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‘Forgotten Territory’ 

We are now so saturated, so exhausted, by visual media, that it is hard for an artist to convey her meaning through the image alone. This is why using text in painting is such a common strategy and it is a good one to use to navigate connections between ideas. 
If the artist wants an ambiguous narrative, she might sometimes allow us to make out some of the words in the chosen text, hiding others, or parts of others, making us do some of the work in deciphering so as to create a connection between the artist and ourselves, drawing us in. This is James’ decision in these thoughtful works. 
The seven large (60” x 45”) works take as their background textual component, a photo silk screen with white lettering of the same runaway slave newspaper advertisement, which is reprinted, sometimes overlapping, always difficult to decipher as it hides behind painted forms. Her palette is limited to ochres and umbers, so there is a somber range of colors from white through to dark brown. 
She also has chosen a limited number of stylized forms, the exact meaning of which excites the viewer to wonder: are the floating cloud-like shapes in fact cottonballs? Then the delicate flower outline might be the flower of the cotton plant. 
And is the elegant scrollwork a reference to the kind of wrought-iron fencing and gates we are used to seeing at cemeteries?
There are five smaller works (9” x 9”) in the show. They are on wood, using collaged copies of the same backing text with similar images and shapes painted in acrylic, and then the whole thing is encased in a thick resin which is itself set into a black wooden box.
Number 1, “Gabriel’s Sweet Revenge”(2006), is the beginning of the tale. Searching the hidden text, we can just make out a few important clues – his name, Gabriel; his age, 20 years old; the fact that he is a runaway slave and that the reward offered for his return is $50; the year is 1860. As a matter of fact, an earlier Gabriel had been the leader of one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history and was hung in Richmond, Virginia on October 10, 1800. And here it is 1860 and another Gabriel has run away. The original readers of this advert did not know what we know: the Civil War is just beginning; this young Gabriel may remain free. James has added his otherwise anonymous suffering to our historical consciousness. In Number 11 of the series, entitled “No News is Good News” (2006), James has used the mast head of the Virginia Argus as backdrop. There are no ads for runaway slaves here – no “news” - and the images superimposed on the print are painted in heavier texture than before, have evolved, and are no longer elegant and defined, but raw and uninhibited. But nothing is decided. We feel we are still involved in this change. 
James’ project - her technique matching her subject matter - concerns the subsumed and excavated history of the African American presence in this country, a project which concerns every American now alive. Just as Ellis Island is recognized as the point of arrival for many North American’s European ancestors, so then Shockoe Bottom, the area in Richmond, Va., which is the point through which many American’s African ancestors have passed is also a sacred place. At this moment, that area is being sought for development by the Richmond Braves and the Global Development Corporation as a baseball stadium. 
If the viewer had been confronted by merely an idealized portrait of an African American entitled, Gabriel, she would never have been drawn into this path of inquiry and would not have been encouraged to ask important questions. That is what makes this work a serious example of contemporary art in the modernist tradition in which the viewer is fully engaged, is almost an accomplice, necessary to complete the work, and is changed thereby. 
 
‘Forgotten Territory’ by Monica Lynn is at the Pinnacle Gallery, 320 E. Liberty St., through the end of the month
 
 
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Bertha Husband

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Connect Today 12.09.2016

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