Stepping Out to Step In: Theresa Chromati’s Commission at The Delaware Contemporary

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In the early fall of 2019, Leslie Shaffer, the newly appointed Executive Director at The Delaware Contemporary, asked me to work with the 40-year-old arts organization as a curator-in-residence. I had known Shaffer from her time at Baltimore’s Contemporary where she served as first Director of Education and then Interim Executive Director in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was exciting to hear her talk about her vision for activating the exterior of TDC’s building, a former railroad car assembly plant in Wilmington’s evolving Riverfront neighborhood.

Having spent much time drifting in and out of Wilmington’s Amtrak station gazing at TDC’s distinctive metal façade, I proposed commissioning monumental banners that could be viewed by both community members and train passengers. We soon discovered that travelers on I-95 would also see the two-story works. Shaffer and her team grew the idea into an ongoing series and reconceived TDC’s façade as a space dedicated to art: The Platform Gallery. The accessibility and inspiration this initiative offers has only become more relevant with the onset of COVID-19.

Where Will the Pieces Land? (Reaching for a Scrotum Flower), 2020, installed at TDC

Launching in 2020, we wanted to join institutions across America in celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage by selecting an outstanding emerging female creative leader for the commission. Theresa Chromati was a clear choice. An artist of Guyanese-American descent, Chromati has profound connections to cities along the Northeast corridor. She was born and raised in Baltimore, attended Wilmington’s Delaware College of Art and Design, as well as the Pratt Institute, and now lives and works in New York City.

Her complex and dynamic abstracted paintings of figures are anchored in the experiences of Black women’s lives and bodies and have been gaining ever greater recognition. Works have recently been acquired by the Pérez Art Museum in Miami and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, selected by Mickalene Thomas for her project at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and featured in the “Practice in Print” section of the Studio Museum of Harlem’s magazine. Chromati is represented by Kravets Wehby Gallery.

We All Look Back At It (Morning Ride), 2019, Acrylic, Glitter, and Soft Sculpture on Canvas, courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery

The Delaware Contemporary will celebrate Stepping Out to Step In, Chromati’s Platform Gallery commission with a public “drive-thru” opening from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 19. Originally slated for June 5, the opening was postponed in support of the anti-police brutality protests planned for the same evening. TDC staff, board members, and others will be handing out art-making materials June 5 “that can be used to share your message.”

The banners will remain on view until November 30, 2020. A solo exhibition of Chromati’s paintings is planned for TDC’s galleries, starting September 11, 2020, circumstances permitting. Future Platform Gallery artists include Anna KE in December 2020 and Meleko Mokgosi in June 2021.

The following interview offers insight into Chromati’s ideas and process.

Installing Theresa Chromati's work at The Delaware Contemporary

Kristen Hileman: Is this your first experience creating public art? How did knowing that these images will reach a large audience, including people who never visit museums, impact the work?

Theresa Chromati: This is not my only public work, but it is the first time that I have done one on such a large scale and with so many moving parts. And with everything that’s going on around the world, the current climate is unique. I have been taking that into consideration.

My first public work is still on view. It’s a digital piece printed on aluminum for an electrical box in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District. I have also done other digital public art. These public projects have offered spaces for me to create digitally, and I’m starting to unpack why that is. Historically, communication design and graphic design get straight to the point. When my work is located outside of the museum, I feel it has an opportunity to reach people in a different and direct way.

I definitely wanted to make images that were reminiscent of where my paintings are now… explosive but with calm areas. The paintings are very layered. I had to consider how to execute that language in a very different medium. Your hand just works differently on a computer than with a brush. But I was also thinking about ways the compositions would stand out to people in motion, for instance when people are on the train or walking by. I wanted to create something striking, graphic, and bold that would draw people into the work and then lead them to feel a more intimate connection with the imagery and the accompanying soundscape.

