Hessel Museum of Art, March 24 – May 26, 2013

Artists: Willie Birch and Liam Gillick

By pairing Willie Birch’s three works on paper and a set of papier-mâché sculptures from the New Orleans based artist’s 7th Ward Series alongside conceptual and text-based artwork by Liam Gillick, the curator draws on formal differences to point towards related conceptual attitudes about history and materiality. The three practices in the exhibition, two artistic and one curatorial, represent three modes of creative production as well as different generational ideas on working in the cultural sphere. Across generations these practices share a common investment in exposing or documenting the often-overlooked material traces of socioeconomic and cultural histories as they manifest within the lived environment.

Birch’s visual style, a form of conceptual Southern Vernacular painting, is a syncretic blend of representation and abstraction that utilizes African diasporic retentions – cultural traits that have persisted across history –  to create a record of the past’s symbolic traces on the present, in order to preserve them for the future. Gillick similarly extends backwards to look forwards, contemplating the time just before something begins or just after it has finished as a place of possibility. The notion of vernacular – a form of everyday parlance specific to a social group or region – manifests in his work through a graphic and discursive style developed in the context of globalized art production. In his work formal and textual elements are interdependent, expanding his engagement with abstraction and the built environment. By bringing the artworks of Birch and Gillick together, the curator hopes to bridge a gap between local and global discourses about production and materiality to emphasize the importance of memory and locale and to create a simultaneous complication and interpretation of each by the other. 

Curated by Robin Wallis Atkinson

Artist Biographies

Willie Birch was born in New Orleans in 1942. He received a BA from Southern University in New Orleans in 1969 and an MFA in Art Education from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 1973. After a brief incursion into abstraction, he began a long and honest search for his own personal voice, studying Western Art, African philosophy, the music of jazz and the legacy of African American artists. This search has lead him back to his own roots in New Orleans, its complex heritage and culture, and to the rich tradition of narrative.

In 1975 Birch moved to New York and began to develop the characteristic style for which he is most known; a breaking down of formal training to create deceptively simple flat narrative surfaces that draw as much from ‘primitive’ and folk styles as from the Western canon. Birch received his first National Endowments of the Arts Fellowship in 1984 (as well as a second in 1990), which he used to make his first trip to Africa to visit Egypt. After his second trip to Africa in the early nineties Birch received a Guggenheim Fellowship that he used to return to New Orleans to document his home environment. He has become immersed and deeply invested in the community, particularly of the Seventh Ward neighborhood, where he continues to live and work. Birch’s artwork is imbued with powerful political, sociological and spiritual meaning that addresses class issues in American culture. Active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Birch has continually demonstrated the potential for art to provoke social change, often seeking to blur the boundaries between art and life. His most recent works blend Southern Vernacular visual styles and African diasporic retentions with modern abstraction to depict the complex urban fabric of the New Orleans Seventh Ward.

In 2005 Birch received a fellowship from the CUE Art Foundation to produce large-scale grisaille works on paper that were later shown at Luise Ross Gallery in 2006. Apart from the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships and the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993, he has received numerous awards and fellowships including the Mayor’s Arts Award in New Orleans in 2002, the Governor’s Award, State of Louisiana; a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2006 and the Benjamin Altman Prize for the National Academy of Design in 2008. 

The artwork of Willie Birch can be found in museum collections as well as public and private collections across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A retrospective of his work, Celebrating Freedom: The Art of Willie Birch travelled the United States in 2006. Recent exhibitions include The Chemistry of Color, Contemporary African-American Artists at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, SC and the Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Liam Gillick (born 1964, Aylesbury, U.K.) is an artist based in New York. Solo exhibitions include The Wood Way, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2002; A short text on the possibility of creating an economy of equivalence, Palais de Tokyo, 2005 and the retrospective project Three Perspectives and a short scenario, Witte de With, Rotterdam, Kunsthalle Zürich, Kunstverein München and the MCA, Chicago, 2008-2010. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2002 and the Vincent Award at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2008. Many public commissions and projects include the Home Office in London (2005) and the Dynamica Building in Guadalajara, Mexico (2009). In 2006 he was a central figure in the free art school project unitednationsplaza in Berlin that traveled to Mexico City and New York.

Liam Gillick has published a number of texts that function in parallel to his artwork. Proxemics (Selected writing 1988-2006) JRP-Ringier was published in 2007 alongside the monograph Factories in the Snow by Lilian Haberer, JRP-Ringier. A critical reader titled Meaning Liam Gillick, was published by MIT Press (2009). An anthology of his artistic writing titled Allbooks was also published by Book Works, London (2009). In addition he has contributed to many art magazines and journals including Parkett, Frieze, Art Monthly, October, and Artforum. Liam Gillick was selected to represent Germany for the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. The resulting work is in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Bilbao. A major exhibition opened at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in April 2010. In 2012 a survey of work from the 1990s titled Liam Gillick: From 199A to 199B opened at the CCS Bard Hessel Museum. Liam Gillick has taught at Columbia University in New York since 1997 and the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College since 2008. Public collections include: Government Art Collection, UK; Arts Council, UK; Tate, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Curated by Robin Wallis Atkinson


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