Exhibition Visit – All Due Respect

Baltimore Museum of Art All Due Respect

Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Lauren Frances Adams, Cindy Cheng, LaToya Hobbs, Mequitta Ahuja

Amy Boone-McCreesh: When did you receive the Joan Mitchell award?

Lauren Frances Adams: In 2007. It was the MFA Award, which I don’t think is still around. For many years they had an MFA award where 50 MFA programs were invited to nominate two graduating students and then out of those 100 people, I think maybe 15 people were awarded money of $10,000. The year I won, the award was $15,000 which was amazing. I actually had a really terrible thesis review with some faculty, although there were many supportive faculty, so I was not feeling my best about the work. But then I got this phone call right around graduation!

Cindy Cheng: I received a Painters and Sculptors Grant in 2018. 

Mequitta Ahuja: I’m old! I received the Joan Mitchell award in 2009. I can hardly remember! For me, receiving this kind of support makes a huge psychological difference. It encourages me to keep trying to improve. I learned to not let it go to my head after I heard from one of the judges that I’d barely made it through! 

LaToya Hobbs: I received funding from the Joan Mitchell Foundation through an Emergency Grant in 2019 and was awarded a Residency at the Joan Mitchell center in 2020, which I will now be attending in the summer of 2022 because of rescheduling due to Covid.

A: What has it afforded you in terms of your studio practice or trajectory?

LFA: I have a funny story about that actually because when they called to tell me I was like thanks! and hung up and then I realized they were actually trying to give me a big award. So I called them back and asked. We often don’t think, as artists, that someone is going to hand you money based on twenty slides and one artist statement. I was in my mid-20s in Pittsburgh. 

After that, I had a couple offers to adjunct classes at schools in the area. One at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and another at Chatham University. Adjunct pay is and was low, I had three classes, but it was barely enough even with my cheap Pittsburgh rent. But what it ultimately afforded me was the ability to take on new teaching opportunities. It gave me some breathing room to get my work done when I wasn’t teaching. It really gave me the grace to learn how to teach and commit to that. Interior house painting was actually my side gig in grad school so I was so glad when that came up because I was getting really worried I was going to have carpal tunnel for the rest of my life and I needed another way. I was also doing murals and teaching seemed more like the path where I could make art and teach art. I loved interior painting and mural painting, but I knew that my body might not be able to do this when I’m 50. 

Lauren Frances Adams

CC: It was a substantial grant for me, so it allowed me to go to Haystack and Arrowmont. I did two workshops–one was glass and another was paper which has been incredibly important. In terms of expanding my material knowledge and scope, it was really fundamental. Of course it helped me pay for my studio, which is always a struggle for everyone. And it also gave me that validation for what I was doing. Everyone needs that once and a while. It gave me a lot of momentum to keep going forward, which was really valuable. 

MA: The Joan Mitchell award supported me in my continued focus on a relatively narrow set of pictorial problems. I’ve always lived at or below my financial means. A sudden infusion of money like this allowed me to continue my development without having to compromise my interests to meet the demands of the market or fundamentally alter my manner of living. 

LH: The emergency grant was used to cover damages to my home studio space resulting from a flood. The funding helped me to restore my studio space and jump back into my work.   I have not engaged in the residency experience yet but am really looking forward to having time to dedicate solely to my studio practice.

A: Can you each talk briefly about your work in the BMA exhibition?

LFA: I had the unique invitation from the BMA, specifically the curator Leila Grothe to work with their collection. She visited my studio and saw and heard from me what I do. I had actually already started making work with this teacher’s guide to the BMA’s collection. It’s a printed booklet. I was cutting it up and using it as collage material.  

It made sense to do this project with this institution that is literally less than a mile from where I live, rather than the work I’d been doing through the Metropolitan Museum, Rijksmuseum, or things that weren’t in my locale. Especially featuring things that were made in Maryland 200 years ago and have a claim to identity in early America, such as the Baltimore Painted Furniture and Album Quilts that are the focus of my installation. So this period of the late 18th century, early 19th century where Baltimore was the third largest city in the country and was an active port. 

So she showed up at just the right time to say they could work with me to give me access to these collections. But then the pandemic hit so physical proximity became very different. A lot of our work, instead, did shift to high resolution images. I was able to come by a few times even though the museum was closed, to see Maryland-specific artworks in their collection. The Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts, Brittany Luberda, was helpful in pointing me to the ways in which the staff work in terms of storytelling. Such as them taking a British made abolitionist jug from the early 1800s and contextualizing display and re-writing labels. 