Although I never thought that people would experience the opening by car. I wonder how seeing the work in a space that feels so private will affect the viewing process and perception of the work. Normally you see work in a space where you can hear other people share their thoughts, which can then jump in the way of thinking through how you feel about the work. This new dynamic is interesting.

Delaware Contemporary Chromati Exhibit time lapse from Billy Michels on Vimeo.

L-R: Theresa Chromati, Where Will the Pieces Land? (Reaching for a Scrotum Flower), 2020, One Step and I Shall Form Again (Trust Your Movement), 2020, Gathered a Bunch of Scrotum Flowers and Now I Am on My Way (She's Getting There Isn't She), 2020

Could you describe the narrative that plays out across the three banners?

The banners capture different parts of a woman’s journey. She experiences the highs and lows of self-discovery and continues to take steps forward.

“One Step and I Shall Form Again (Trust Your Movement),” the banner closest to the Amtrak line, depicts a woman’s leg in conversation with her intuition, represented by two eyes and lips. The leg tries to find its way forward towards understanding amidst the confusion (although it’s beautiful confusion) that’s circling the woman. The image also includes a detached hand and floating breasts. All these elements of the woman’s body are trying to find a way to coalesce. Scrotum flowers surround her. These balance masculine and feminine energies and hold power. They offer the extra push needed for her to form again.

In “Where Will the Pieces Land? (Reaching for a Scrotum Flower),” which is near The Delaware Contemporary’s entrance, the woman is depicted at another phase of her journey. Her arm and breasts are in place, but she is not necessarily looking in one direction. Scrotum flowers are in the composition, but she hasn’t grabbed them yet.

The largest banner, “Gathered a Bunch of Scrotum Flowers and Now I Am on My Way (She’s Getting There Isn’t She),” is the last piece in the narrative. The woman is fully formed and feeling more confident, but her body language indicates that she is still wobbly. Her left foot moves forward to show that she has the audacity and strength to continue her journey, although she is still a little imbalanced. She’s gathered three scrotum flowers which offer her support. The surrounding eyes and lips continue to show the relationship between the woman and her intuition, which guides her along this journey.

The electronic and pop artist Pangelica composed a soundscape that accompanies the banners on exterior speakers. It can also be accessed through the Contemporary’s website for those who view the works from their cars or on the train. Why is sound such a vital component to not only these banners, but also exhibitions of your paintings?

I see the soundscapes as creating ambience, allowing me to express the sounds I associate with the women I depict. It also gives me an opportunity to engage in a deeper dialogue with myself. At times when I work, I think about certain words and phrases, which I record. I then exchange sounds back-and-forth with Pangelica. Our relationship allows me to distort and enhance these thoughts and to experiment with writing.

For this particular soundscape, “Forming, Ripping, haha, forming,” I identified some key words that are important to the banners but also lead into the paintings that will be in my September solo exhibition. These are “forming” and, in contrast, “ripping.” You don’t necessarily have one without the other. You don’t have lightness without darkness. Another way I get that point across is towards the end of the soundscape where there are moments of laughter as well as moments when I’m yelling. In both the digital compositions and paintings, it is very important to convey that the women are multi-dimensional and have a lot of different layers and aspects to them. The soundscapes are another way to further that message.

Prepared (She is with me), 2019, acrylic and glitter on canvas

When I view your banners, I feel that you have done powerful work updating motifs found in early to mid-20th century abstraction, including the strong contours of Matisse’s cut-outs and tumultuous manifestations of the female body found in the imagery of Picasso, de Kooning, Miro, and others. Do you consciously reflect on art history and past representations of women’s bodies as you make your work?

Of course, we all know their work exists and have been looking at it for years. You can always find things in their compositions and brushwork that are amazing. But I definitely don’t start a piece looking to have a direct conversation or lean on a reference too heavily.

