Chicago

Torkwase Dyson, Joni Lee Blackman, 2018, diptych, acrylic on canvas, each 84 × 72".

Torkwase Dyson, Joni Lee Blackman, 2018, diptych, acrylic on canvas, each 84 × 72".

Torkwase Dyson

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Torkwase Dyson, Joni Lee Blackman, 2018, diptych, acrylic on canvas, each 84 × 72".

Colliding abstract shapes dominate the seven canvases that constituted Torkwase Dyson’s exhibition “James Samuel Madison.” The title of the show gestured toward the symbology of the shapes: Madison is the artist’s maternal grandfather, who migrated from the American South to the North as a child and who personifies, for Dyson, the politics of migration and movement that she formally explores in her paintings. In the gallery’s press release, Dyson explained that “the body unifies, balances, and arranges itself to move through space . . . a skill used in the service of self-emancipation within hostile geographies.” In the exhibition, however, each painting’s composition was agitated, vigorously asymmetrical and willfully unbalanced. Prudently wrought in tones of black, white, and gray, Dyson’s nonpictorial vocabulary was subjected to destabilization, repetition, multiplication, rotation, and obstruction.

With the exception of Dyson’s palette, these new paintings, all produced over the past year, are strikingly different from a series of paintings she made in 2017 in which she deploys the grid and right-angle architectural schema as structural conceits. Those perpendicular compositions have given way to acute angular motifs that cut diagonally through backgrounds stained with multidirectional drips and passages of raw canvas. (Diagrammatic lines—which Dyson uses to reference illustrations, blueprints, and mapping—remain as subtle navigational routes through the increasingly chaotic compositions.) Joni Lee Blackman, 2018, the largest painting in the exhibition, is a horizontal diptych in which the artist plaits together a variety of shapes with two thin translucent white triangles, one reaching diagonally from the lower-left to the far-upper-right corner and the other extending in the opposite direction. A collection of opaque black and cloudy gray geometries floats in the painting’s middle ground, while organically contoured spills, splatters, and streaks mitigate the hard edges. The implied animation of this work is dynamic and multidirectional. Nothing slows down, not even those diagrammatic lines. Speed is what unifies Dyson’s varied formal vocabularies and imparts an accelerated anxiousness to the paintings. Yet the brisk execution of the new work also forsakes meaningful encounters with surface variation and conflicting materialities.

The exhibition’s three tondos, each measuring sixty inches across and installed side by side, are spatially tighter and more clearly iconic than the large diptych. The circular format anchors Dyson’s mark-making and provides a conspicuous figure/ground relationship. Groupings of rectilinear and triangular forms remain contained within a dense black field that encircles the outer edge of each canvas. Conjuring celestial maps, the tondos’ formal organization provides more of an orientation, closer to true navigational guidance, than do the allover compositions deployed in the rectangular paintings.

Dyson’s polymer gravure print_ Looking for the People (Water Table Ocular #3), _2017, which hung in the back gallery among a selection of works by other gallery artists, clinched the show. An organic array of pigment strata, dispersed ink, schematic black lines, and graphic dashes perform a delicate dance across the page, overlaying and fencing in a large, washy inkblot in the center. The formal relationships at work in the print are as tactical as those set up in the abstract paintings. Southern Down and Black, A Perspective Hinge, both 2018, for example, also contain patterns of horizontal brush marks and inky stains. But the print’s intimacy and fastidious execution offered viewers a slower and richer interpretation of abstraction’s ability to convey the power struggles inherent in movement and displacement. While representational painting may more directly illustrate narratives of migration, Dyson’s decision to instead deploy formal arrangements directs our attention toward the political potential of shapes and patterns—and toward the shapes and patterns of social movements.