“Nari Ward: Breathing Directions” uses cryptic copper charts to bring the viewer bodily into an entanglement with history. The main room of Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street gallery features three large cooper sheets with mottled surfaces at the far end, in front of which you encounter what appears to be another large copper sheet, flat and more clearly patterned than the others. In fact, this installation by Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward, entitled Ground (In Progress), consists of some hundred-odd bricks wrapped in copper sheeting that has been oxidized to different degrees to create patterns. Every day a different household item is laid on top and visitors are invited to walk on it to activate the space. It’s a subtly rickety, crinkly experience, and it changes my understanding of the panels hanging on the walls.
These vertical pieces, called “breathing panels,” are made of oak wood covered in a copper sheet, punctured with copper nails, and treated with a darkening patina. While you literally stand on Ground, you can discern the trace of footsteps in the work opposite, Breathing Panel: Oriented Center, where shoe imprints tend to hover around the mid-center, high diamond constellation of holes and raised nailheads. The artist applied a darkening agent to the bottom of his shoes and walked across the works to create their differing levels of oxidation. Footprints bring physical presence into the work, implicating our physical presence as well as the artist’s. Walking on the patterned bricks underscores how the wall works are not representational like a traditional photograph or formal exercises like an Abstract Expressionist painting. Rather, they create meaning through their materiality which invokes the body and particular historical circumstances.
In these works, Ward represents a facet of the Underground Railroad made known to him during a visit to a church in the South. At the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, one can still find breathing holes in the floorboards. They were created to help escaping slaves hide underneath while on their journey north. The pattern of the holes refers to Congolese cosmograms, designs that Ward also saw in the church. To me, they also suggest constellations by which one can navigate. Ward refers specifically to navigation symbols in Ground, where the patterns are derived from instructive codes used in quilts that communicated directions north. Breathing holes, defunct secret symbols, and footprints signify a specific type of illicit migration, turned here into personal invitations to connect oneself bodily to that distant history, to hear the bated breath of a darkened room of waiting bodies, to search the sky and household tokens for direction.
“Nari Ward: Breathing Directions” is on view at Lehmann Maupin through November 1. A performance organized by the artist will take place in the gallery October 4, 2015 at 3PM.