Set It Off: A stunning new exhibition at the Parrish

Something extraordinary is happening at the Parrish Art Museum. Even the East End’s revered natural light seems to be in on it.

Streaming through a window in the museum’s central gallery on a Thursday morning at Water Mill, the light – that magical light that has drawn so many artists (and non-artists) to the east – casts a piercing glow on an already shiny, newly-installed sculpture by Kennedy Yanko entitled “In the Whole World Together” – as if to say “Look what we have here”.

Yanko’s dramatic pieces feature crushed aluminum and undulating paint skin that oozes sensuality; they literally make you want to break all the gallery rules and touch what looks like poured liquid gold. Or cool teal.

Around the corner, in another gallery, a series of haunting portraits by February James stare at you, catching your attention and interpretation.

The pieces are among more than 50 captivating works (paintings, sculptures and installations) by a roster of international female artists – Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Karyn Olivier and Kennedy Yanko – in the new exhibition Disable itcurated especially for the Parrish Art Museum by Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, collectively known as Two Black Womenand is currently taking place at the Parrish until July 24.

Kennedy Yanko – “Untitled” (2022)Jon Jenkins, courtesy of the artist

“The possibility of having these six incredible women in a space like the Parrish – the architecture here, the light, the location, the time of year, which means how many eyes will be fixed on their practice – it’s really important and I think it will attract a wider audience to their work,” says Chevremont, a sought-after art consultant, advisor and collector who, along with Thomas, a multidisciplinary and innovative artist (she recently launched her world exhibition critically acclaimed), form Two Black Women.

The two have worked in tandem (this is their third curatorial project) to launch careers and give artists a serious platform – especially women of color.

“Every artist on this show has major projects that are about to drop, simultaneously when this show is up,” Thomas points out.

The fact that we feel the need to point out that this exhibition is curated by two women of color and features six artists, all women and all women of color, reminds us of the obvious – the art world is “always ( a) masculine, white dominated”, arena, confirms Chevremont.

It clearly didn’t stop Two Black Women. In fact, it seems to fuel their mission.

February James —
February James – “These Are My Ghosts To Sit With” (2022)Victor Miranda

“It’s exciting that we’re being given some of these opportunities because we’re taking full advantage of them,” Chevremont says, “And bringing out women of color and (in some cases) queer artists — that’s the group that gets the least representation in institutions,” she adds.

The combined experience of the team from the point of view of the artist (Thomas) and the institution (Chevremont) helps to serve their vision.

“We just say, ‘This is what we need for artists’ – we are as invested as the exhibiting artist,” says Thomas with conviction.

So what attracts them to a work of art, and in particular to the works in this exhibition?

When you see artists creating their own language,” says Chevremont. Thomas quickly builds on this thought: “They all take risks, are innovative and challenge themselves in art,” she says. “They want the audience to engage and really think…it’s not something that’s just aesthetic,” Chevremont adds with a laugh. “They want to create work that makes a statement.”

Sitting across from Thomas and Chevremont in the Parrishes’ conference room as they talk about art and this spectacle is like watching bold paint applied in rich layers to a large canvas. Never boring. Always dynamic. They are so in sync that they often complement or complement each other’s sentences.

February James —
February James – “These Are My Ghosts To Sit With” (2022)Victor Miranda

“All of these artists (in the show) are practitioners…they’ve all been working for a really long time,” says Thomas.

“And we’ve been around for a long time,” adds Chevremont. The two first met in 2003 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Thomas was an artist in residence.

“She (Chevremont) was actually one of my first collectors,” recalls Thomas, who dedicates time to their creative projects between his solo shows. (Thomas’ next major exhibition will be at the Muée de l’Orangerie in Paris.)

Chevremont, who also curates artwork for well-known TV and film projects and has a long modeling career, says this exhibit at the Parrish “is truly a passion project.”

How do they think Disable it will be received? A chance encounter with “a gentleman from a local school” who walked into the Parrish during installation may provide a clue.

“It was interesting, remembers Chevremont. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to get my students here, because it’s huge.’ And he said to me, ‘We have such a diverse community within the school, the kids are just going to lose their minds!’

The team plans to go out east of town “as often as possible, while the show is up.” They are clearly enthusiastic about their stable of artists and fascinated by the Parrish itself – the architecture, the landscape, “even that it is predominantly female-led,” adds Thomas. And yes, the light.

“It’s just breathtaking,” says Thomas, “and how it changes over the course of the day…I think it elevates the work to such a level and I wish all institutions had the opportunity to have this guy of architecture and lighting for spaces.”

Leilah Babirye —
Leilah Babirye — “Tuli Mukwano (We Are in Love)” (2018, wood, wax, metal, screws, bolts,
washers, wires, found objects)
Jon Jenkins, Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg Collection

The Meaning of “Set It Off” à la Parrish

As for their take on the show’s title?

Chevremont: This is a statement: Disable it – make some noise, make some noise!

Thomas: We are here ! (They laugh.)

Chevremont: We can’t be denied!

Thomas: It’s not about having people validate us, we validate ourselves by staking our claim. Period.

Disable it presented by the Parrish Art Museum and curated by Two Black Women: Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, runs through July 24 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway at Water Mill. For more information, visit parrishart.org.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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