Lauren Frances Adams

Whose voice and story is being told, and for what purpose? How is language being used and changed–the use of the word “enslaved” instead of “slaves,” for example, to respect humanity and acknowledge the enslavers who were responsible. This is in ways a reflection of my own unlearning as a white person. In what ways do fragmentation, dissembly and disorder push back against false cohesion? Fully embracing the idea that many things don’t make sense; the struggle to make sense and coherence out of history is often one that is centered around whiteness, empire building, and narratives of progress. That is in many ways the American project. A great example of this would be the Trump executive order, “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” though it’s provisional title was ‘make federal buildings beautiful again.’ It was quickly rescinded by the Biden administration. The idea that classical Greco-Roman antiquity is the primary order to beauty and claim to power rather than, say, brutalist or modernist architecture. That has lasting importance–and I don’t say this to be provocative, but it’s more about the ways in which concepts of order and beauty, materialized in architecture and public space, are so much about the persistent project of whiteness in this country. So, my work at the BMA really comes out of a place of thinking through the politics of memory —  how does what the museum collects and preserves centralize certain stories or prioritize certain ways of knowing, being, materials, or visuality? And how the Maryland-made painted furniture and quilts have been streamlined by historical connoisseurship as objects of limited scope, which has rendered many gaps and erasures. My project was really an attempt to examine that and upset that in some way, by threading connections across the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection and with research I made about Baltimore in the early and mid 19th century.

CC: As a maker, I’ve realized I have a materials wanderlust. I want to use everything and learn everything. So doing something like this–it’s an installation and the research behind it was messy and pretty extensive. I thought I could reflect that–the expansiveness of the approaches against the chaotic nature of the research and have them talk to each other. I wanted to create these architectural structures that allowed me to also experiment and play in materials. Ceramics, wood, video, glass, fabric, found objects, bedazzling…there’s a lot of things that I thought a lot of people wouldn’t see – like the details inside the living room – but I knew it was there which was important to me.

Cindy Cheng

As I was developing this work, I was thinking about the history of conspiracy theories. I was really interested in the rise of QAnon and how it’s not a new phenomenon. So I started to backtrack on the history of these narratives and it goes back centuries and is actually very consistent. In my research I stumbled upon this video piece called “Deception of a Generation”. It was filmed in the 80s and it’s essentially a talk show by the “Pastor” Gary Greenwald. He was one of the propagators of the satanic panic in the 80s. The themes expressed through satanic panic ideologies are actually still very common today and are one of the things that structure QAnon and other conspiratorial thinking, so it hasn’t really evolved much. So Gary and his guest are talking about the occult and demonic propaganda that has been imbued in popular culture. It’s pretty absurd, but is pretty impactful because a lot of people believe and resonate with these ideas. I think it really speaks to the necessity of belief – to feel like you belong to a certain culture, that you’re part of an in-group. Belief begins to structure reality and facts don’t matter as much. What matters is your gut and your view of right from wrong, your moral instinct. I consider this piece (the projection facade and living room) to be an anchor for everything else in the gallery.

In doing more research into this way of thinking, I realized there’s actually a lot of cultural products – architecture, media, poetry, literature–all of these things helped to disseminate these theories and make them resilient. There are medieval cathedrals in Europe that have architectural features illustrating anti-semitic conspiracy narratives and people don’t really realize that they’re there because they hide in plain sight. It helps these narratives remain alive.

Cindy Cheng

So that led me to these pieces along the wall. If you look at the beaded sections, you will see text in the beads. The text is stanzas from an ancient gnostic poem that was found in Egypt. People who study conspiracism think that this is one of the first written, physical artifacts demonstrating conspiratorial thinking and language. The poem is, interestingly, spoken through a feminine divine voice and it holds a lot of the flexibility of thought that is required for far right and fringe narratives. Something can be knowable and unknowable at the same time. Powerful and vulnerable. Victim and victor. It platforms the importance of personal experience and faith over fact and evidence. So there’s this continuity of world view or perspective that stretches from the ancient world to today’s conspiratorial communities. If you look at details, like specific ideas or elements, like the Great Awakening Map or Q-drops, it’s very chaotic and difficult to understand, which allows people to place their own belief systems and their own logic into that structure. However, if you take a macro view, there’s an enormous amount of consistency. So conspiracism itself lives in these two different spaces of order and chaos, which I think is really fascinating.

Cindy Cheng

MA: At the core of this work is the simultaneity of my having become a mother right at the moment that my own mother was dying. When my son was two and half weeks old, we learned that my mother had an advanced form of a very fatal cancer called serous uterine cancer. It’s not an environmental cancer or a genetic cancer or a hormone receptive cancer; it’s the kind of cancer that any of us could develop. The same mechanism that allows for growth, for healing, that foundational process – cell division. It can become exaggerated. That’s what happened to my mom. 

