Abstractions That ‘Absorb One’s Anguishing’

Installation view of “Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate” showing (left to right) “Reminiscent Of A Time Past” (2022), acrylic and studio debris on tent (photo by E. G. Schempf)

Spirituality tames social realities in ‘Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate’ exhibit at Kemper Museum

Eminent American curator Donna De Salvo once said, “I must emphasize, no matter how obvious it sounds, that good curating depends upon a bottomless passion and curiosity for looking and questioning; and the desire to communicate that excitement.”

For years, Erin Dziedzic, Director of Curatorial Affairs at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, has communicated that excitement by curating/co-curating a series of groundbreaking and unforgettable exhibitions introducing artists from underrepresented populations to Kansas City audiences. From curating Rashid Johnson’s “Hail We Now Sing” to co-curating “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today,” a traveling exhibition of Black female abstract painters, she continues to leave her stamp on Kansas City’s artistic exposure.

Her latest endeavor, “Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate,” which opened March 16, continues that string of groundbreaking and unforgettable exhibitions.

In Sylvester’s “Offering IX” (2022), virulent layers of dripping acrylic red paint speak to ideas of humanity and possibly martyrdom. (Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. gift of private collection, 2022.7. © Reginald Sylvester ii. image courtesy the artist and Maximillian William, London. photo: Daniel Greer)

Sylvester, a North Carolina native who studied graphic design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, takes inspiration “from abstract expressionism, contemporary design, and theological traditions,” according to the Kemper Museum website, where the museum also explains the genesis of these works: “Taking meditative walks around New York City with an open mindset led Sylvester to a green gate . . . which (generated) ideas about passage, Black bodies, radiated green light, and spiritual resonance.”

Sylvester’s aims for his work are about healing and succor. “I want people to be able to bury their suffering and their pain and their anxiety within these works,” Sylvester said in an interview with Forbes magazine. “And the person who’s seeing the painting is charging the work, that person walks out of the space feeling lighter, almost like a therapy session, you let out all these feelings, you walk out of that space feeling like my shoulders feel lighter. That’s what these works are meant for, these works are supposed to absorb one’s anguishing.”

His artworks, which include drawing and sculpture, accomplish this, not just through the aesthetic presentation, but also through the materials he has chosen to use.

“Reminiscent Of A Time Past,” an 82” x 60” diptych from 2022, consists of acrylic and studio debris on tent shell halves. The presence of military-ish green and visible tent seams dominate the conversation it presents.
The child of a Marine, the artist says that tent halves were a staple of his upbringing. The right panel is mostly flat while the left is full abstraction, including dabs, splatters and intersecting broad strokes. Like spirituality, the Black experience and life itself, “Reminiscent Of A Time Past” successfully combines form and formlessness, clarity and confusion, strength and vulnerability. A riveting image, this work is simultaneously in conversation and in combat with itself. It fulfills the artist’s purpose and absorbs one’s anguishing.

Sylvester, who has been exhibiting since 2015, began with figuration which focused on the Black body and, like many Black artists, has evolved into dynamic abstraction. Along the way, he has exhibited internationally including stops in New York, Tokyo, Miami and London. His works are in multiple institutional collections, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, North Carolina Museum of Art, Pérez Art Museum and Ackland Art Museum. Grammy-winning power couple Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys are also collectors of his work.

Joining other works in the canon of Black American art, there is a deep-seated spirituality that shines through Sylvester’s expressions. According to the website of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the artist exhibited earlier this year, “Questioning his position as an artist in a time of moral crises, Sylvester seeks to integrate his personal politics within his art practice to create work which is rooted in social realities and guided by his spirituality.”

Installation view of “Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate” showing (left to right) “Offering G.G.04,” “Offering G.G.03” and “Boat Forms” in the Barbara and Paul Uhlmann Gallery at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (photo by E. G. Schempf)

In “Offering GG.02,” the artist uses acrylic over a half of a drab shelter (tent) attached to wood. Like “Reminiscent Of A Time Past,” it is a larger work at 82 x 70.” There is a distinct feel of military life to this work, calling to mind the psychological experiences of soldiers finding respite in tents while war rages around them. The drawstrings, seams and sparse splatters of paint evoke thoughts of the unforgiving harshness of the war experience and the somewhat feeble protection that tents provide to those caught up in it. Biblical narratives also often compare the spiritual walk to warfare, with battles, scars and even casualties. The Black American musical and literary narrative, from Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison, blues to hip-hop, often alludes to this. While this may not have been the artist’s intent, this work does seem to speak to this idea.

“Sylvester’s seeking through abstraction is rooted in social realities as well as spiritual practice,” according to the artist’s website. In “Offering IX,” the artist presents a work with deeply spiritual overtones. Consisting of a tarp with concave top-and-bottom edges attached to a wooden frame, its surface of virulent layers of dripping acrylic red paint speak to ideas of humanity and possibly martyrdom. The concave top and bottom expose a centered vertical stretcher bar underneath, possibly alluding to a cross . . . a symbol of the artist’s faith.

This is not an exhibition to comprehend in a walk through. It requires patrons to sit, reflect and absorb.

Just as Andy Reid continues to coach Super Bowl winning teams, Erin Dziedzic continues to curate memorable exhibitions bringing cutting-edge artistic talent to Kansas City.

“Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate” is truly one not to be missed.

“Reginald Sylvester II: Green Gate” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through June 24. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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