Howardena Pindell recalls horrific childhood memory in new video “Rope/Fire/Water” showing now at The Shed

The Shed reopened October 16 with a solo exhibition, nearly four years in the making, featuring new work by Howardena Pindell examining the violent, historical trauma of racism in America and the therapeutic power of art. With enhanced health and safety protocols, The Shed will welcome back visitors Thursdays through Sundays, with free admission to the exhibition through October 31.

Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water, organized by Adeze Wilford, Assistant Curator at The Shed, is on view through April 11, 2021 and includes Pindell’s first video work in 25 years, as well as new large-scale paintings and several abstract paintings from earlier in her career.

“When we began speaking with Howardena in 2017, she told us that since the 1970s she has wanted to showcase a difficult memory in the form of a film, but there had been resistance,” said Alex Poots, The Shed’s Artistic Director and CEO. “Now, at this momentous time in America amongst the resounding calls for justice and equality for Black lives, the work will premiere at The Shed where we encourage artists to respond to the urgent issues of our time. We are incredibly honored to have commissioned Howardena to create this work and hope it enables us all to continue necessary conversations during this time.”

Over her nearly 60 -year career, Pindell has created richly textured abstract paintings while engaging with politics and the social issues of her time. The powerful new video Rope/Fire/Water is a work that Pindell has wanted to create since the 1970s, inspired by a traumatic experience in her youth when she saw a shocking image of racial violence.

“As a child, I was visiting a friend whose mother was cooking dinner consisting of cooking meat,” Pindell recalls. “On their living room table they had a recent issue of “Life” magazine. In it there was a picture of an African American man who was lying on his back on a log, who was burning from the inside out. White men surrounded the gruesome scene bubbling over with self-congratulatory smiles seeing what they had done. The smell of the meat cooking made it impossible for me to eat, and I could not eat meat for about a year.”

In the 19 -minute video, Pindell recounts narratives and anthropological and historical data related to lynchings and racist attacks in the United States. Accompanying Pindell’s voiceover are brutal archival photos of lynchings and the Children’s Crusade of nonviolent protests by young people in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. The sound of an unceasing, ticking metronome adds to the ominous atmosphere. A coda lists the names of Black people who died due to police brutality, and the work is dedicated to the late civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis.

Pindell will also debut a pair of large -scale black paintings, companion pieces to Rope/Fire/Water that are related to global atrocities of imperialism and white supremacy.

Columbus (2020) features traced hands attached to the canvas with layers of black paint, with text about Columbus’s interactions with Indigenous people and King Leopold’s imperialistic reign over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The painting is accompanied by gruesomely lifelike silicone hands displayed on the ground.

Four Little Girls (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963) (2019 – 20) explores the destruction of Black prosperity, with burned objects referencing the razing of the Black communities of Tulsa and Rosewood, as well as the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls.

A related work on view, Slavery Memorial: Lash (1998 – 99), features three connected circles about the history of the transatlantic slave trade. A central image of tangled chains is flanked by circles with the names of West African tribal groups and images of masks. A list of African American inventors and their patents is shown on an adjacent screen.

Several abstract paintings also on view demonstrate a through line in Pindell’s practice: after working on traumatic historical projects, the artist decompresses by creating meticulously produced, large -scale abstract works on unstretched canvas. Dating from the mid -1970s to 2020, these works include three new abstract works that expand on the artist’s traditional use of paper hole punches through layers and shapes. Shown in tandem with earlier paintings, the assembled works highlight the evolution of Pindell’s practice from her early forays into large -scale abstraction to the present day.

Ticketing and Visitor Experience Tickets for Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water are $10, available at theshed.org or (646) 455-3494 and must be reserved in advance for timed admission. The exhibition is on view Thursday to Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm.

About Howardena Pindell

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Howardena Pindell studied painting at Boston University and Yale University. She then worked for 12 years at the Museum of Modern Art (1967-79) as an exhibition assistant, an assistant curator in the Department of National and International Traveling Exhibitions, and finally as an associate curator and acting director in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.

In 1979, she began teaching at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she is now a distinguished professor. In her work, Pindell often employs lengthy, metaphorical processes of destruction/reconstruction, addressing social issues of homelessness, AIDS, war, genocide, sexism, xenophobia, and apartheid. Pindell’s work has been featured in many landmark museum exhibitions and is in the permanent collections of major international museums.

Most recently, Pindell’s work was the subject of the retrospective “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen” (2018, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago). 

About The Shed

The Shed is a new cultural institution on Manhattan’s west side bringing together established and emerging artists to create new work in fields ranging from pop to classical music, painting to digital media, theater to literature, and sculpture to dance.

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