Torkwase Dyson distills stories of oppression and Black liberation into monumental artworks for her new show at Pace in New York.
Torkwase Dyson in her studio in Beacon, N.Y. Art can activate all of the senses, the sculptor and painter said. She made her largest works yet, a scramble of shapes and geometries, for her new show.Credit…Kendall Bessent for The New York Times
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Lurking deep within Torkwase Dyson’s huge architectural sculptures — two of which form her new exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea — is a secret language of liberation.
These tall hinged panels of wood, steel and glass are tinted with dark washes and punctuated at different heights by nooks and cutouts. Lengths of steel pierce each side of a sculpture and jut into the room; one is cantilevered so that its end hovers three inches off the floor.
Upstairs in the seventh-floor gallery, facing a wall of windows, Dyson has installed a hulking trapezoid that spills onto a mezzanine, creating a passageway beneath. When I stopped by a few days before the show opened, the massive structures were in place, exuding strange energy: I felt an urge to walk around them, peer into their corners, spot details like narrow slivers of blue steel (and visitors are welcome to do so).
They were still unfinished, though. To complete them, she was working by feel, drawing sharp silver shapes and applying light-catching textures of graphite paste onto their surfaces.
Dyson, 49, an abstract painter and sculptor, has been on a roll, garnering attention, winning the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize in 2019 — and her projects are scaling up. Exactingly designed and fabricated, these sculptures are her largest yet. Condensed into their uncanny scramble of shapes and geometries is a powerful visual lexicon.
A rectangle, to Dyson, is not just a rectangle. It is also a reference to the crate in which the enslaved Henry “Box” Brown shipped himself to abolitionists in Philadelphia from Virginia in 1849. A triangle conjures up the narrow garret in which Harriet Jacobs, the author of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” hid for seven years to avoid capture. A curved line evokes the ship’s hull in which Anthony Burns, an enslaved man in Virginia, stowed away to Boston in 1854.
“Building, finding, adapting,” Dyson said, describing how each of these Black Americans took stock of the coercive structures around them, and used them to find their way out. That instinct, she said, encapsulated the history of Black liberation work. “The thing I know about our liberation practices is that there’s a high level of tactics, technique, improvisation, and a relationship to scale and movement,” she said. “All these things happen simultaneously.”
Her art unfolds in that spirit, where plan and intuition converge. Her sculptures require high design and fabrication, but the lines and textures on their surfaces are improvised. Her paintings, in black-on-black or leavened by indigos or grays, include sharp lines reminiscent of architectural drawings, but also effusive layers and drips. She has included three paintings in the Pace show: They feature wood elements that jump off the canvas.
This work is never figurative, or narrative. Yet every mark and shape somehow channels Dyson’s studies, whether of the early modern world economy, or climate change today; how landscape, infrastructure and the built environment have been shaped in ways that devalue Black life; and how Black people nevertheless not only endure, but thrive.
“Torkwase has a profound understanding of the coordinates of Black life — of the geographies of enclosure and the forms of life that exist both in it and in excess of it,” said Christina Sharpe, the noted Black feminist scholar, who has performed alongside Dyson’s works.
Theaster Gates, the Chicago-based artist and urbanist, described her as a powerful dual threat: “Someone with her access to a deep well of self-determined Black people, they’re not supposed to enjoy the complexities of architectural modernism,” he said. “When you put those things together it means we have twice as much information as the rest of the world.”
Raised in Chicago, Dyson has bopped around in her career — Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, New York. “I’m a nomad,” she said. But her base now is Beacon, N.Y., where she has a spacious painting and sculpture studio — newly enhanced by her own CNC machine (a computerized tool for cutting and shaping materials like wood and metal) — with a mezzanine for drawing and reading.
When I visited, last month, she was just back from a visit to Liverpool, England, where she will take part in a biennial next year, and she was still processing the trip. She had learned how Liverpool’s 18th-century wealth from the trans-Atlantic trade, and thus the slave trade, owed to an engineering innovation: the world’s first commercial wet dock, allowing 100 ships to berth regardless of the tide.
She took out a sketchpad and diagramed the dock’s setup: a thick-edged rectangle with a narrow opening to the Mersey River. The shape sparked a connection: “It reminded me of the Door of No Return,” she said — the ocean-facing passages through which enslavers marched their captives to the boats.
