By Ryan Tuozzolo
“All I wanted … and all anybody wanted was some kind of penetration into the heart of things where, like in a womb, we could curl up and sleep,” Jack Kerouac writes in “On the Road,” a novel based on his travels across the United States. Kerouac published the novel, which is considered a key piece of Beat Generation literature, in the late 1950s.
More than 60 years later, a new body of art has emerged with the same title, though this time it’s by curator Larry Ossei-Mensah. The exhibition, which is currently showing at Brooklyn’s Jenkins Johnson Projects, focuses on the works of three artists Ossei-Mensah encountered in 2017 during his travels across the United States: Basil Kincaid, Esau McGhee and Caroline Kent. Each artist’s work is distinct and richly layered, yet Ossei-Mensah brings them together to explore issues of space and selfhood.
Kincaid, who is based in Missouri, works primarily with quilting and photography to explore what he terms “reclamation and heritage.” Kincaid’s work relates to Ossei-Mensah’s curatorial focus in “On the Road” most apparently through its emphasis on the space we take up, both in time and in society.
Kincaid’s interest in quilting, for instance, was born in part from a long family tradition — Kincaid recalls his grandmother’s relentless quilting practice. Yet the most eye-catching of Kincaid’s works on display are not necessarily the tangible fabrics he has assembled into garment-like creations — they’re his photographs of people inhabiting his quilts. “Rest: In Felt Sense,” for instance, depicts a figure crouching in grass, with only their hands exposed. The sky above them is gray — almost purplish — ominous and telling of rains to come. Seeing Kincaid’s quilts worn grants them a dynamism unmatched by the physical objects alone.
By way of the photographs, the viewers can almost see themselves in Kincaid’s art. They can consider the feel of the material, the darkness of being concealed by it, and the way in which it serves as a symbol of protection within Kincaid’s photographs.
Similar to that of Kincaid, Kent’s work meditates upon identity. Kent works primarily with painting and language in her creative process; her combination of the two is particularly fascinating. In “Carmicheal and Eloise,” Kent paints no more than a tan blob accentuated by a scattering of black marks. Yet it’s the written words, inked onto the page with a typewriter, that really give the piece a voice. Kent has typed: “Carmicheal: ‘What do you think gave her away?’ Eloise: ‘Her eyes.’ ‘They were like a flock of birds roused from a bush every time she blinked.” With so little context, the viewer is left to wonder: Who are Carmichael and Eloise? About whom are they speaking? Despite the questions, the piece nonetheless leaves the observer with a sense of the woman Eloise describes, a testament to the potency of even a small number of words.
McGhee’s art, like that of his peers, employs a variety of mediums — namely painting, photography and sculpture in “On the Road.” McGhee believes that individuals, even those from different walks of life, can come together through shared appreciation for visual art. McGhee has straddled multiple worlds himself, growing up as a self-proclaimed “ghetto kid” and attending elite, private programs in fine art at institutions such as Northwestern University. As such, he has firsthand experience operating within both financially privileged and underprivileged environments. Indeed, people from a range of backgrounds should be able to appreciate the aesthetically pleasing, clean geometric forms and bright colors featured in McGhee’s art. Less accessible, however, remain the visual pieces’ relations to their titles, which include the likes of “Untitled Portrait of Privilege #2, Dedicated to The Socially Constructed Body” and “Untitled Symbol #3 (In Spite of Your Symbol of Imperialist Oppression.” As a viewer, it’s hard to know whether McGhee would prefer for you to simply stand back and appreciate the visual elements of his work, or if you should try to decipher their relations to their titles.
From the works of Kincaid to those of Kent and those of McGhee, Ossei-Mensah has curated for the viewer spaces to rest in and to consider — just as Kerouac wrote more than a generation ago.