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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Andrea Reed's Sweet Struggle @ The Target Gallery: Power Seeks a Vacuum

By: Shauna Lee Lange

Years ago when I was working for the Department of the Navy in

Newport, Rhode Island, I had a mentor with whom I could safely share
some of the idiosyncrasies of working with certain personalities.
And I still remember what he said. Power seeks a vacuum. Meaning
that power goes to where there is a void, to where the void can be
filled by a personality larger than itself, and to where there is no
competition. And so it is with artwork that arrests us in its
riveting, shocking, and disturbing elements. Powerful artwork causes
one to shift entirely. And when that powerful artwork is directed at
a subject that exists in everyday life, that we all walk around
living with, but no one seems to really want to squarely address,
well that's power seeking a vacuum.

Andrea Reed's problem, if she has one, is that she does not yet fully
recognize the potentiality for the vacuum sucking up the her work or
its message. If I had her here with me at this moment, I'd be doing
some serious career planning with her and not just career planning
the art world. She's Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson reincarnate.
She's Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and Grandma Moses and Salvatore
Salgado, but she doesn't know it. I wonder what's more dangerous.
Having the power, hitting the mark, daring to speak the
communication, or doing all of that and not having any inkling of
what you've done. I imagine it's kind of like sitting at a slot
machine, when you're an inexperienced gambler and you hit the jackpot
and you're not really sure what actually happened or what comes
next. It's amazing, you're happy, you're thinking about the money,
but you have no clue what it is you've actually done or how rare it

Several times at last night's opening reception, one could hear the
words, "powerful," "disturbing," "brave," and "raw." And they are
all true. Reed seemingly does not completely recognize the
timeliness of her black/racism/social condition message in a day of
Duane Chapman, Don Imus, and Michael Richards and the controversies
over demeaning language, its use, its application. Nor does Reed
realize the power of an introspective and respectable examination of
black stereotypes, black societal problems, and the black
experience. She's timely, she's ahead of her time, and she's behind
the times all at once, it's incongruent and it's fascinating.

She says it herself, "I was fearful of how people would perceive the
work." And as you age, you realize that all that time you spent
worrying about what other people think was time wasted. What should
she care what other people think of her blackface images? It's
honest. It's true. It's presented in a nonjudgmental way, almost
like a mirror. I want Reed to walk proudly. What she's done is
amazingly brave. She's worried the black population will see her as
airing dirty laundry; she's worried whites will see her as
capitalizing on negative stereotypes; she's worried about staying
true to herself; and she's swimming in a sea of contemplation. And I
want her not to give a flying frog what anyone else thinks, because
when you're a visionary, you get to stand alone. And it's lonely,
and it's scary, and it's all the MORE powerful because you're the
only one responding to the call, listening to the drumbeat, answering
the higher cause.

And as I was walking through the Target Gallery, you know there's a
lot of glare from the lighting there, and I was thinking about how
the glare in this case actually accentuates the large scale color
photographs (a series of 10 diptychs on crimson/blood red
background), giving a reflective appearance. It's sort of like
passing through the Vietnam Memorial; you can see yourself looking in
at the picture. How powerful is THAT?

Today, the morning after, I find myself still conflicted about Reed.
On the one hand, I feel bad that she herself honestly says, "I'm not
exactly sure where I'm going to go. I don't think the project is
over and I want to continue with it." She needs a serious mentor.
She's talent untapped. She's it. She's the real thing. And I'm
thinking YOU may not know where you're going to go, but I sure as
heck think I have an idea. I'm reminded of the time I saw Yoko Ono's
work in San Francisco. THIS is an artist. THIS is art.

And so it is with Reed. She has difficulty articulating what she's
trying to say, but the thing of it is - she doesn't need to. It's
clear. It's blackface. It's the mask worn. It's the clownish
behavior. It's the mask of who we are as a people and what we do.
And who is behind the mask. We're ignorant, you know, white and
black, all of us – and what do we think about it? Killing each
other, gang violence, fatherless homes, selling out in exchange for
the big house, broken self esteem, trying to achieve unreachable
ideals established by someone other than ourselves, searching through
meaning in acquisition of money, and things, and respect, and
acceptance. Oh Lord.

On the other hand, I'm so excited about Reed. She admits, "I'm
young, I'm still growing, I'm still trying to find my voice." One of
the things about youth, and I would tell Reed this too, is that you
don't know what you had at the time you had it until much later in
life. Any of us who goes back to look at a photograph of an earlier
self may catch themselves saying, "Damn. I looked good." But we
didn't really know it at the time, did we?

Reed doesn't know what she has. She hit the freaking jackpot, the
end of the rainbow, the statement and work that takes some artists
and photographers a lifetime to achieve. And she has it. She has it
now. She could stop. Right here and never do another thing. She
could go on tour. She could give lectures. She could sell at
Christies and Sotheby's and not for $3,000 a shot either.
Commercially, she needs marketing. She needs exposure. She needs
mainstream. Personally, she needs serious representation. SHE
needs mentors. Reed can be the next voice of the people. Reed's a
revolutionary. She's a seer. She understands. She gets it. She
communicates it. She dares.