It was a vivid example of the logic behind her art. “When I saw the enclosed dock, I could see the insidiousness, in relationship to my own being as an African American woman,” she said. History had become geometry — and the geometry was personal.
Dyson wasn’t always architecturally minded. But her concern with Black freedom came early — from her childhood on Chicago’s South Side among educators, activists, organizers and scholars. It was Black Chicago at its most idyllic, and politically conscious. “Everybody owned their own house, had huge backyards,” she said. There was swimming, dance, camping trips. Her father for a time owned a record store — “a total blues head,” she said.
Her mother, D. Soyini Madison, co-founded schools in the 1970s with curriculums that focused on the Black diaspora. (Dyson attended them as a child — “with dashikis and all the things.”) Her mother earned a Ph.D. and became a scholar of performance ethnography at Northwestern University. Her mother’s academic work, Dyson said, exemplified the values of detail and rigor.
As was typical in Black Chicago, the family roots were in the Deep South — the Dysons in Alabama and Florida, the Madisons in Louisiana. Her great-grandfather had arrived in Chicago and started over after being “run out of New Orleans by the K.K.K.,” she said, for having amassed property there. His son, her grandfather, was a socialist and a union leader.
“Everyone was making the world go in a way,” she said, “toward liberation.”
In high school — at that point in North Carolina — she was smart but had terrible grades and no interest in higher education. She landed at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., because a family friend was a dean — one of many instances, she said, in which powerful and accomplished older Black women prodded and protected her when she was rudderless.
Dyson was hanging around Tougaloo for a fifth year when she signed up for art classes only to discover that she was a natural. “It hit me like a rocket,” she said. “It was kind of a whirlwind moment.” She would go on to another undergraduate degree — a B.F.A. in the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University — and then earn her M.F.A. at Yale School of Art, where she had applied to placate her mother, not expecting to get in.
In 2005, Dyson was living in Atlanta, teaching at Spelman College, when 30 people arrived in her shared loft from New Orleans, escaping Hurricane Katrina. The next year, Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke” detailed causes and consequences.
Katrina was her “hard shift,” Dyson told me. The systemic insight — linking race, class, power, infrastructure, ecology — opened her path. The ideas rushed in. “I taught myself how important solar energy was, that we needed to get off the grid. I started teaching myself architecture.” If infrastructure was going to fail Black people, art could imagine ways to “unbuild” things.
In 2016, in her first solo New York City show at the nonprofit Eyebeam, she counted the lynchings listed in Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pathbreaking 1895 tabulation, “The Red Record,” and represented them as fields of small circles, borrowing landscape architecture’s symbol for a tree. Responding to images of auction blocks and slave castles, she distilled them into jagged geometric shapes.
The show was ambitious. “She was clearly at a pivot point,” Roderick Schrock, Eyebeam’s executive director, recalled. “She was taking ideas around data visualization and flipping them into extraordinary aesthetic presentations.”
She has only picked up speed. In 2019, for her first major biennial, in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, she built six outdoor geometric sculptures with sight lines calculated to interact with the ocean and wetlands. The following year, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, she presented 15 paintings inspired by local concerns — water infrastructure, the oil industry, global warming.
The paintings introduced a range of blue colors — oceanic, but resisting a direct reading. “As much as we are tempted to look for one-to-one references, her works function more like invitations, allowing us to respond in whatever way we are ready for in the moment,” said the art historian Allison Young, a co-curator of the New Orleans show.
Dyson has built practically, too: notably a solar-powered studio hitched to a pickup truck that she drove around the South in 2016 while visiting rural communities with the scholar Danielle Purifoy. Soon, she intends to create functional structures in the spirit of her new designs. But already, said Mabel O. Wilson, the architect and Columbia professor, her methods help to “catalyze a different way to build, that creates spaces of freedom and possibility.”
Dyson’s own place of inspiration is the ocean. She has titled her Pace show “A Liquid Belonging.” She scuba dives, and her dives have taken her to both natural and artificial coral reefs — and even right up to oil field facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
The rigs disturb the ocean, she said, yet marine life reasserts itself, the ecosystem still evolving. “New life is formed, aquatic animals come to feed off the same thing that’s supposed to destroy them.” There was a lesson in this: The coral isn’t waiting for the revolution, she said. It’s contending with the situation and finding new ways.
And so can art, she said, in the way that it activates our senses. “How do we organize now on different scales? We have to make forms that celebrate the possibilities. The way through is trying to make something that you’ve never seen before.”
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