Sherwin Ovid: Breath Between Ledgers Measured | Online Viewing Room

Welcome to the multi-media viewing room for Sherwin Ovid: Breath Between Ledgers Measured
July 9 -August 30, 2020
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about the exhibition:

Goldfinch is pleased to present a new solo exhibition in Gallery 1 by Chicago-based artist Sherwin Ovid, on view from July 10th – August 29th. “Breath Between Ledgers Measured” is Ovid’s second exhibition with Goldfinch.

Born in Trinidad, Ovid’s multi-disciplinary works explore diaspora, hybridity and the aesthetics of migration and migratory forms. His new paintings and drawings in “Breath Between Ledgers Measured” draw from the nautical Afrofuturist mythology of Drexciya, the Detroit-based electronic music duo of James Stinson (1969 – 2002) and Gerald Donald active during the late nineties and early ‘aughts. Over the course of numerous albums and projects, Drexciya developed a complex mythic narrative about the Drexciyan people, descendants of the children of enslaved African women thrown overboard during the Atlantic crossing, who subsequently developed the ability to breathe and live under water.

Although still primarily abstract, these works are populated by gel-transfer images of sea monsters that, along with the mythologies of Drexciya, reference the practice of medieval map-makers to indicate uncharted and potentially dangerous territories by way of sea monsters and other fantastic creatures.  For Ovid, the images relate these pieces to his earlier paintings and drawings, whose surfaces often contain bubbles, made from a mixture of soap, cephalopod ink, adhesives, and the artist’s own breath. “It’s about being in an uninhabitable space and then me using my own breath and thinking about using my breath, and theorizing breath as a medium for the drawing process,” he explains. “I’m thinking about breath also as being measured, and having a certain kind of pressure placed on it based on our current predicament, which has made breath into something really precarious.”

 

Detail view of Statement of Retained Rows (4), 2020. Acrylic, latex, gel transfer, chalk, cephalopod ink. 18 x 20 in.

 

 

Installation view.
Installation view.

Ovid earned his B.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently, he teaches as an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University and at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This past year, he contributed artwork to Lena Waithe’s Showtime drama The Chi and was commissioned to make a set of original artworks featured in the Jordan Peele-produced remake of the movie Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. He has also participated in group shows at the Chicago Cultural Center; the Lubeznik Center for the Arts; UIS Visual Arts Gallery; 6018North; Gallery 400; Prison Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP); the University of Wisconsin; the Cleve Carney Art Gallery; Julius Caesar; the Haitian American Museum of Chicago and Iceberg Projects. He has appeared twice in the juried publication New American Paintings (Midwest #149, August/September 2020, and MFA Annual #123, April/May 2016) and was named a “Breakout Artist” by New City magazine in 2018. A solo show titled “Blanch Jet Maneuvers” will take place at Demon Leg Gallery in East Harlem, NY.

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Cognitive Map Hatched in Flight, 2020. Plexiglas box, soap, glue, glycerine and captured breath.

 

Above: detail views of Not All Waves Are In the Ocean, 2020. Cephalopod ink, bubbles on panel. 12 x 9 inches.

“Thinking about the idea of breath and of breathing enabled me to sink my teeth into my work from a new angle that I really wasn’t considering before. How breath functions in our contemporary moment in terms of the pandemic and how that relates to the way in which I’m also thinking about George Floyd and the protests and uprising in terms of that phrase, ‘I can’t breathe.” I feel like that those two things seem to be intertwined here in regards to the issue of health care into ideas of Care that are bigger in terms of, you know, community and the fabric of our relations and the ways that police are kind of tasked with trying to somehow shore up the places where governance should be taking responsibility for providing or allocating funds that are actually our funds, our money, our tax money– into this idea of care. But instead the way that the police are meant to actually “take care of things” that they don’t have the capacity to do.  I’m not saying that all this is really front-loaded in my work per se, but those are the thoughts that are generating both the title of this show and the way that I’m going about making this work.”

Audio commentary: Sherwin Ovid discusses breath, breathing, and notions of care in our contemporary moment:

 

From the series ‘Undercurrents Legion (From Emanje),’ 2020. Watercolor, bubbles (soap, glue, glycerine and captured breath), dried pigment on paper.

