“Art has been transformational in my life, particularly in confronting and contending with the dimensional violence of racism.” -Vanessa German
Vanessa German is an acclaimed artist whose work has been exhibited across the world. She made her Crystal Bridges debut in the 2014-2015 exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. Out of the 1,000 artists the curatorial team visited in 2013, German was one of the 102 artists selected to be featured, due to her innovative assemblages, complex compositions, and meaningful ideas engaging with the past and the present. German uses her authoritative role as an artist to express her concern about today’s issues dealing with identity, gender, violence, and discrimination.
During her time at Crystal Bridges this past August, German was kind enough to sit down with Stace Treat, host of Museum Way, for an interview. This special episode is an exploration of the power of art from Vanessa’s perspective and was recorded in the gallery near Vanessa’s “power figures” (scroll down to learn more about these). Hear about the driving force behind her work, the studio visit that landed her in the groundbreaking exhibition, State of the Art, and everything in between.
Vanessa German, born in 1976 in Wisconsin, is an artist, sculptor, poet, performer, and activist living in Homewood, Pittsburgh. Covered in paint and plaster, she used to make her artwork on her front porch, and as the local Homewood children passed by, curious of what she was doing, they would ask if they could help her. German, instead, gave them the tools to be creative and encouraged them to make their own art.
She founded Love on the Front Porch and ARThouse, an art initiative that advocates for the children to have a safe space to explore their artistic abilities away from neighborhood violence. The house offers ample outlets for people to express themselves—they can mold clay, make glass mosaics, handle jewelry, and paint. Decorated in colorful imagery, mosaics, and paintings, ARThouse is used as a refuge for women and children to gather to express their emotions through art.
“We were surrounded by a lot of death as little kids. I had a difficult time understanding how somebody could just die. If this can happen, then what do I want to see happen with my life if I get taken out tomorrow? I am always looking for a way to be the most alive while I’m alive.”
Last year, Crystal Bridges announced that she was the recipient of the 2018 Don Tyson Prize, which recognized an individual artist or organization for outstanding achievement in the visual arts. She was awarded $200,000 for the great quality of her work and for her positive impact on the community around her.
Crystal Bridges acquired three of German’s works: Souvenir of Our Trip; White Naptha Soap, Contemporary Lessons in Shapeshifting; and Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis, and Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis, which can all be viewed in the Contemporary Art Gallery. Her sculptures, also known as “power figures” or “power dolls,” are life-sized and small scale compositions of vintage and found objects that evoke her love and compassionate nature to protect children and fight against racism.
The arrangement of her artwork is often complex but each object is identifiable, loading the sculpture with powerful content and imagery. In her 2014 work, Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis or Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis, the central figure is painted black and is embellished with tightly-packed blue objects and raw nails stuck into the figure’s shoulders and torso. Captured in motion as she pushes herself on the skateboard, the viewer has the opportunity to see the figure swinging a child by the hair behind her and holding the American flag in front. The figure steadies herself on one leg as she vicariously balances on her head a bed filled with aristocrats.
Referring to the title, psychosis is a condition that affects the mind and can cause the individual to lose track of reality. German is combining objects that are imbued with history to create an impactful work that shows that American behavior is disconnected from its reality. German purposely uses these items that have so much meaning because it reflects how we interpret the world around us.
This post was co-written by Justice Henderson, Interpretation Intern.