Kandis Williams’s first solo show in New York is also the inaugural exhibition of 52 Walker, a space directed by Ebony L. Haynes under the auspices of David Zwirner Gallery. Williams’s research-based work is in line with Haynes’s curatorial erudition; the art on view redevelops and subverts received narratives and representations, and even the sub-rosa mechanisms of their transmission, playing with recognizable imagery and insistently questioning it.
Williams is an interesting choice given her work’s resonances and frictions with the new venture, which cites kunsthallen as its model. For instance, the Berlin- and Los Angeles-based artist co-founded a small press, Cassandra, which complements and makes one wonder about the gallery’s sole use of its own publication, Clarion, in lieu of catalogues. Her solo show runs alongside a history of connecting and community building, and Haynes is teaching a class through Cassandra, “Black Students Only Sessions,” for participants to discuss the art world and the operation of a commercial art gallery—models Haynes knows well, having previously worked at Foxy Production and Martos Gallery, but which 52 Walker intends to reimagine. The space will only host four exhibitions per year, each running for several months, with a range of artists from different career stages. It will feature only solo exhibitions of femme-identifying artists, and the gallery is entirely staffed by people who identify as Black.
Williams’s exhibition includes sculptures, collages and videos, all of which bear very long titles that contextualize the imagery and draw parallels and incongruities between elements (consequently they’re also abbreviated herein). The space is predominated by collaged black-and-white photos of dancers, expressively pasted onto a gridded ground that is occasionally emphasized with hand-drawn lines and sometimes textual notes by the artist. A few have ink applied in splashy washes that emphasize figures and gestures, notably in Notes for Stage… (all works 2021), which features famously intense images of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964).
The tableaux are instructive, choreographic, both in their imagery and their construction. And they take as some of their subject matter the embodiment, fostering and corrective discipline of values. In one piece, A Line: the Diaghilev Ruler…, the Soviet prima ballerina Marina Semyonova, in a collaged field of dancers, manipulates a student’s body into its properly expressive form; her dancing and teaching was the corporealization of the New Soviet Woman, and here she is, putting ideology into youth by hand. This idea can be seen throughout, where historical images of white dancers predominate, and the bodies of Black dancers, such as Alvin Ailey (more temporally recent and more liberal in movement) disrupt and hurtle.
Those with text included are especially intriguing, as they show Williams thinking aloud the valences of posture, photographic angles and the coding of race, gender and class expectations as a form of power. They make explicit and cohesive Williams’s use of pedagogy, community and the reconsideration of history against narratives built on the chassis of oppression. In two, Lines of Contemplation… and Hyper-interpretation…, photographic studies of a model posing in a variety of similar positions are juxtaposed with reference images, including stock photography and handwritten text. In the latter, photos from image searches for “seated women” are compared with women of various races and women whose identities are obscured by masks, with historical photos of Black women and in-studio studies, all annotated to describe how small discrepancies of glance or position in the model indicate “tension,” “pensiveness,” opposition and “secretiveness,” as compared to “security” and “ease.”
Sculptures of plants—with portions painted in skin tones, and with fruit, presumably in reference to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1959)—throughout the space are far more invisible. They disappear against I-beam columns running through the gallery, but subtly emphasize awareness of the space and one’s body moving through it. The sculptures’ titles knit fragments of text appropriated from various sources, making explicit an argument suggested in the collages: the systematic relegation of Black poetics—here, dance—as uncultured and dangerous. In one, On the contrary…, the title quotes an analysis of the Nazis’ fear of expression and contrasts it with Alain Locke’s hypothesis about the vital role of social expression in Black art. While Nazism is often referenced as the Ur-racism against which all others are infuriatingly, and frequently, apologetically compared, it is worth repeating the history, often obscured, that Nazism was inspired and tutored by American white supremacy and Jim Crow.
At the back of the gallery are six CRT monitors displaying videos, each titled Triadic Ballet. People dance vaporously over an empty black space marked with a simple diagrammatic square, trisected, composed with what looks like spike tape. At times, figures dance in spectral overlap, double or maybe even triple-exposed. They’re reminiscent of Lucinda Childs’s DANCE (1979), which had been staged at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea in late October. DANCE projects video and still images over live dancers who perform in a ballet-influenced contemporary style over a gridded field, and the echoing elements between Williams and Childs were striking.
In a panel discussion following one performance, two dancers, Childs and historian Maura Keefe expressed consensus about how important it is to see dance right now. And while it’s perhaps natural to expect that whatever one is producing will seem particularly crucial during crisis, it is hard to deny that dance, and especially an expanded vision of the practice as seen here, in the middle of racial reckoning and physical distancing (not to mention class-, gender- and race-based subjugation so long standing that “crisis” fails to adequately capture the state of affairs), is in fact really important to see and think about and experience. And that experience, provided in Williams’s work—to see and question the way that the past has shaped bodies and to build something beyond the constraints of that history—is needed now more than ever. —Noah Dillon
Kandis Williams, Line Intersection Sublimation: Uptown Downtown satisfactions of Swan Lake, east west Pavlova to Mezentseva, Madonna Whore Balanchine to Dunham., 2021. © Kandis Williams. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker, New York.