangible space of lived experience and in the fleeting, shifting space of the imagination.

Wakoa’s canvases disrupt spatial distinctions such as inside/outside, private/public, or terrestrial/aquatic, thus exceeding their geographical points of origin. The artist’s process also makes this question incongruous, since titles often provide this information transparently. Moreover, Wakoa works a single canvas in multiple locations over several sittings, both outdoors and in the studio, sometimes after the canvas has hung, dry and incomplete, for weeks or months. Landscape emerges as a symbolic space through which Wakoa claims the gendered tradition of painting en plein air not as a repertory of forms, but as a pictorial code open to reinvention. Thus affinities with van Gogh’s cypresses in Front Garden at Night, Monet’s Parisian steam clouds in the billowing pistachio green canopy of Trinity Cemetery, or Bonnard’s palette throughout seem less homages to a familiar catalogue of forebears than a hijacking of motifs and discourses that defined late 19th-century plein air painting in order to redirect them toward her own distinctive pictorial goals. That is not to say, however, that this is a self-conscious or singular end in itself.

Lumin Wakoa, <em>Mourning</em>, 2021. Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy Deanna Evans and Etienne Frossard.
Lumin Wakoa, Mourning, 2021. Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy Deanna Evans and Etienne Frossard.

Historically, painting outdoors was the province of men, who did not need chaperones and whose conventional wardrobe allowed it. To paint animals in Parisian butchers, for instance, Rosa Bonheur had to gain special dispensation from the police to wear trousers in public. For Wakoa, the shift to painting outdoors was a condition not only of quarantine but of working while caring for her children, who could play at the cemetery meanwhile. Though rooted in the observation of nature, these latest canvases, then, seem less indebted to artists for whom landscape is a primary site of investigation, like Lois Dodd or Josephine Halvorson, than to Amy Sillman or Julie Mehretu, who have reinvented the medium of painting by dislodging it from its exclusionary modernist past.

The indeterminate space of Wakoa’s paintings—both pictorially and with regard to their mobile execution—also suggests a spatial retooling of the painter’s studio itself. Rather than treating the studio as the site of production, something external to the act of painting, Wakoa internalizes and installs the studio within the work as an elastic space that is both mental and physical. Thus the environment (whether spatial or temporal) in which any particular mark was made is impossible to determine, but it is nonetheless powerfully felt, embedded materially in the work as a record of Wakoa’s process. Wakoa’s new paintings, then, show us how the contours of the notion of the studio bend and shift in order to remain viable under the challenging conditions of the pandemic. They highlight the fact that for so many caregivers, this transformation of working and living space was profoundly gendered. These works discredit the studio—that place of “anachronistic luxury” for Charline von Heyl—as a virile site of artistic genius and expressive force.

The historically gendered valences that have accrued around the notion of the studio would be one way to make less strange, and less literally about death, Wakoa’s paintings of solitary skeletons included here. One, in Trance, ambles leftward against a brushy amber ground, its head directed upward as if erupting with laughter; the left hand of its fully-frontal counterpart in Mourning gently grazes its face, its bones, often rendered in delicate individual strokes, stamped out against chalky teal. Stripped of their organs and fleshy envelopes, Wakoa’s skeletons are un-raced and un-sexed, and could thus be said to circumvent the aesthetic violence toward the female body carried out within the space of the studio. Therefore Wakoa’s skeletons function, like plein air painting, as a category of symbolic investigation rather than an identity or a site. Taken more conventionally as memento mori (reminders of death), Wakoa’s skeletons privilege time over space, and would seem to recommend a slower pace in making, in looking, and in life. In this, the paintings feel mostly like they are about perseverance: about continuing to paint, and all the infinitesimal choices and adjustments one makes in an effort to do so.


Elizabeth Buhe

Elizabeth Buhe is a critic and art historian based in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues