ON MEANING: Recognizing Humanity

On Meaning: Recognizing Humanity

Above: portrait by Detroit printmaker Eno Laget.

I've asked this before, but what pulls you into a photo, a sculpture, or a painting? Color? Line? Form? Symbolism? I'm drawn to balance of form, line, and color. But when I look at art, I often want to go further beyond those elements to know about the journeys that delivered the end result that I'm looking at, the evolution of the work as the artist took it on, and the epiphanies of its maker. 

There's a seasonal interview series that's featured in this newsletter where I chat with Detroit area artists, like Alana Carlson (winter/spring) and Ron Rodriguez (summer), who've created compelling work full of both metaphor and meaning. You can find those conversations archived at the bottom of the home page of arthausdetroit.com. Meanwhile, this week, we're pulling up to the fall interview.

Above: crop of portrait by printmaker Eno Laget.

In the maker series that I have chosen to call On Meaning, I focus on pieces that you can't just take at face value. Taking the work above on face value, I'd say that I see a portrait of an old or older woman of color that was maybe rendered with white paint and a brush or...maybe white enamel marker on what's definitely a noisy and wordy background. Overall, a cool portrait illustration with edgy white strokes on a multicolor field. Done. And that would be the beginning and the end of it.

But if I wanted to really give the painting the time of day, the questions that would come to mind would be, "Why her? Is this about the painting technique or the subject? Who isthis and why is she featured in this painting? And is this like a Kehinde Wiley where the subject is [to be seen as] an anyman...anywoman? Or is this someone I don't recognize but should already know?"

There's a lot going on here texturally, and I don't imagine it's all arbitrary to the artist, orto be arbitrary to us. So, I asked the artist.

AD: Eno, what would you say to the question? Who is this? Is there a simple answer, or something more complicated?

EL: It's probably a little bit lengthy.

AD: Okay.

EL: I guess it comes down to...certain people who are interested in history, particularly Detroit history as it relates to social issues and civil rights, they may immediately recognize who she is, and either they have a regard or an appreciation for who she was and what she did over her long life and career in Detroit...or not. So, doing a portrait of her...either you will engage with her, not knowing who she is, just based on the look in her eye and just what her countenance is in that portrait.

It was interesting, when Austen Brantley [saw it, he] engaged with it immediately -- this sculptor...from Detroit -- he found her hands, for the way they were positioned and the way they were drawn, to be very expressive. And what he saw in the face, and the fact that her mouth was open, it was like she was in the process of communicating. So it's like more than a portrait. It was more like a communication going on.

In, like, a standard portrait, usually the person's mouth isn't open like they're talking. It's more like a kind of epic pose, and that's not what this is. It's more...almost like capturing a moment.

AD: A moment in or of what?

EL: A moment of her communicating her sense of priority and reality, and what's important. She made her living, her life, about words. So words...it looks like they were coming out of her mouth.

AD: You mentioned the look she seems to be giving in this portrait. Think about that, so that when we come back, you can tell us what you interpret that look to mean.


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