I find something perversely beautiful in that mechanism of creation and destruction. In this work, I sought to embody my experience of loss, while also making something. Turning loss into something. Drawing for me became a process of grieving and of healing. I had new restraints on my time. I needed to develop a technique that could embody both the loss and the urgency I was experiencing. My mother’s body was changing rapidly. I had thirty-four photos that she and I had taken nearly two decades earlier when I was in graduate school. We were nude. We were mock fighting. And, I used those photographs as source material for this work.

Mequitta Ahuja

The technique I developed was the reverse of my usual methods. I typically work additively, making work out of a slow accumulation of marks. In this case, I put the paint down. I then scraped it away, pulling my imagery out of the paint. I made close to one hundred drawings this way. The exact process developed along with the series. I then had to start over again when I transitioned to large canvases. Finding different tools and methods to achieve a similar result. 

In both cases, I limited my palette to pigments that would give me a vibrant hue in their transparency and an almost black in their mass tone or opaque application. 

Mequitta Ahuja

My mom lived to see a good portion of this series, and I am grateful that she got to witness just how much she inspires me. After my mom died, I returned to my additive way of working. I made two paintings that operate like this one. I think of this painting as an artist’s statement or even a studio visit. It has a didactic function – to tell the story of this body of work. And, it’s what I think of as a kitchen sink painting. It has everything in it. It’s a figure painting but it also introduces four types of figurative representation – naturalistic, graphic, stylized, symbolic. It has a trompe l’oeil element with the tape. I gave the hand-held picture, a highly graphic aspect, like a silkscreen. The portraits on the far-right side are reminiscent of intaglio prints.I hope a viewer will see in this painting my breadth of interests in the figurative tradition as well as the primary love between mother and child that is at the heart of this work.

Mequitta Ahuja

LH: My work is focused on combining elements from my painting and printmaking practice. I see the traditional printmaking matrix not only as a production tool, but also as an art object. The work I’m contributing to this exhibition, Carving Out Time, is a relief carving on cherry wood panels. The woodblocks are presented as a painting.  It’s part of a larger body of work titled Salt of the Earth where I’m exploring the personification of women as salt and our roles as preservers of our culture, families and communities.  I like to describe this work as a portrait of my day; allowing the viewer to look into my life as a mother and practicing artist from the very beginning of the day to the end. Since I’m sharing my life I wanted the work to be life-sized which accounts for the monumental scale of the work. This piece is also an opportunity to pay homage to a lot of my art heroes who have influenced my practice at varying stages of my career.  They are represented by the works that adorn the walls of this familial space.

LaToya Hobbs

I consider this as one work divided into five sections or scenes. Each of these spaces function as its own character with its own identity that is reflective of the people that occupy the space and the activities they engage in.  The work begins with Scene 1, “Morning,” which is set in my bedroom.  Depicting the start of my day, it introduces the main characters of the work.  In this scene I pay homage to Elizabeth Catlett whom I call my art mother. Catlett is a huge influence on my practice as a printmaker and artist in general because of the technical mastery of her work, but also how she depicts black women. Above the bed in this space is a representation of her work accompanied by a reference to the work of  Alma Thomas.

Scene two, “Homeschool & Housework”, shows my children and I in our office space which also functions as our homeschool area.  In this scene I am trying to instruct my son in his homeschool lesson while also folding clothes at the same time. It’s a comment on multitasking and the daily negotiations we have to make in order to “carve out time” for the things that are important.  This reflects the sentiment and title of the work. I’m also literally carving out time; referencing the physicality and duration of time taken to complete the work. In this piece I cite Margaret Burroughs, another one of my printmaking heroes and her piece titled Mother Africa.

LaToya Hobbs

Scene three, or “Dinner time” shows my family and I preparing for our evening meal as we transition into the latter part of the day.  It is the apex of the work and the only section where I’m standing.  Other artists I’m paying homage to in this section are Baltimore artist Valarie Maynard with her print Senefu in the center and Kerry James Marshall with his painting Untitled, Club Couple on the right side of the composition which foreshadows the relationship between myself and my partner who are standing in the middle of the composition.  The next scene, “Bedtime for the Boys,” is set in my children’s bedroom. I wanted it to show the bedtime rituals and traditions we share as a family.  It was also really important to integrate my children into the piece. Two of their drawings hang in the center of the composition and are flanked by a reference to Basquiate on the left and a painting by my partner, Ariston Jacks on the right. 

The last scene, “The Studio”, is the point in the day where I’m finally able to shift from the role of mother to artist. In this scene I’m seated in my studio space surrounded by works in various stages of production to give the viewer a real sense of what it’s like to be in an artist’s studio. One thing I really enjoy about this series is that the grandiose scale makes it reminiscent of the tradition of history paintings but presented in a modern light.  Though I’m presenting the work through the lens of my own experience I champion the everyday woman while addressing the themes of motherhood, family, and the connection one has to the physical spaces they occupy. 

LaToya Hobbs

Inertia Studio Visits