Critics’ Picks

Doreen Garner, Henrietta: After the Harvest, 2019, urethane foam and plastic, silicone, steel pins, barbed wire, glass beads, 71 x 38 x 10".

New York

Doreen Garner

191 Chrystie St
April 21–May 26, 2019

In her 1975 mission statement “A Letter to Women Artists,” Hannah Wilke laid out some terms of engagement for her work: “Feel the folds . . . expressive precise gestural symbols.” Doreen Garner’s tumid sculptures of affecting and undeniably vaginal forms can be read along similar lines. Though reminiscent of the uncanny valley à la Paul Thek, the trompe l’oeil corporeality on view here chiefly addresses the threats that black women are uniquely vulnerable to—take the 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland, which led to her untimely death in a jail cell. An audio recording of the traffic stop that instigated this tragedy can be heard playing out of the pink bloom of Heard From Her Larynx: Sandra (all works 2019), a silicone-and-synthetic-hair-covered gramophone mounted onto a wooden pedestal, stained burnt umber.

Bland’s callous and aggressive handling by the police officer is contextualized by Garner as simply one more example in the great American tradition of exploiting African American females. The barbed-wire-wrapped Henrietta: After the Harvest—which features bright-green plastic vials at the center of a hulking diseased organ, made from foam, silicone, and glass beads—and Betsey’s Flag, a gruesome version of Betsy Ross’s famous banner presented as a stapled assemblage of silicone skin in various hues of brown, are, respectively, tributes to the late Henrietta Lacks, and her substantial yet unwitting contributions to medical research, and Betsey, one of the several enslaved women J. Marion Sims tried surgical techniques out on while developing his renowned vesicovaginal fistula operation. The conflation of Betsey’s and Ross’s names in the title Betsey’s Flag implicitly advocates for equal recognition of and respect for each woman, while the steel pins precisely ornamenting the symbolic flesh of both pieces are a sobering contrast with the fundamentally nonconsensual invasions of and theft from black women such as Betsey and Lacks.