Ebony G. Patterson: . . . while the dew is still on the roses . . .

Opening reception: Thursday, Feb. 27, 5:30–8 p.m.

Exhibit through Jul. 12 

The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

On February 27, the Nasher Museum of Art will open the exhibit . . . while the dew is still on the roses . . ., a major solo show by Ebony G. Patterson, who was born in Kingston in 1981 and now splits her time between Jamaica and Chicago.

The exhibit, which was organized by Pérez Art Museum Miami, immerses Patterson’s distinctly embellished drawings, tapestries, videos, and sculptures in an installation environment. It’s a moonlit garden of both haunting beauty and tragic resonance. 

Filled with ersatz flowers, Patterson’s exhibit invokes the functions and forms of memorials and funerary arts and the pleasure, danger, death, and revelation associated with gardens in art and literature. Think of the Biblical Eden, Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” or Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby

Patterson’s growing body of work, which is held in public collections from the National Gallery of Jamaica to 21c Museum Hotels and the Nasher, “investigates forms of embellishment as they relate to youth culture within disenfranchised communities,” according to the Nasher. 

Patterson’s work is in a lineage with Miriam Schapiro’s “femmages” of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s and self-taught Jamaican artist Leonard Daley’s abstract yet representational work on found boards and dwelling walls. In a recent interview with the INDY, Patterson said she loves and is inspired by both artists, also mentioning the influence of Kerry James Marshall and Trenton Doyle Hancock. 

Patterson draws, paints, works with video, incorporates performance, and creates elaborate tapestries laden with multicolored glitter, beads, sequins, fabric, and her signature artificial flowers. Her works exude beauty, excess, and an essential polyvalence. 

Patterson conjures the faces, shapes, and experiences of people who are black, brown, average, poor, queer, beautiful, complicated—and their relationship to beauty, land, and place. 

Patterson says that the exhibit’s title comes from Charles Austin Miles’s 1912 hymn “In the Garden,” which was inspired by Miles’s vision of Mary Magdalene with Jesus in the garden. In the Gospel of John, Mary goes to visit Jesus’s tomb in the garden and is devastated upon finding it empty and then temporarily mistakes the resurrected Jesus for the gardener. 

“The garden is where all of this happens,” Patterson says. “It is a site where beauty is unfolding and, at the same time, as it is in the song, it’s a place of death. Dew references wetness—the tears and the ooze of the body—and while the rose is a funerary flower, it’s also a flower of love.”

Patterson also emphasizes the title’s focus on transformation; the adverb “still” suggests potential and opportunity for change. Patterson has often been quoted as saying that in her work, beauty functions as a trap to lure us in. Its lush, ornate, glittering, and excessive permutations draw in viewers, who must reckon with the work’s complex entanglements of oppression, violence, and death.  

The exhibit incorporates work from many series over the past decade, along with work created specifically for this show. “Untitled Species VIII (Ruff)” is a drawing on paper embellished with rhinestones and glitter from a series that explores Jamaican dancehall culture and its fluid relationship to gender and identity. Patterson understands beauty and pageantry as acts of cultivation, and she’s especially concerned with the ways working-class people cultivate beauty. 

For Patterson, everyday dress is a form of memorialization, a concept that takes on multilayered meaning in “Entourage.” In this photograph, she explores Jamaican gang culture through subjects in floral, colorful clothing on a floral-patterned background to complicate conventional structures of masculinity and family.

The piece also refers to Jamaica’s 2010 Tivoli incursion, a two-day standoff between police and the Shower Posse drug cartel that left more than 70 people dead. This violence was initiated by the United States calling to extradite the cartel’s leader.

The works “… moments we cannot bury …” and “Where We Found Them – Dead Treez” are especially arresting large-scale tapestries. The first is positioned so that half of the viewer’s body, as curator Tobias Ostrander says, is “positioned below what would represent ground level;” silk flowers—birds of paradise, hyacinths, and lilies of the valley, all poisonous varieties—partially conceal objects and body parts cast in glass. The piece also includes a “cloud” of hundreds of women’s shoes covered in black glitter, hanging from the ceiling, which recalls the shoes hanging from power lines that mark gang territories. 

Meanwhile, the second tapestry hovers just above the floor, covered in lush plant life, beads, gold thread, lace, and found objects such as women’s shoes and fans. It refers to the “anonymous wild grasses and flowered fields in which dead bodies are often found,” says Ostrander, and from above, viewers eventually discern two sets of legs wearing the same shoes positioned on the plane.

Both works reference photos of slain bodies of black and brown people that are circulated on social media in ways that trouble Patterson. She wants viewers to confront the presence and absence of these bodies and consider their humanity. 

Patterson notes that she’s been misquoted many times saying that she used the actual images in her work. 

“I have never, ever done any such thing!” she says. “I worked with models, and I was using these images as points of reference. It’s not even that I staged the models based on the photos, either.” 

Instead, she photographed models from above and, during editing, erased anything that revealed skin, because she was also “interested in the question or the opportunity for the audience to kind of fill in who it is … and ideas around visibility and invisibility.”

While her work is rooted in place and nation, Patterson also recognizes that many of the themes she examines are much broader, because recontextualizing gender norms and bearing witness to racism and violence transcends national borders. 

“From the very entry of the show, its title, I want to shift the way the viewer thinks about my work if they already know my work,” Patterson says. 

While this exhibit acknowledges the inherent beauty of the garden, it also suggests that “its beauty, like all beauty, is fleeting. And time may run out in the garden because the weeds come for everyone.” 

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com. 

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