The Phillips Collects: Desmond Beach

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Desmond Beach, whose work #SayTheirNames2 has recently been acquired by the museum. 

Desmond Beach, #SayTheirNames 2, Fabric and paper, Courtesy of the artist

Desmond Beach puts the past and present in conversation with each other, giving context to the times we live in through his collage series #SayTheirNames. “I often call myself an intercessor. I move between time and space, whether it’s the past or present or into the future,” said Beach.

He uses old newspapers, photos of enslaved people, and his own photographs to layer his collages, creating depth on top of the patterned fabric in the background. From afar, one might only see the silhouette of a man in #SayTheirNames 2, which was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection. But as you get closer, it becomes nearly impossible to determine how many black-and-white photos are layered into the central silhouette surrounded by a seemingly repeating image in a halo-like circle around the figure’s head.

Desmond Beach, Courtesy of the artist

Beach smiles as he says, “No pun intended, but it’s really layered, and I think that’s what it’s really about when I am trying to speak about history and present time. Collage, for me, allows for the physical layering and conceptual layering as well.”

As he dives into the past, he often finds himself combing through archives at places like the Library of Congress in unassuming rooms where it’s just him and stacks of images and materials to source from. “You go in and just start pulling through images, and for some reason that act feels like me connecting to the past. Like it gives me some threshold or entrance into the past that I wouldn’t have if I just started searching on the internet for images,” Beach says.

As he sifts through the archives he begins to imagine the setting and context behind a photo, asking himself—What might it have been like that day? What did it smell like? What were people saying? What was going on just outside of the shot of the photo? It’s these questions that connect his taking photos at Black Lives Matter protests to his mining images in the archives. The events aren’t only bridged, but the livelihoods of the subject are. What Black folks struggle for today is not something they struggle for alone, but something a seemingly never-ending lineage of people from the African continent have struggled for.

When asked about the emotional labor required to go through so many archives while also living in a media age where we’re bombarded by images of police brutality and Black suffering, Beach mentioned that sometimes he needs to turn off the news and unplug. But what really carries him through is knowing he’s not alone and being in a position to turn the pain into something beautiful.

From inside the artist’s new studio space in New York, Courtesy of the artist

“When I’m in my space working it feels like I’m not alone. I feel like they (the ancestors) are with me, like they’re right there behind me,” says Beach. “I feel like I was called to do it—to look at that pain, to tell it, and then to try to find a way to bring healing with it.”

This is a lesson Beach gleaned not only from the older ancestors, but the newer ones, too, as he reflects on the crucial role his maternal grandmother played in his upbringing in Baltimore, in a household where civil rights were constantly a topic of discussion. “My mother’s mother really instilled the idea of faith in us, and having this sense of—there’s something higher than you. I think about her everyday when I’m in the studio. I think that’s where my whole connection to the ancestors and my faith comes from, and all of that is why I try to be so intentional.”

While the traumas of the past run through the veins of our society, sometimes even in our own bodies, this trauma also offers an opportunity for collective healing. But in order to begin to heal, we’ve got “to bring voice to the pain,” as Beach says.

Daniel Canogar’s Painterly Computing

2020-21 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Ariana Kaye on Daniel Canogar’s Digital Intersections project, Amalgama Phillips.

Daniel Canogar uses digital technology as his artistic medium. According to Canogar, the evolution of technology has left an enormous amount of waste in its wake. He sees himself as an archeologist and as such he goes to recycling centers, junkyards, and even dumpster dives in order to collect old pieces of technology like VHS tapes and Gameboys. Canogar brings them back to life mostly through digital projections. We don’t usually think of objects like VHS tapes as objects that are alive, but they carry personal and collective memories. These pieces of technology are their own vanitas, symbols of the ephemerality of time.

Daniel Canogar’s Amalgama Phillips. Photo: Studio Daniel Canogar

Amalgama Phillips is the second Digital Intersections project curated by Vesela Sretenovic. It was created in celebration of the Phillips’s centennial year. It debuted as a livestream on YouTube, and is now also being projected in The Phillips Collection’s Goh Annex stairwell and also at Phillips@THEARC.

