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Building Pathways to Power: Larry Cook and Myrtis Bedolla

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Of all Larry Cook’s photo series, I find The Visiting Room to be the most mesmerizing, but also chilling. Cook depicts Black men in prison culture poses, wearing tan uniforms, skull caps, and Timberland boots in dozens of similar yet distinct images. They model in front of festive, airbrushed photo backdrops of idealized city skylines and expensive cars, the kind used in nightclub photo booths, and each man sits or squats with his back to the camera, eyes seeking impossible escapes through the fanciful backdrops the artist provides. Their loneliness is palpable, but there is hope too. As a person who has visited her own relatives in jail, recalling how heartbreaking it was to visit a person I loved behind glass, Cook’s images conjure up the agony of being in prison waiting rooms: so close, but unable to connect or touch.

Cook is a conceptual artist and photographer, a professor at Howard University, and an archivist based in Washington, DC. His work has been steadily growing in popularity, with a 2020 group exhibition at MoMA PS1 called Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a 2020 solo exhibition at Weiss Berlin in Germany, and placing as a finalist in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery.

In addition to several exhibits at Galerie Myrtis, Cook was featured in the 2016 Sondheim finalists exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, and he was recently awarded a 2021 Light Work artist residency. Before he became a college professor, Cook worked in nightclubs in DC. The spectacle of having one’s photo taken in front of a photo backdrop has become a primary symbol for the artist, in terms of representing an American Black experience that is powerful and universal in anonymity, placing prison and club photography aesthetics at the center of his practice.

 

Urban Landscapes series

Galerie Myrtis is a Baltimore-based, Black-owned art gallery, located in a brownstone in the Old Goucher neighborhood since 2008. Owner Myrtis Bedolla is a curator, gallerist, and art consultant who specializes in 20th and 21st-century American art with a focus on work created by African-American artists.

The gallery currently represents fifteen artists, whose careers span from emerging to well-established. Her ongoing Tea with Myrtis speaker series has been a well-attended opportunity for collectors to build relationships with the artists she exhibits and, over the past few years, Galerie Myrtis has regularly participated in global art fairs. The gallery made its international debut in 2019 during the 13th Havana Biennial in the cross-cultural exhibition Building Bridges II: The Politics of Love, Identity and Race II which featured work by Larry Cook and nine other artists represented by the gallery, alongside Cuban artists.

As one of the few Black-owned galleries in Baltimore and in the country, Bedolla has recently gained national press in the New York Times (“Black Gallerists Press Forward Despite a Market That Holds Them Back”) and authored the article “Why My Blackness Is Not a Threat to Your Whiteness” in Cultured Magazine in July 2020. Bedolla sees her relationship with Cook, as well as the other artists she works with, as a collaborative way to navigate the power structures of the art world and build a network of support and credibility. I sat down for a conversation with Bedolla and Cook via Zoom to discuss their ongoing work together.

 

High Rollers series

Teri Henderson: Why do you do the work that you do?

Larry Cook: Sometimes it’s hard to just be yourself, and I find that the art world and industry allows for agency and creative freedom that other industries don’t.

Myrtis Bedolla: The mission of the gallery is to raise awareness for artists who portray our cultural, social, historical, and political landscapes and to recognize art movements that paved the way for freedom of artistic expression. As a gallerist, having full autonomy over the selection of artists and the freedom to address critical issues that might be deemed controversial allows the gallery to fulfill its mission. Bringing artists to the forefront like Larry, who are addressing issues that concern us as a society and celebrate the contributions of African Americans, is why Galerie Myrtis exists.

Larry, I know that you worked as a club photographer in DC. Can you talk about an experience that influenced your work from that time?

LC: I did club photography from 2007 until 2012. I remember one night at a Caribbean nightclub in Langley Park, MD. This one gentleman, with a group of six or seven guys, paid me a flat fee to photograph him and his friends exclusively for the remainder of the night. They’d come and take pictures throughout the night, often flashing money and jewelry, it was just a whole spectacle. And when the club was closing, they didn’t take any of the photographs with them. It made me realize, when I had believed it was important to them to remember this moment, that it was really about being in the moment, this sense of spectacle and performance that the photo booth creates. The extension of that realization into your studio practices is so seamless.