Clearly, I know that there will be a dialogue with work that’s in the canon. That’s to be expected and important. But it’s also really important for me to start and end my work from a place of intimacy. That’s how I connect with the viewer. It’s a very intimate experience that is based in me understanding myself as a woman and reflecting on the connection I have spiritually to other women before me. Through all this complexity, the work becomes more and more abstracted. Finding the confidence to work in figurative abstraction is about pushing myself further into the unknown and places that feel uncomfortable. It is more about self-discovery and seeing how far I can take a composition. Artists before me have had similar realizations, but I have not really looked to their examples for support.

Because you often describe your work as autobiographical, do you feel there is a political dimension to your work that puts it in opposition to depictions of female bodies by male or white artists?

That is not the starting point for me. But with the climate we live in, certain injustices toward women and Black women, and issues in our country and in the world at large, so many things can become political. That can always be a part of the conversation until we live in a “perfect world.”

Even outside of your art practice, I feel that your life should not be centered in someone else’s viewpoints. That’s what I’m addressing when I make work about women’s complicated journeys. There are so many things that are popping out and falling apart. There is an explosion of all these different emotions. That’s a lot to deal with just in the context of my own thoughts and experiences.

The goal isn’t to make work in order to sit down and have a conversation with a white man about this or that. But if a white man happens to see my work and isn’t comfortable with depictions of a Black woman being fully herself, being vibrant, colorful, multi-layered, textured, and super-complex, then clearly that does lead to a more political conversation about why that discomfort exists and the issues, mainly oppression, behind it.

In our conversations, you have noted that the banners speak to a very long history of using female forms to “decorate” buildings. This history comprises caryatids on ancient temples, freestanding sculptures on plazas, and allegorical figures in architectural murals and reliefs. With the current state of the American economy, I am especially thinking of some of the public works commissioned by the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression. Do your works continue or disrupt that tradition?

Both. Technically, they continue the tradition. But in another way, the work disrupts the examples that we most typically see. When I think about the past, it feels like the female form is used mainly as ornamentation and with not a lot of movement. I wanted to provide imagery that felt more in line with women of today and with myself. I aimed to create something that felt vibrant, like a breath of fresh air, but also something that is honest and complex. I want to put out a message that you can be all of those things simultaneously. Moving forward, it would be beneficial to see more images in public spaces of women taking control, even if they don’t necessarily have everything figured out or the view you see isn’t crystal clear. It could be cracked and fractured, but there is still beauty and strength there.

I also feel like this project has provided me with the opportunity to do something more innovative than a conventional sculpture. I could play with the idea of public art that is rooted in design. That felt pretty special.

You also have a solo show opening in The Delaware Contemporary’s galleries this September. Will the paintings in that exhibition continue the themes of the banners or head in different directions?

It will be a continuation. The title of this overall project, both banners and exhibition, Stepping Out to Step In, is not literally about stepping out and finding yourself in other people. Rather it’s about stepping or moving forward. It pushes the idea of motion. If you remain static, that’s when you die. So, I’m thinking about stepping out in order to step back into yourself, into your most intimate and deepest space, where you can do a lot of the work to build and to grow. Throughout that journey, there is beauty in both darkness and light.

The bull is out and my foot is in my mouth (are we staying or leaving?), 2019, acrylic, gouache, and glitter on canvas

The banners and soundscape are a prelude that welcomes you into a more complicated space. The gallery is like a womb, where I am more comfortable going deeper into myself and creating visuals that expand on the imagery of the graphic pieces outside.

My hand is more fluid when I work with paint. In making a brushstroke, sometimes my hand is moving before my mind is even processing how it’s moving. There are many layers to my painting process. I don’t really believe in mistakes. The way I’m working and the content of women’s journeys of self-discovery that I’m depicting go hand in hand. It’s about trusting the experience.

The digital work is a bit more calculated and refined. But there is beauty in both. It’s been great to get back to working digitally. I’m at a point where I feel comfortable creating these compositions and stories about women for women as both paintings and digital work. I have figured out how to keep the digital work from becoming too literal and am using a consistent language throughout both types of work.

*This article has been updated to reflect the changed date of the opening.

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