Thursday, November 4, 2010

Usable Pasts: Mequitta Ahuja, Lauren Kelly and Valerie Piraino, Artists-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009–2010

In Usable Pasts, —a phrase borrowed from early twentieth-century literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, to charge American writers and artists with the task of creating an American self-consciousness replete with its own national aesthetics— three artists excavate presumed pasts in varied ways before re-contextualizing their findings within their own present. The resulting works (all from 2010) are neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but fraught with these references to days past, establish a sense of both a shared history and an individual self-reflection.

Mequitta Ahuja’s Dream Sequence series is comprised of sparkling, lacquered self-portraits of the artist as a mythical figure carrying serpents, birds’ nests and meteorites. Ahuja terms these portraits as auto-mythography, employing shimmering, modern-day materials discordant with the figural forms reminiscent of those found in ancient art. In depicting herself within this fantastical dream atmosphere, Ahuja carves out a niche somewhere between the past and the present in a composite of fictionalized cave art and contemporary self-portrait.

Lauren Kelley builds elaborate sets in which dolls haltingly enact fictitious episodes in 1970s era African-American culture. The stop-motion, animated “flashbacks” depict inner monologues of nonchalant near-death experiences (Upside), and overheard dialogues of muted, latent discrimination (Prototypical Oppression/Obsession). Drawing from the more distant past, Wild Seed portrays dinosaurs moving in staccato across a garden while a calm, soothing male voice melodically recites phrases in French. The English subtitles provided by the artist do not correspond to the articulated French words. The text, “my lush horizon was rotting,” in conjunction with the simultaneously spoken, “et il fait rouge dans mon coeur” indicates a discrepancy that inconspicuously presents the potential for inaccuracies in a verbal history.

Valerie Piraino uses photographs from her family’s archive to compose minimal arrangements with a historical sensibility. In With Pen in Hand, un-filled wooden picture frames are arranged on a wall, while sideways projections of photographed street scenes, landscapes, and homecomings flash over and between the empty brown rectangles. The rotated images, instead of neatly filling the bordered space of the mounted frames, canvas across the array of cadres, and hauntingly span the wall without regard to any perimeters, highlighting the distortion and inaccuracy of memory and its inability to be orderly and compartmentalized.

Tinged with snippets of years gone by, the works in Usable Pasts appropriate fleeting, fictional memories that convincingly serve to simultaneously accentuate both a shared and singular past, invoking collective remembrances of separately experienced, but visually similar, events.


  1. This post insightfully evaluates each artist’s work while also connecting each to the overall theme of the show. It is an excellent point that, though the pieces explore the past in relation to the present, they “are neither nostalgic nor sentimental.” I am intrigued that the subtitles in the Kelley piece don’t match up with the actual dialogue. I’m curious to know if this is intentional (I assume it must be) and whether the artist acknowledges it. I agree that this shows how an inaccurate history can easily pass unnoticed. It also serves to articulate our faith in such translations, transcripts, etc.

  2. Your piece is very neat and organized. Your writing is clear and concise. It is easy to read and easy to follow. You provide vivid description of the pieces. My one criticism is that you don’t leave enough space to talk about how successful the work is and if it adheres to the premise of the show, and if that premise is worthwhile in the first place. Your opening paragraph, the best part of the piece, focuses on what the show was meant to convey and could give more attention to the actual success of the show. You could expound on the last sentence of the first paragraph.