"Barbie Girl"
30" x 40" color photographic diptych

I go back through the gallery and I imagine the next life of these
works. I'm thinking about redesigning the entire Barbie Doll
Headquarters Enterprise. I'm imagining walking into a reception area
with Reed's "Barbie Girl" hanging behind a coiffed and reserved
corporate greeter in front of a massively cold marble wall. "Barbie
Girl" is an image that shows a young black woman, in hideous
blackface makeup, squeezing the waist of a blonde, white Barbie
Doll. A figure the woman will never have. A culture the woman will
never relate to. And in the interim, the woman is holding her own
mid-section. The smallest part of her is ever so enormous compared
to the smallest part of the doll. This is what I mean by power.
Reed's tapped into every woman's pain. Every woman's inability to
reach Barbie Doll perfection. And it's not enough that she points to
this feminist, beauty, perfection complex, she then adds the
experience of being black and being a black woman in this culture on
top of it. It's quiet, yet it yells. It's subdued, yet it feels
like being submerged.

Fear is a powerful thing. And I suspect Reed is fearful on some
subconscious level of what she's actually achieved. She has the
vision of what she wants to say, yet she steps back from really
standing firm in her own conviction. And this comes with age, too.
She spoke last evening about how the experience of showing at the
Target Gallery and the attending the exhibition was a bit
overwhelming for her. She stumbles a bit as she speaks. She's
embarrassed when slide photos come up too dark on the viewing
screen. None of it matters. You, Ms. Reed, overwhelm us! You've
taken survey. You've taken a look around at the black experience.
You've said this is what's ugly to me and not only is it ugly to me;
it should be ugly to all of us. And you're right. Completely right..
30" x 40" color photographic diptych
Reed speaks about using the light in the photographs in an ominous
way. And she shares the story behind "Crack Head" and her attempts
in San Francisco to acquire a crack pipe for the photograph. She
explains she went to several places and honestly communicated what
she was trying to do and her vision for the photographs and still was
met with resistance, mistrust, or disbelief. She states her own
personal experience was altered from this difficult project. One
attendee pointed out that the hand of the young man who is holding
the crack pipe is dirty and grainy. Reed states this is a result of
having each of her models apply their own blackface makeup and the
residue resulting from that. And she says interestingly that once
the models finished with their masks, there was a distinct
transformation and a very different energy in the studio, one she
tried to capture on film.

I wonder whether Reed considered not using blackface, and truly I was
encouraged by the amount of research and background Reed conducted in
approaching the project. The images of the elements of our culture
would have been just as powerful without blackface as they are with.
The blackface is an added and very strong message about the
ridiculousness of such a life – who are we entertaining? Where is
the enjoyment? Why is no one laughing?

Reed says she felt she needed to make a statement about how blackface
started in the white community and then was an "art form" adopted by
black artists. She says she struggles to portray these issues and
all of sudden, the lecture space becomes electrified and a little
nervous when one attendee asks whether it would have been a different
viewing experience if Ms. Reed were white. What? You have to be
black to portray black issues? You can't understand what it is for
the rich when you're poor? You can't understand or portray nature as
an artist if you live in the city? My head started spinning; Reed
handles the question with grace.

She's young. She's introspective. She's from small town Peoria,
Illinois, she attended Howard University, and now lives in
California. Her show features a piece entitled "The Bluest Eye."
It is inspired by Toni Morrison's novel of the same name. And as I
write this, my breathing becomes a little tight, for some reason, I
still want to cry. The photograph shows a young woman removing the
blue contact from one of her eyes and balancing it so gingerly on the
tip of her extended finger. She has a skin condition, and she's not
Halle Berry. This is realism at its best. This is current,
contemporary culture. Striving to be something we're not out of
rejection of what we are. This is all of us, balancing some aspect
of ourselves, whether its work, family, health, finances, ever so
lightly on the tip of a finger, able to be blown away with the
slightest wind. Fragile. So fragile and so fruitless this constant
struggling to be something else.

"Brother's Keeper"
30" x 40" color photographic diptych

Of the ten works, any one of Reed's diptychs could stand alone.
Fully alone in a one-woman show. And she's clever, that Reed.
You're so fascinated by the semi-automatic pointed to a young man's
head that you hardly even see the weapon has the same embedded line
as the young man's wife-beater t-shirt. Power. Care. Honesty.
Shock. Reed's saying, I see it and this is what I do about it. I
make it art so others can see it too. I ask the question. And if
that's not a leader, I don't know what one is.

She speaks about the work from a technical perspective. The feel,
the focus, the framing. She shares how she worked with people she
knew to create authentic characters, used Polaroids for tests, and
opted for the split frame. You see, when power finds the vacuum,
power wants to fill it. So Reed split the frames into large format
diptychs because she wanted to show racism's fragmentation. The
separation from the whole. And the black frame is impenetrable, a
border that cannot be broken. These are the reasons Reed won her
spot on the highly competitive Open Exhibition Competition. I wanted
to embrace the gallery management, and believe me; I rarely feel the
urge to do that!

The Target Gallery's mission is to challenge perspective, and gallery
operatives stated last night's turnout was one of the best yet.
Reed's work was selected by a blind outside juror panel. The show
runs to December 2, 2007.

Shauna Lee Lange is an arts advisory writer, designer, coach, and
consultant based in the Metropolitan DC area; her website is at

Andrea Reed's website:

All content © 2007 Black Artists of DC all rights reserved.
For permission to reproduce contact:


At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anton said...

"Power seeks a vacuum" liked that phrase much as well as the pictures.


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