The Shapes of Things That Have Come

by Jeanne Brasile

Amanda Thackray. “Selections from the 1,000 Square Feet (0.00701459%) Project,” featuring prints from Obama Beach/El Dorado Beach, Cotonou Benin and Bushkill Creek, Easton PA begun in 2017 – ongoing, watercolor and monoprints and suminagashi on site-specific handmade paper 100’ x 100’.

Having fair knowledge of the work of both Amanda Thackray and Jose Camacho, I was not sure how their work would be paired convincingly for “Ideogrammatic,” their two-person show in Easton, Pennsylvania’s Brick + Mortar Gallery.  In this exhibition, curator Colleen O’Neal, primarily known for her strong social-justice themed shows, forays into the realm of symbols.  While Thackray and Camacho tackle vastly different subjects in their work, they both utilize a personal form of shorthand to address issues of concern.  O’Neal cleverly binds the show’s narrative together not through shared subjects, but through each artist’s use of a distinct lexicon to communicate broader themes.  

Situated in a former silk mill, the gallery’s site enhances the work narratively, as well as visually.  The exterior and interior spaces of Brick + Mortar Gallery maintain their former industrial character with soaring ceilings, large columns, clerestory windows, wooden floors and brick walls.  Despite the site’s restoration and current occupancy with decidedly upscale eateries, apartments, breweries, gift shops and galleries – the residue of its former use is omnipresent.  The mill’s past looms over the site like the smokestacks that stand watch over the buildings.  More poignantly, the factories point to the issues embodied in Thackray and Camacho’s work.    

Jose Camacho. (Left) “Untitled (The Abduction of Ganymede) #2, mixed media on paper, 30” x 22 ½”, 2019. (Right) “Untitled (The Abduction of Ganymede) #1, mixed media on paper, 30” x 22 ½”, 2019.

Jose Camacho is represented with a series of meditations inspired by Puerto Rican painter, Francisco Oller.   Camacho adopts plátanos as a repeated motif that he explores in oil on canvas, mixed media on paper, gouache and ink.  In Camacho’s work, the banana is imbued with meaning related to the island’s colonial past including slavery, trade, wealth, privilege and identity.  Rendered in sketchy shapes on uneven grounds of pink, green and gray, one is unsure if the plátanos are rendered as a positive or negative shape.  This ambiguity reflects the colonial history of the island and the indeterminate nature of its relationship with the United States.  Camacho appropriates the visual currency of Oller’s “El Velorio” – the scene of a young child’s wake - in an interior space from which an abundance of bananas hang from rafters.  The scene can be taken as an allegory of the political problems on the island and the attempted death of its culture at the hands of foreign powers.  Oller later used an isolated image of plátanos in his painting “Plátanos amarillos” as a metonym for Puerto Rico’s people and culture.  Shown in a former factory – a historically contested site of labor and production - the tension inherent in Camacho’s subject becomes even more palpable. 

Similar to Camacho, Amanda Thackray’s work is also predicated on shapes against a solid ground.  Thackray’s work is no less politicized, though she draws on environmental injustices, specifically consumer culture and its defilement of nature.  While the work is solid, the piece that resonates most is “Selections from the 1,000 Square Feet (0.00701459%)” a large serial work that consists of 100 monoprints, arranged 10 over 10, on hand-made paper with watercolor and suminagashi (a Japanese marbling technique.)  The colorful nature of the work, with familiar outlines of a variety of consumer flotsam and jetsam washed ashore, contradicts the treacherous predicament of plastics in our water supply and bodies.  The shapes silhouetted on the paper are of the detritus found by the artist on the beaches of Benin and in the Bushkill Creek which borders the mills.  The conversation is heightened with the knowledge that the paper was also made with water from both sites, bringing to mind not just pollution in the form of plastic, but the safety of our water supply in a larger context and the mill’s possible detriment to the river in the past.  

“Ideogrammatic” is a beautifully rendered exhibition heightened by the credible way Jose Camacho and Amanda Thackray weave their stories, but also in the manner the curator skillfully assembled a narrative framework of concerns that are seemingly disparate, but through O’Neal’s vision present as cohesive humanistic investigations.  Being on view in a former mill, the deposit of socio-political issues – whether environmental or colonial – enhances the work and theme solidly.  Easton Pennsylvania’s recent reputation as an art enclave is certainly advanced with an exhibition of this caliber.  

Ideogrammatic featuring work by Amanda Thackray and Jose Camacho was on view at Brick + Mortar Gallery in Easton, Pennsylvania from October 19 – December 1, 2019.

Jeanne Brasile is the Director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University

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