New York

Beverly Buchanan, Medicine Woman (detail), ca. 1993, found-object assemblage, 75 × 23 3/4 × 16 1/2". Photo: Chandra Glick.

Beverly Buchanan, Medicine Woman (detail), ca. 1993, found-object assemblage, 75 × 23 3/4 × 16 1/2". Photo: Chandra Glick.

Beverly Buchanan

Beverly Buchanan, Medicine Woman (detail), ca. 1993, found-object assemblage, 75 × 23 3/4 × 16 1/2". Photo: Chandra Glick.

BEVERLY BUCHANAN was born in 1940 in North Carolina and created artwork of singular scale, force, and emotion. From her earliest series, for which she responded to the deteriorating urban environments of New York and New Jersey in the 1970s, to her later works, which intertwine with oral history to excavate African American social life in rural communities of the American Southeast, Buchanan undertook a deep, empirically driven study of architecture in visual art. With her work, the artist asked crucial questions: She attempted to see inside architecture and through it, and to reveal it as something organic, human, and reparative. “Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals,” at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, spans Earthworks and site-specific sculptures, photographs and drawings, photocopied books and notebooks, and paintings and mixed-media assemblage; it is also essentially posthumous, as Buchanan passed away in July 2015, at an early moment in the development of the show.

The exhibition raises extreme emotions. Viewing this work leaves me haunted: How can I write with candor about viewing Buchanan’s art in a museum today? How can I do so without euphemism, without leaving unspoken the material and lived forms of racism that have authoritatively failed to support and sustain black avant-garde voices? We have not seen this work, have not told enough stories of artists like Buchanan, in museums and in this magazine.

Buchanan possessed a fierce independent streak. Her early life coincided with the civil rights movement and its aftermath, and she maintained the course of her work despite receiving bruises at a sit-in when she was a medical-technology student. (She pursued a bachelor’s degree at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.) And she did it despite being dragged down by life’s trials, as when she lacked the money to produce her art, or suffered long-term health problems. (She lived with asthma and with the side effects of the prednisone she had to take to manage it.) And she did it despite—and this Buchanan said over and over to interviewers—having made the difficult choice to abandon her work as a public-health educator and medical technologist to pursue the less stable and socially acceptable path of artist. (She had obtained a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University in New York.) Alice Walker, a contemporary of Buchanan’s, has unflinchingly written about how her own creative output was enlarged by life’s experiences, the good and the bad. It appears Buchanan’s art was enlarged and not crippled by her own. This also goes by another name: resistance. I think of her fortitude and strength in these matters when I imagine her lifting, casting, and moving unreasonably heavy stones or rubble or her concrete sculptures.

In Buchanan’s lifetime, the institutions of art and society at large typecast and stereotyped black artists and artists from the American South. We should be angry, then, about what didn’t happen during her life—the regular public exhibitions, the inclusion of her work in museum collections, catalogues, and books. And while this show—which puts on view nearly two hundred objects, photographs, and other materials—may be seen as a corrective, the mere act of telling Buchanan’s story does little to alter the structures of power that marginalized her work, or any work, in the first place. I feel certain that Buchanan’s work did and does resound loudly and clearly, when it is or was shown or supported in public and when it is not. To imagine the work as autonomous lets us see it apart from the familiar binary of center and margin.

This show, the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work to date, was conceived and curated by artist Park McArthur and curator Jennifer Burris, who developed the show from their research for Beverly Buchanan, 1978–1981, a book on Buchanan’s Earthworks. McArthur and Burris are younger than Buchanan by four decades, and this not-insignificant difference in generational positions is at times apparent. Consider June 10–19, 2016, a three-channel video installation that dominates the first gallery. Researched, filmed, and produced by McArthur and Burris in collaboration with artist Jason Hirata, the work features shots of four of Buchanan’s monumental site-specific sculptures from locations in Georgia and Florida. Some footage is based on her own photographs of these pieces—thus conjuring her presence in real space—yet the sound track upends this systematic empiricism. Combining various takes of a piece in situ with ambient sounds recorded separately in the vicinity of a given shot, it reproduces a wider range of audio than one would ever encounter in person. The editing and sound in these works is therefore supplemental, keyed for the hypertechnologized viewer of today. For Buchanan, by contrast, who didn’t herself use a video camera to document these or any of her works, it was vision that was paramount: She gave herself permission to look hard and deeply at the world—an act of empowerment for a black woman born in a country still under the grip of Jim Crow.

