Ruins and Rituals
The following conversation took place on the cusp of spring 2017. Piper Marshall invited Molly Superfine, an art historian studying performance art and art of the African diaspora at Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, to tour Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur. Molly Superfine graciously agreed. Here they discuss how Buchanan’s work pushes up against canonical readings of minimalism to interrogate the power and process of memory, and its proclivity toward fragmentation.
Piper Marshall: To start: I know you’ve researched Beverly Buchanan’s frustule (1978-1980) sculptures. Could you explain to me how these works intimately sized works were made, and where we can locate Buchanan’s interest in casting material which is fleeting?
Molly Superfine: Buchanan grew up in South Carolina, and her great-uncle was the dean of the School of Agriculture at South Carolina University. Under his guidance, she grew up visiting farms and former plantation sites. She went on to receive her graduate degrees in parasitology and public health from Columbia University, and then worked in East Orange, New Jersey, as a public health educator. During this time, she took classes with Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in New York, and became a mentee of Romare Bearden. She eventually moved back to Georgia, where she began collecting bricks and other construction-like rocks whose textures reminded her of dilapidated buildings she’d seen in New York and New Jersey, and the falling-apart constructions from her childhood in the South. This rhyming parallel between structures in different geographies was interesting for her. She would cast and re-cast them for molds to make her own textured structures.
PM: Ana Mendieta included three of these works in Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women, an exhibition that she organized at the artists’ cooperative A.I.R. Gallery in 1980. And I think Mendieta’s work could be seen as conceptually aligned with Buchanan’s. But whereas Mendieta’s best-known works, the Siluetas, are momentary impressions made by the artist pressing against the earth, Buchanan’s works are obdurate and communicate memory through casting, an accumulation in volume.
MS: That’s a great connection, and an important show to discuss. Buchanan, like Mendieta in certain ways, is invested in the transference of memory, especially its accumulation and fragmentation through seriality. Buchanan’s project functions against the violence of forgetting. She’s concerned with the legacies of vernacular architecture of the South—meaning, makeshift houses built for shelter with readily available materials. These houses exposed an ingenuity with regard to materials and simple engineering that ensured stable and strong family homes. Even though the homes were never meant to endure for longer than a few years, Buchanan is invested in the hands that built them, and in ensuring that their memory is not lost.
PM: So the casting method could be linked to a collective legacy of itinerant laborers, on one hand, as well as to the artist’s specific individual memory of visiting agricultural sites with her great-uncle. The choice to exhibit Buchanan at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art inflects this personal memory. It suggests that the practice of feminism is shifting away from positions of sameness toward positions of difference.
MS: Yes. But more specifically, Buchanan is trying to honor the labor of African American families in the wake of slavery. So, too, feminist discourse is self-aware and critical of intersectionality.
PM: The canonical minimal discourse largely excludes this specific history, and the early frustula seem to speak out against that omission.
MS: Absolutely. These frustula, which are some of her earliest works from the late 1970s, do call to mind a postminimalist rhetoric, especially considering ways in which minimalism was sort of unraveling, coming undone, by this time.
PM: How do you see these works interacting with or relating to the goals of, say, Donald Judd’s minimalism, which could be defined as “one thing after another”?
MS: They expose an interest in seriality and process, and in balance, as the structures lean on one another. The separate pieces are dependent on the others to stand. They also sit on the floor and are quite small, so they demand the bodily engagement of walking around a piece and bending or stooping to see it. The frustula function as “specific objects” in their attachment to the floor. Buchanan also conceals the artist’s hand, as you think about the casting of the bricks. But they also break with minimalism in their investment in memory. When I was researching this series, I was thinking a lot about Richard Serra and his tensions between planes, Robert Morris and phenomenological engagement, and Robert Smithson’s land works as minimalist currents and interlocutors for Buchanan’s work.
PM: And I think they expose different senses of temporality. Buchanan’s practice here seems to be both working into memory and making sure that the memory is preserved.
MS: And replicated.
PM: Right, almost accumulated, as though ecological time takes over from structural, calendar time.
MS: Exactly. It’s interesting that she wasn’t ever using the original bricks. Instead she was invested in the small gesture of preserving the brick’s textural memory through casts.
PM: Actually, “accretion” is a more precise word for this. In the histories of modernism, Thomas Crow argues, there’s always a tension between the elite, modernist canon, and how it plays and interacts with a more vernacular culture. If we are saying that Buchanan’s interests are vernacular, black, Southern, and American in memory and feeling, her work puts pressure on the canon that we know of as predominantly white, male, and populated by former painters now sculptors.
MS: This pushing against the canon is crucial for Buchanan. Through her experience with formal art education, she came to a project that insists upon the memory of the South. This is present in the work’s formal qualities, not just its contextual premise.
PM: Great. And now, these photographs are images of the frustula?
MS: Right. Most of the series only exists in documentation because some were left at the sites.
PM: And, thinking about this scale, are they all this intimate eighteen-inches-cubed in size, or are there any larger ones?
MS: No, they’re all around this size.
PM: They are too big to be keepsake-size, memento-like, yet they’re not monumental.
MS: I like that. Especially because she’s declaring space for something that would not otherwise have a commemorative monument. It’s also important to understand the layering of memory here: these houses are constructions of Buchanan’s memory, and they implore the viewer to keep these and our own memories alive. There’s something valuable about their model-toy size that forces you to bend down to engage with the details. It forces you to take them in slowly and deliberately.
PM: Right, the scale encourages an alternative kind of engagement than the architectural engagement of, say, Robert Morris. Yet here we see that the cast frustula are installed on a low plinth, which as you say requires one to bend down, crouch, to be at eye level. In this way, the installation demands that we come to the object itself. Can I ask you about your experience in this show as a curator? How do you feel about its installation? We see now that it’s split between three rooms—there’s the cast frustula in the main room with a few video projections of their original sites. Then we have the room of the shack works. Now we have the archives of the artist’s process. How does this facilitate a reading of memento, anti-monument, and memory?
MS: I agree that it feels sharply divided, but I like that division. I also like the postmodern intervention of devoting this room to her archive. Buchanan seemed to have real anxiety about the threat of forgetting, which I think is why she archived so rigorously.
PM: Right, and as you said, we don’t have many of the frustula left because so many of them were site-specific and may have been washed away, buried, or sort of given over—
MS: —to nature. Right, which I think is the intention: to force us to reckon with that which is forgotten, which the artist then supplants with measures against forgetting: archiving and reconstructing those memories.
Molly Superfine is a PhD candidate in Columbia University's Department of Art History and Archaeology.
Piper Marshall is The Exhibitionist's Editor-at-Large.