Thumbs Up for the Mothership Dawn DeDeaux & Lonnie Holley
Thumbs Up for the Mothership
Dawn DeDeaux & Lonnie Holley
It is hard to ignore the parallel experiences of artists Dawn DeDeaux and Lonnie Holley. Both were born in 1950 and hail from the South— DeDeaux from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Holley from Birmingham, Alabama; both have had firsthand experience with trauma, and both are deeply concerned with the environment. But the similarities don’t stop there. DeDeaux’s early experience with art came after two of her siblings died and she befriended the family gardener, Martin Green, with whom she took art classes through much of her youth. Holley’s life as an artist began in 1979 after a fire at his sister’s house resulted in the death of two of her children. DeDeaux worked in the prison system, and Holley spent years incarcerated at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mt. Meigs where he was routinely beaten. After being released, Holley found his way to New Orleans for a brief amount of time—one has to wonder if he and DeDeaux passed each other on the street. And sadly, both artists suffered the loss of artworks, DeDeaux to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Holley when the Alabama Airport Authority unceremoniously bulldozed his art environment in 1997. In 2013–14, just months apart, both artists neared each other
again, as they were anonymously nominated to attend the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artist-in-Residence Program. DeDeaux and Holley, despite their geographic near misses, hadn’t met until they were invited to MASS MoCA, greeting each other with the familiarity of long-lost siblings. DeDeaux and Holley are like two phoenixes rising from the ashes of trauma, using the power of art to heal and gain strength. They act as prophets of art and of humanity, much like Rauschenberg who believed that “art can change the world.” Their stories are not meant to incite pity—neither artist would want that—but rather exemplify how the strength of serious artistic vision perseveres in the face of hardship, emphasizing Rauschenberg’s credo, both on a global and personal level. Holley states: “There are so many rocks and so many broken stones and so many nails and sticks and weeds and debris and garbage and trash, and we have to plow and mine the worst things on this earth to make them better, and to make us
1 T his title comes from a phrase Lonnie Holley often uses, “Thumbs up for Mother Universe,” and the title of Dawn DeDeaux’s most recent work Aboard the MotherShip.
Dawn DeDeaux (b. 1950), The Vanquished Series: G-Force #1, 2016 – 17 Digital drawings on archival paper mounted to metal Courtesy of the artist
better, so we can show the world: I can handle it. I can deal with it. I can live with it. I can go on.” And DeDeaux adds that it is important to approach art “like prayers.” In the end, what stands above the narratives is the work itself. DeDeaux sees her most recent series MotherShip as “both a metaphor for Earth in need of stewardship; and if we fail, MotherShip becomes our constructed lifeline vessel to transport us to new frontiers beyond.” Channeling scientist Stephen Hawking’s postulation that the Earth won’t survive in one hundred years, DeDeaux offers up a symbolic plan for escape, an installation that begins with a broken Southern Gothic column and barren landscape printed on aluminum. Turning the gallery’s corner leads to a rusted metal pod hovering above a pair of weathered conquistador boots; ladders— some charred, others covered in writing—reach
towards the sky; and a satellite of plaster ceiling decoration spins in slow motion. Also present are elements from DeDeaux’s series Space Clowns and Souvenirs of Earth, the first of which depicts looming figures in flowery or fiery spacesuits— new uniforms for the future—and the latter meditates on the objects we will take with us when we leave Earth—nods to artists Giotto and Jasper Johns, tools, toys, a lock of hair. Together these works have a sense of urgency but also clear direction that the mothership can offer salvation. Holley’s works are built of found objects and function as three-dimensional sketches for ideas and stories, influencing the improvised songs he writes. For example, After the Revival (Vox Humana III: The Strength of Music Lives After the Instruments are Destroyed), 2017, is a broken-down piano in a corner with a figurative quality to it, a musician
Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), After the Revival (Vox Humana III: The Strength of Music Lives After the Instruments Are Destroyed), 2017 Destroyed organ and musical instruments; 44 × 110 × 110 inches Photo: Jason Reinhold
seemingly exploded by the voice and weight of humanity. Just as the poetics and patina of found materials are key for Holley, so are the politics they unearth. For example, Broken But Still Strong, 2014, made at Captiva, incorporates Rauschenberg’s old cement mixer, while honoring Holley’s grandmother who was part Cree and Cherokee4 and taught him to respect the earth, and to recycle. And lastly, In the Grip of Power uses an old voting booth to address recent abuses in minority voting in 2016. Holley firmly believes that artists are political advocates, stating: “I am not doing anything but still ringing that Liberty Bell, ding, ding, ding, on the shorelines of independence…” His work in both sculpture and song is a clarion call, a bell drawing us to the mothership. DeDeaux and Holley converge in the center of the gallery, ladders and ropes binding them together.
But in the end, perhaps musician Sun Ra should have the last words: “I’m not a minister, I’m not a philosopher, I’m not a politician, I’m in another category.” DeDeaux and Holley are in another category too, resurrecting hope from despair, while giving the mothership a big thumbs up. — Denise Markonish
4 R auschenberg was also part Cherokee. 5 M ark Binelli, “The Insider’s Outsider,” The New York Times Magazine, January 23, 2014
Dawn DeDeaux (b. 1950), installation view featuring (left to right): Speaking in Tongues, 2014 (acrylic ladders); The Vanquished Series: G-Force #1 and #2, 2016-17 (digital drawings); Parlor Games: Aleppo, Palmyra, Rome, Luxor, Athens, Sienna & New Orleans, 2016-17 Plaster medallion (created with Jeff Poree Plasterers of New Orleans, marine chain, wrecking ball, and 19th-century Corinthian columns) Photo: Jason Reinhold
Dawn DeDeaux b. 1950, New Orleans, LA
Lonnie Holley b. 1950, Birmingham, AL
Dawn DeDeaux has been merging art with new technologies since the 1970s, using a variety of media approaches to engage diverse communities. Early works include CB Radio Booths, which literally travelled communication systems to the streets of underserved communities. Mid-career works focused on large-scale installations and immersive, media environments, including The Face of God, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Recent works are inspired by environmental changes and include: Project Mutants, The Goddess Fortuna and The MotherShip Series. DeDeaux was awarded a Rauschenberg Residency in 2013, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Public Sculpture Award (2008), and an NEA Grant (1992). Recent solo exhibition venues include: Tulane University Center for Bioenvironmental Research, New Orleans (2014); Acadiana Center for the Arts, Lafayette, LA (2014); and Marfa Ballroom, Marfa, TX (2010).
Lonnie Holley has devoted his life to the practice of improvisational creativity since 1979. His art and musicâ€”born out of struggle and hardship, but perhaps more importantly out of furious curiosity and biological necessityâ€”have manifested themselves in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and sound. In 2012 Holley made his debut as a recording artist with Just Before Music (Dust to Digital), followed in 2013 with Keeping a Record of It. His music and lyrics are improvised and evolve with every event, concert, and recording. His work has been shown at the Whitney Museum, NY; The Studio Museum of Harlem, NY; and Prospect 2: New Orleans; and is in the collections of The Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington DC; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; High Art Museum, Atlanta; and American Museum of Folk Art, NY. Holley lives and works in Atlanta and is represented by the James Fuentes Gallery, NY.
Dawn DeDeaux & Lonnie Holley: Thumbs Up for the Mothership On view beginning May 28, 2017 Major exhibition support is provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Barr Foundation, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), Broken But Still Strong, 2014; mixed media; 76 Ă— 96 Ă— 39 inches Photo: John Bentham
Exhibition guide for Thumbs Up for the Mothership, on view at MASS MoCA.