View of “Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals,” 2016. Works from the series “Shack Stories,” 1986–2015. Photo: Chandra Glick.

AROUND ONE HUNDRED of the artworks and other materials in “Ruins and Rituals” are densely centered in the second gallery, which features a presentation of materials from Buchanan’s personal archive. Here we find works such as Medicine Woman, ca. 1993, a stunning self-portrait dense with pill bottles and art materials (this sculpture was displayed privately during the artist’s lifetime, kept within her home), and seven vitrines displaying a range of archival items, including black-and-white photographs, invitation cards, artist’s books, small xeroxed or printed-and-bound projects, and copies of Buchanan’s artist’s statements. Her prints and Polaroids remind us how direct observation, note-taking, and on-the-ground research—how vision itself—fed her sculptural work.

In these carefully selected and sequenced displays, artworks and documentation coalesce with personal archives to conjure an alternate, artist-made world. We catch glimpses of Buchanan’s rich private life—pictures of supporters and peers, friends and lovers—as well as, in the margins, her more creative investigations into personal identity. Take, for example, the business card and photocopy bearing the name Ms. Porno, one of her alter egos. (The latter reads ALMOST ARRESTED! COMMUTES BETWEEN NEW YORK & ATHENS.) The ongoing act of self-representation in this archive serves as a challenge to the authorities that marginalized her, and it may be her most important existing work.

But herein lies one of the contradictions of the show. I would venture that “Ruins and Rituals” relies too heavily on such materials at the expense of a fuller presentation of Buchanan’s sculptural production. In the first gallery, for example, a single work on paper stands in for all of the works in the series “Black Walls,” ca. 1971, and “City Walls,” 1976, and for the cast-concrete experiments up to 1977. What would have been observed and felt had we seen these works with more examples of the cast-concrete “Frustula,” 1978–81, sculptures as Buchanan developed them in the late ’70s in New York and as her formal and material vocabulary continued to develop in the years following her return to Georgia? Why the reticence to select works from the key periods, in the cases where artworks have survived or are portable, and offer them up for firsthand experience?

The show’s final gallery focuses on Buchanan’s series “Shack Stories.” Made between 1986 and 2015 and derived from close observation and extensive research, these small-scale sculptures of shotgun houses underscore Buchanan’s passion for vernacular hand-built dwellings, their inhabitants, and the storytelling that unites the two. Assembled from everyday materials such as pine, tar, clay, and tin, they reveal a nuanced sense of shape and color, thrift and humor. We find humanist personification and anthropomorphism, dark with the history of slavery and the economic system that was left in its wake; they disinter experience and memory.

The sculptures are displayed alongside photographs and related works on paper. Among these are color 35-mm photographs taken with Mary Lou Furcron, whom Buchanan sought out and befriended when Furcron was in her nineties, in part because of an account of Furcron having built a brush arbor dwelling with her own hands, and without using nails. Images like this are eye-opening, for they force us to confront an aspect of Buchanan’s thinking that was and is suppressed, or left behind, by an urban, critical-discourse-focused postmodernism. Her objects do not simply “refer to” or “comment on” the materialism and history of American southeastern rural daily life; they fully inhabit it. Speaking about Buchanan’s decision to create Marsh Ruins, 1981, with tabby concrete, a building material made from oyster shells and ash, McArthur and Burris write: “Beverly’s choice . . . embeds specific political and historical (in addition to geographic) narratives in the artwork itself: that of the relationship between settler-colonialism and slavery. . . .”

In 1990, after Buchanan installed a solo exhibition at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York, an interviewer for National Public Radio pitched her questions. During their conversation, Buchanan refused to make a distinction between artists who are folk artists and those who are not, speaking instead of folk artists as her peers. Artists make art because they have to, she said; “it’s almost a compulsive thing.” With this statement in mind, I sense in “Ruins and Rituals” that the need to create is political. Existing beyond race or class, the creative act becomes a model of the social. In closing the exchange, the artist tells the interviewer: “We’re all here.”

“Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals” is on view through Mar. 5.

Rhea Anastas is an art historian who teaches in the department of art at the University of California, Irvine, and is one of the founding members of Orchard, an artist-run gallery on New York’s Lower East Side with a predetermined life span of three years (2005–2008).