“Uncanny Interiors,” a group exhibition at Nicola Vassell, tackles a genre essential to the evolution of Western painting and the contemporary self. Despite its “traditional” subject matter, the show foregrounds a critical voice: that of Black individuals, for whom the issue of space and interiority has not only been central, but whose avant-gardism in destabilizing space as form is the unsung bedrock of modernism. Taking cues from bell hooks’s 1990 essay “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance,” his presentation reveals homemaking as an act of color, shape, sound, feeling, and ultimately beauty, in spite of the wariness and violence that infringes upon its labor.
While known for creating scenes of hypervisible Black bodies, Kerry James Marshall’s untitled 1998 drawing—featuring an arrangement of flowers in a vase on a Minimalist coffee table, behind which a single hand rests firmly on a couch cushion—reveals the crux of his practice to be a predilection for domestic realms and their relationship to the body. Paul Anthony Smith’s painting Signs of the Times, 2020, depicts a woman seated on a gray wood-trimmed couch clutching herself, tensed in a state of exhaustion and anxiety. Abstracted fields of color serve as the walls and floor of her living room, which simultaneously constrict, define, and expand her surroundings. The dialectics of pressure presented here foreground the complex ambiguity of “home,” a site of conflicting states and desires. Danielle McKinney’s acrylic-on-canvas Moth, 2022, explores intimacy, interiority, and the gaze by casting a nude figure in sumptuous shadow. Between their rouged lips is a lit Marlboro. The smoke gently dissipates into the room’s yellow, brown, and black hues, almost like the model, who remains elusive and mysterious despite our close (and likely unwelcome) scrutiny.
Works by Henri Matisse and David Hockney highlight the former’s Fauvist sense of color and rejection of realist mimetics, as well as the latter’s celebrated succession to such modernist renderings of life. We are, however, reminded that Matisse’s formal innovations, which Hockney utilized and expanded upon, were the result of the immense influence of Black aesthetics. “Uncanny Interiors” opens the door to various types of insides—physical, psychic, spiritual—which stir as places that exist at the nexus between cultural restoration and reimagination.