My paintings draw in part on mythology developed by Drexciya, a musical group from Detroit from the late 80s and early 90s. Their mythology involved enslaved African women thrown overboard whose children become these kind of sea creatures able to breathe underwater. The sea monster imagery is about being in an uninhabitable space and then me using my own breath and thinking about using my breath, and theorizing breath as a medium for the drawing process. I’m thinking about breath also as being measured, and having a certain kind of pressure placed on it based on our current predicament, which has made breath into something really precarious. “

Statement of Retained Rows (1), 2020. Acrylic, latex, gel transfer, chalk, bubbles and cephalopod ink. 18 x 20 in.

 

Statement of Retained Rows (1), 2020. Acrylic, latex, gel transfer, chalk, bubbles and cephalopod ink. 18 x 20 in.

 

Installation view, Statement of Retained Rows (1), 2020. Acrylic, latex, gel transfer, chalk, bubbles and cephalopod ink. 18 x 20 in.

 

Statement of Retained Rows (4), 2020. Acrylic, latex, gel transfer, chalk, bubbles and cephalopod ink. 18 x 20 in.

 

“The sea monster motif also came up when I was in a class taught by Professor Sampada Aranke that was based around the arts of the Black Atlantic, and I was thinking about that space of the ocean being a kind of portal, the way in which it’s like a world-making and world-breaking kind of place in terms of the new formations and new subjectivity that emerged and died in that portal. So I’m just so I’m just I’m thinking about that, but I’m also trying to see the places where that is still reverberating in the present moment. The way that I think mythology has become a place in which we try to not allow the dead to be somehow just rendered as just surplus flesh. But that somehow we’re like, trying to think about creating a mythology as a way to find a place that creates, like, proper closure to the way in which human lives get completely wasted, or are seen as being disposable. So that’s the way in which I’m thinking about this narrative in terms of this mythology and also the way in which it gives us a certain way to cope, and also reinvent and to think differently or think otherwise about the unthinkable. It feels like maybe that’s a mechanism that somehow keeps nihilism at bay, in some ways, and provides a context for thinking about movement forward in the face of a banal and uncertain non-future.”

Not All Waves Are In the Ocean, 2020. Cephalopod ink, bubbles on panel. 12 x 9 inches.

Listen to Sherwin Ovid describe his method of creating bubbles on surfaces:

 

Not All Waves Are In the Ocean Still, 2020. Cephalopod ink, bubbles on panel. 12 x 9 inches.

 

a conversation between sherwin ovid and claudine isé

Claudine Isé: These newest paintings bring in some of the imagery seen in your work Beasts of No Nation, which is in the Chicago Cultural Center’s current exhibition “In Flux: Chicago Artists and Immigration.” They’re like little tadpole offshoots of that big one.  Can you tell us about the composition, the use of grids and the sea monster imagery?

Sherwin Ovid: The sea monsters are gel transfers from maps in books like Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps; for the chalk lines I’m using a plumb bob to make them gridded. I’m thinking of them in terms of things like spreadsheet ledgers, accounts and accounting graphs. Then I have the bubbles with the ink that’s similar to the corn row design in Beast of No Nation; I’m using my own breath to make the bubbles, these iridescent bubbles.

The other the other thing that’s important about the sea monster imagery is the mythology.  I made a series of paintings called Drexciyan Dishes after the music group Drexciya. Their mythology involved African women thrown overboard whose children become these kind of sea creatures able to breathe underwater. So that’s what that that imagery is—it’s about being in an uninhabitable space and then me using my own breath and thinking about using my breath, and theorizing breath as a medium for the drawing process. I’m thinking about it also as being measured, and having a certain kind of pressure placed on it based on our current predicament, which has made breath into something really precarious.

Drexciyan Dish (13).

CI: And you’re using squid ink for this?

SO:  I’ve been using a lot of squid ink and cephalopod ink, the sea monsters are drawn and printed with it. It’s a medium that’s been used since like the 19th century for drawing and mark-making.

CI: Can you say a bit more about the idea of using breath and of theorizing breath?

SO: I was talking with Professor Patricia Nguyen, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at Northwestern and you know, I had already made this work, but it’s only after that conversation that I started to gain a lot more insight into it. Professor Nguyen does a lot of performance work herself, but we were talking about theorizing breath and she then turned me on to some of the work written about breath, including a scholar named Ashen Crawley who wrote a book that I haven’t finished reading yet, Black Pentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility.

