1987–2021 – The Brooklyn Railroad
Fort Gansevoort Gallery
March 3 to May 21, 2022
Willie Birch exhibited his work in New York for the first time since 2000 at the Fort Gansevoort Gallery located in the Meatpacking District. Originally from New Orleans, Birch is no stranger to New York. Apart Shattered dreams (tattered white fence) (2020–21), the exhibition focuses on Birch’s New York period (1983–1997). Three stories of this historic Greek Revival townhouse (built in 1849) light up with Birch’s probing practice that deploys four styles: painted papier-mâché sculpture, clothing reliefs, works on paper with paint and text in bold, and narrative watercolors with ornate frames highlighting scenes from African-American life.
On the ground floor are two papier-mâché houses: Lotto dreams (1995) is an allegorical house, open like a doll’s house, while Former Matthews Murkland Presbyterian Church (1996) is a place of worship. New Orleans celebrates carnival with papier-mâché masks and floats, a lightweight and ingenious medium also often used in theater scenography; Birch uses it here to a similar effect. The sight of lotto dreams, a building balanced vertically above a man’s head, is fantastical, absurd and humorous. Her thoughts are lodged like a hat, obscuring her face and the dark word “Reality” painted on the back of her neck. Moving around the sculpture, one observes a bedroom interior and a couple making love on a mattress. Another facade features a couple in stereotypical tourist attire traveling and at the beach, while another shows people queuing to buy lottery tickets outside a booth. Different levels for different achievements hint at the hope and luck that victory might offer. The church is closed to the exterior, its western exterior architecture adorned with broken glass and seashells as nkisi charms, painted copper bells to call the descendants, and hammered rusty nails, reminiscent of the Congolese nkondi figures, all pointing to the African spirits inhabiting this building. In Search of Warriors (for David Diskell) (1996), a shirt also invoking nkisi charms, includes a chest cavity for protection, symbolic of the person’s spirit. Death is part of a passage from the material to the immaterial; here it is celebrated in this relief work.
Two works painted on paper of different styles deal with armed violence: Remington 1840 ball and cap (1993) with fragmented text making historical references, and framed figurative work Ritual of inevitable violence (1989) depicting a group of boys playing with guns in an urban courtyard, the painted frame decorated with symbols of skeletons and skulls. A prayer for Latin America (1987) extends the artist’s empathy to other communities suffering loss and death through violence. Birch is comfortable with the honesty and sincerity found in the styles of self-taught artists, while also acting as a documentarian within his community. Text is present in this exhibition in both painting and sculpture, key names and phrases telling real-life stories as if they were scrolling through television or radio channels, as in Tower Terror (1993–94).
As we go up to the second floor, we are confronted with Cherokee (Indian nation) (1994), a large textual painting on totemic and textured paper where words reveal the close ties between African Americans and Indigenous Nations, both oppressed by the American social system. There is a compassion felt for the hardships endured by minority communities in the text Korean women (we are American) (1994). The colors are bright green, red, yellow, black, fresh from the paint tube and urgent, and his words, written in a mix of block letters, block letters, cursive, highlights and handwriting, reflect spontaneity and the freedom of arrangement, an approach close to jazz rhythms referring to Birch’s deep roots in the music of New Orleans. The box Johnny is on the evening news (1988) features a moment of spectacle with gun violence, death and police in New York and the grief expressed by passers-by on the sidewalk, a scene still common today, brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movements. The images of pills, syringes and skulls on the handmade frame in addition to the small white face on the TV screen tell a story of terror and loss in African American communities. the last farewell (1988) depicts a funeral in a Christian church in Brooklyn, the front row dressed in white in the Yoruba tradition. An African presence is accentuated by the charcoal black frame bejeweled with African carving profiles. JO (guilty or not guilty) (1996), a white-collared papier-mâché suit, symbol of the American working man with a bright red tie, is dotted with raised vertical letters spelling out “Guilty”, “DNA”, “Not Guilty” and “Race” among others keywords that have American mass culture obsessed with this lawsuit. Eyes with irises of different colors look at us.
On the third floor of the building, we come across a life-size papier-mâché floor sculpture, bird catcher (1991) and three busts. The bright orange of the pigeon’s feet contrasts sharply with the gray of the city’s littered sidewalk, its plinth includes a time-lapse frieze of buildings, clouds, taxis and children. The birdcage reliefs are ancient Egyptian style paintings of bird catchers evoking the ancient cultures of Africa and the freedom of a bird in flight. The bird-catching boy wears a chest cavity of personal charms; the whole scene is a cycle of life as the boy pursues his ambitions in ornithology proudly wearing an Audubon t-shirt, but also death, as a bird trapped in a cage conveys restrained freedom. The scale of this polychrome sculpture commemorates a moment of urban childhood just as the busts commemorate ordinary people with The couple (1993–94) and Woman with ruby red lips and dreadlocks (1990–2003). Classical Greek painted sculpture and gemstone busts are reminiscent of the European tradition. Birch, however, uses fragile yet strong papier-mâché to celebrate the African-American man and woman, bringing these glorified portraits of ruby-red lips, dreadlocks, and brownish-black skin to life. boy with kite (1987), hung near the sculptures, has its title written in raised letters on the stretcher. Helicopter surveillance can be seen from afar setting a somber tone to this ramshackle spot where a boy finds joy in flying a kite, commemorating this ordinary example as a moment of freedom as the artist filled with obsessively every red brick of distant buildings.
The works on textured paper and the painted texts in this room speak loudly, with a laughing open mouth in Dark humor (1994), drawing attention to the names Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Cosby, comedy icons, and separately, inclusive text in Violence is more important today (than it was in the 40s, 50s and 60s) (1994) with “progressive white person” and “Sally” in the center, a white woman talking on the phone. These works have wavy surfaces, catchy words and refer to difficult topics in American culture such as ‘diversity’ – what did it mean then and how has it evolved today? today? Sweet honey in the rock (1987-1989) is a framed and colorful narrative work: the words of civil rights activist Ella Baker are written in the background as an a cappella women’s group at Carnegie Hall is enjoyed by an audience whose backs are n is visible only to us. A moment of comfort, hope and unity, an urgency different from the violence evoked in other works. In the same pictorial style, we witness a routine domestic moment, a woman at home watching the news in Track Iran Contra audiences (1987). Both works connect to reality and everyday moments of black experience.
In his village, a griot tells stories to his people. Birch has always been the storyteller, recording the life he sees within his community through these handmade objects of various original styles unique to his eye and hand. Listen to these chronicles.