The work, as the title Amalgama suggests, is an amalgamation of 550 artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. The artwork is displayed in a “liquid” state. We experience the work in a viscous state, yet we are reminded of the traditional form of paint on canvas. Despite the digital nature of Canogar’s artwork, he is still very much invested in the painterly qualities of art and cites his major inspirations as Mark Rothko and figures from the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Jackson Pollock. The digital projection of art in a liquid state lights a torch to the future and new forms of art assisted by the endless innovations of technology. Technology will enable artists to create in ways that we do not yet perceive.

Daniel Canogar’s Amalgama Phillips. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The work does not have an obvious beginning nor end. Instead, it constantly adapts itself according to an algorithm that randomizes the paintings that we see. Canogar is greatly inspired by the work of Zygmunt Bauman and his book Liquid Modernity (1999). The book discusses the liquid state of modernity in which our sense of time and geographical boundaries are liquidated because of our ability to communicate with people across the globe. We are able to shop by going to a large mall or shop online where everything is available in one place and have things delivered to us very quickly—in a liquid fashion.

Today, many people look at art exclusively online and do not visit art museums. This was true before the pandemic but the trend has risen due to the pandemic. When thinking about the future of the nature of human interaction with art, I wonder how online viewership influences artists when they are making art? How does looking at art online change our perception of art and our experience with it? Now, art may become a visual artifact that we can look at online which flows and circulates. Amalgama Phillips represents the development of a new artistic aesthetic, the integration of a human painterly experience and machine life created by algorithms on a computer.

How Nekisha Durrett’s Airshaft turns the everyday sacred

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about her centennial commission, Airshaft. 

Nekisha Durrett stands in front of her centennial commission installation Airshaft

“Whenever I come to The Phillips Collection, I think about the first time I came here,” said Nekisha Durrett as she walked me through her initial proposal for her centennial commission Airshaft.

The immersive installation converts the two bridges joining the Goh Annex and the original Phillips House into a sacred place as light floods through the large windows, changing to different colors as they pass through the colored film giving the effect of stained glass in patterned geometric shapes lining the nearly floor to ceiling windows.

In high school, one of Durrett’s dear friends invited her to tag along after school to an event at the Phillips. Without knowing the details, Durrett agreed. As she walks through the front door, an older gentleman greeted the then teenagers. She shook his hand. The event was a book signing for Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration catalogue. She had learned about Jacob Lawrence in school, and shook his hand.

“When I came to visit all of the proposed sites for the centennial commissions, that memory was always running through my mind,” Durrett said. “Every time I come to the Phillips, I think about this. So I was like, why not make this central to the piece? You know, why not create a piece that springs from that memory?”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel 31: The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north., 1940-41, Casein tempura on hardboard, 12 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Jacob Lawrence’s Panel 31 in The Migration Series inspired the designs on the windows. His work depicts the outside of a Harlem tenement where so many Black newcomers from the South settled into their new lives. The airshafts in these buildings captured all the most intimate and mundanely routine moments of life. Smells and sounds permeated through the vents and the building, transporting intimate moments in the households as whispers for others to catch. The tenements were full of life and the airshafts captured that life.

“I think all your life people tell you what’s supposed to be sacred,” Durrett shared as she considered the sacrality of the bridges. The stained glass effect her work has is reminiscent of what some of us are accustomed to seeing on the windows of churches and cathedrals. But it’s not the sacredness of religion that Durrett is concerned with. She is concerned with the sacredness of those tenements and the lives we live. “To make something sacred in this regard is sort of this revolutionary act where you’re saying, no, I’m sacred. I create my sacred space. My people, my family, the space that we build together is also sacred. Everyday life is sacred,” said Durrett. Just like the everyday lives celebrated in Lawrence’s work.

Nekisha Durrett, Airshaft, 2021