But you know, the idea of breathing seems to be really pressing right now. Thinking about it allows me to sink my teeth into my work from a new angle that I really wasn’t considering before. How breath functions in our contemporary moment in terms of the pandemic, and how that relates to the way in which I’m also thinking about George Floyd and the protests and Uprising in terms of that phrase, ‘I can’t breathe.’ The sea monster motif also came up when I was at UIC and taking a class based around the arts of the Black Atlantic. I was thinking about that space of the ocean being a kind of portal, and the way in which it’s like a world-making and world-breaking kind of place in terms of the new formations and new subjectivities that emerged and who died in that portal, right? I’m thinking about that, but I’m also trying to see the places where that is still reverberating in the present moment.

CI: How are you using breath as a material?

SO: The way I’m using it is basically blowing through a straw into a jar where I have a cocktail of ingredients that includes the cuttlefish ink or cephalopod ink — there’s like three different kinds that I use. I use soap and that ink along with rabbit skin glue, which is used for sizing canvas. This recipe is something I’ve been working on for a while, trying to figure out how to make the bubbles permanent or semi-permanent so that they become like a record. The bubbles are like, creating a packet for the air to then stick to the surface, whatever the substrate is, whether it’s the actual canvas or the paper, and getting it to stick on there. I thinking about them as being like reserves. The thing is, in most cases, they deflate over time, they remain pretty permanent for the most part but then they deflate slowly and they form a skin or a film that becomes like a record on that surface.

There are some cases where I have canvases at my studio that have bubbles on them that are still inflated, but they are bit more wrinkled. . . . There’s something about the fact that like my breath is literally underneath that, still inside of those bubbles on the paintings. But in terms of the work in this show, what interested me first was the impression that the bubbles made whenever they’d pop, that it would be a record of where this kind of aggregate would be in terms of them finding a place, a kind of, I would say, a resting place where they decide to settle down.

CI: So could you also be kind of enacting the role of a sea monster yourself, taking on that role as an artist, in terms of the process? Blowing bubbles, and so on?

SO: That’s great that you brought that up because I’ve been thinking about, you know, the Carnival tradition and Trinidad and specifically started to do a series of watercolors and works on paper that are in this show, that have the sea monsters with actual human legs coming from below them. It’s a series of work that would be a proposal for Carnival masquerades, with the sea monster as the theme.

Above: Details from Proposal to Play Mass with Mercator (1-4), a series of works on paper contemplating a sea monster costume for a Carnival parade. Oil slick, marble print, Xylene transfer, gold leaf, graphite on paper, each work 30 x 22 inches.

More about the electronica duo Drexciya:

 

“Every Drexciya EP navigates the depths of the Black Atlantic, the submerged worlds populated by Drexciyans, Lardossans, Darthouven Fish Men and Mutant Gillmen. In the sleeve notes to The Quest, their ’97 concept double CD, the Drexciyans are revealed to be a marine species descended from ‘pregnant America-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard ‘by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air? Recent experiments have shown mice able to breathe liquid oxygen, a premature human infant saved from certain death by breathing liquid oxygen through its underdeveloped lungs. These facts combined with reported sightings of Gillmen and Swamp Monsters in the coastal swamps of the Southeastern United States make the slave trade theory startingly feasible.’ Drexciyans are ‘water breathing, aquatically mutated descendants,’ webbed mutants of the Black Atlantic, amphibians adapted for the ocean’s abyssal plains, a phylum disconnected from the aliens who adapted to land. As Mark Sinker argued in ’92, ‘The ships landed long ago: they already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered whole swathes of citizenry. Africa and America — and so by extension Europe and Asia — are already in the various ways Alien Nation.’ Drexciya use electronics to replay the alien abduction of slavery with a fictional outcome: ‘Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River Basin and to the Great Lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us?’ Sinker’s breakthrough is to bring alien abduction back to earth, to transfer the trauma from out there to yesternow.” — From ‘More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction’ by Kodwo Eshun, pp. 06[083] – 06[085] (Quartet Books, London, 1998).

 

Related Readings:

Sherwin Ovid at Goldfinch, Kelly Reaves, Chicago Artist Writers, October 26, 2016 

New American Paintings: Sherwin Ovid

Migratory Art: The Aesthetics of Contact, Shastri Akella, World Literature Today

Migratory Aesthetics: Double Movement, Mieke Bal

Connecting Breaths, Romy Crawford, In the Moment blog for Critical Inquiry, June 3, 2020