Critics’ Picks

View of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” 2015.

View of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” 2015.

New York

Martine Syms

Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery 2nd Floor
September 17–November 1, 2015

The color purple is a motif in artist and “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’s work. It’s the background of both her spare, utilitarian website and her video Notes on Gesture, 2015, the arresting centerpiece of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” her first solo gallery show. Of course, you can’t say or write “the color purple” without invoking The Color Purple—Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of it, and the cultural omnipresence of Oprah Winfrey ever since. Syms uses this rich chain of associations to orient her concerns, such as pop culture’s production of blackness and its mediation of radicalism, and maybe to introduce her sense of humor as well.

A kind of index, Notes resembles a series of jerking GIFS: A black woman’s movements—contemporary vernacular gestures as well as those taken from a seventeenth-century book about “the language of the hand”—are isolated and looped. As the actor clasps her hands together, pats her head, or wags a warning finger, meme-ish title cards of white text, such as a series that spells out “It ain’t about the money,” and audio snippets of speech (e.g., “Check yourself”) provide the hypothetical social contexts for these distilled signs.

The piece, shown on a monitor mounted away from the wall, commands viewers to make sense of the objects Syms has carefully scattered in its orbit. Two neo–Art Deco panthers coated with black flocking stand toward the front of the space, and C-stands display an array of found photos featuring hands and gestures. The show’s serene anchor is Belief Strategy VIII, 2015, an eight-by-sixteen-foot uniformly painted matte monochrome and presumably the purple background used for Notes. The overall effect of the installation is that of a paused or abandoned video shoot—totally stylish, with the added allure of something in process.