On ViewLaurel Gitlen
June 9 – July 16, 2022
If you have any interest in poetry, you probably know Pamela Sneed—Black, lesbian, radical poet, and one of the infamous Grand Dames of the downtown scene. Her stage presence is formidable and her voice, revolutionary. Her 2020 book Funeral Diva published by City Lights Books looks back on her experiences during the AIDS Crisis while making correlations to COVID-19, and the ongoing layered impacts of racism, homophobia, and political brutality. In ABOUT time at Laurel Gitlen, Sneed’s visual practice merges with her poetic one, creating an exhibition that is fiercely outspoken, experimental, and personal.
Small, delicate works on paper depict figures from the artist’s life: family members, a friend recently lost to suicide, and friends lost to AIDS and COVID-19 all merge with luminous guides: James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, and others. The quality of these portraits evokes a family album, a scrapbook, an artistic gesture infused with intimacy, rendered with delicate watercolors. Watercolors and activism may be an unlikely pair, but ABOUT time unveils a radical potential for the medium.
In a muted palette, Sneed paints the portraits of the victims of the shooting in Buffalo, NY in Tops 1–6 (2022) and Tops 7 (2022). The washy blue gray has a ghostly quality, a visceral understanding of brutal murder sans gore. The lack of gore is a critical artistic decision. We are in America, the country that made postcards of lynching. Tops 7 is displayed in its spiral bound notebook, pointing to a devastating lack of finitude. We imagine Sneed flipping page after page to paint more portraits of more victims of gun violence, police brutality, racism, homophobia, AIDS, COVID-19, and on and on.
Sneed chooses reverence to meditate on this violence. She memorializes. When considering the commemorative landscape, we are confronted with hard materials—bronze, stone, concrete—built to last forever in a masculinist (and often nationalistic) vision. Sneed, however, memorializes the dead with delicate watercolors. There’s an air of impermanence echoed in the ghosts she’s rendered. Echoing the impermanence of figurative works, poems are written on the wall in pencil. The writing is powerful yet fragile, erasable.
Particularly striking are the found object works For Daunte Wright (2022)and Little Tree 1, where the artist fastens car air fresheners to paper. They are called Little Trees; one is in the flavor of watermelon (a deeply racist trope); and the black string meant to hang the car freshener in the rearview mirror looks like a noose. Sneed holds these objects up for us to look at, to consider constant racist subliminal messaging. Her ability to frame something small to put into perspective the grand scale of violence is remarkable as is her ability to consider the hyperobject of grief in America.
We’re in the beginning of a rather agonizing century, going strong on year three of a pandemic. I’m writing this as the ruling to overturn Roe V. Wade was just announced. I am thinking about the gut-wrenching loss of life due to state violence and how the fight for bodily autonomy and racial justice is endless. The twenty-four works on paper in ABOUT time are displayed to represent the hours in a day, and their dissonant contradictions—the languid slog of pandemic-time coupled with the rapid surge of unfolding trauma.
ABOUT Time is about violence in America, but it comes with a dose of anti-venom: the poetic process, the connection we have to our community, our origins, the act of making every day. Sneed brings the scale of this violence into the palm of her hand and to the quotidian; this is how the watercolors started, as an everyday practice during the pandemic. Moments of sweet relief are found in the works There you are sun (2021) and Jamaica Skyline, made while the artist was on vacation. These particularly colorful works serve as a reminder for activists to take a break, to take good care to conserve the stamina needed for a fight that is unfortunately lifelong.
Questions of time always lead to consideration of scale. What does revolution look like at the scale of an individual? The figure of the runaway slave serves as the North Star of the exhibition. Harriet Tubman looked to the Polaris to guide her missions to free enslaved people and now Sneed looks to her and countless others to continue her journey, and to encourage the collective to take similar actions towards freedom. The Poet 2 (2022) features a portrait of the artist as a young child, a marker of time, an origin, a way to frame what was to come in her life as a queer Black woman. Pearls surround her child portrait in an adornment that feels both sweet and spiritual.
There’s a lot of talk about “authenticity” these days (which feels like a red flag), springing from a wellness culture married to capitalism, seeking to strip bare the subject to find an inner truth, a type of singularity. I prefer to consider identity as accumulation—the porousness between experience, community, history, and self. ABOUT time displays this stickiness, a web of before and after, history and present, spectacle with hyper-personal—all the components of living, which Sneed lays bare for us with radical vulnerability.