Can you tell me more about why you decided to use photo backdrops in such a specific way?

LC: Club photography is vernacular photography, similar to prison photography, in terms of the emergence of hip-hop and the materialistic nature of it. But I think one of the things that I was really fascinated by was a sense of agency in these photos. So you have this space that people come to, and no matter what’s happening in society or in their personal lives, they get dressed up, they come to a safe space to be themselves. There’s this archive of everyday Black life and I thought it was important to pull that into my practice.

 

The Visiting Room series
The Visiting Room series

You created The Visiting Room series about visiting relatives in prison. How did you arrive at this idea of melding the backdrops into this subject?

LC: I think the element of prison has always surfaced in my work. It started early, in the series When Dad Comes Home, which includes images from my two uncles, from their personal archives. My uncles were incarcerated around the same time for about ten years, apart, and we wrote to each other all the time, and we would send each other images.

My collection of prison polaroids started there, and I wanted to focus on the importance of prison vernacular photography, that it’s widely circulated and vital to the mental health and survival of these inmates, and to root my practice in that. It’s a reminder to not forget about those who are incarcerated, that just because you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential for you to be redeemed.

Why do you put glitter over the figures in the High Rollers series?

LC: It’s just one of those aesthetic choices. I think about what these images represent, being in that moment: the jewelry, the clothes, the sense of representation and pride, that spectacle being created. That choice was a way to really accent those attributes and elements, and again, that sense of agency, performing the poses, the posture. When you study urban behavior, especially the rebellious nature of youth, it evolves as we become adults, so part of it was wanting to crystallize those poses, those moments, almost in a statuesque way to really highlight their importance.

 

High Rollers series
High Rollers series

Myrtis, what drew you to Larry’s work?

MB: His storytelling ability reminds me of the work of James Van Der Zee, but with an urban feel. Larry shows the beauty of who we are in whatever position in life we hold. He is an archivist and his work captures the nuances and complexities of Black culture. Sometimes that perspective is raw, but that is also what I love about it.

He addresses subject matter that others may shy away from, and he does it with poignant imagery and truth. In The Visiting Room series, we cannot look into the subject’s eyes; it causes us to pause and contemplate what they are thinking and how they view their world as they look out into the backdrop.

Can you talk about the racial injustice that you’ve experienced as a Black gallerist and/or artist and the battle for fair pay and value?

MB: The New York Times article by Robin Pogrebin, “Black Gallerists Press Forward Despite a Market That Holds Them Back,” voiced the concerns Black gallerists face in an industry with a history of systematic racism.

As I stated in the article, the art world is still very segregated. White men primarily own the oldest and well-established galleries and they have controlled the market for years, in private and public sectors, from commercial galleries to museums (respectively). Our nation’s history of discriminatory laws and institutional policies which denied access to funding and exhibition opportunities for African-American artists is the basis for the injustices Black gallerists face today.

During my 30 years in the art industry, I, unfortunately, have been discriminated against. I have applied for and until recently have been denied acceptance into significant art fairs. There are peer organizations that do not have any members that are African-American. And I have found it extremely difficult to develop relationships with museum curators, despite the fact that I represent nationally recognized contemporary artists.

LC: For me, it has actually been quite the opposite. Art has been one of the more diverse industries, in terms of people who are willing to help to provide resources and opportunities. I’ve had a lot of instances with photographers in the area who have loaned me their equipment and assisted on projects. A lot of what we do is based on people that we know, and a lot of opportunities come from that. My work has been supported by people from various backgrounds, not to say that it’s been a cakewalk, I definitely have my challenges, but in stemming from racism or racial injustice, I would say no.

 

Urban Landscapes series

Myrtis, do you exclusively represent Black artists?

MB: I specialize in the work of African-American artists, but there are two artists on our roster that are white that I’ve been working with for a number of years. It’s interesting because I get that question a lot, but I rarely hear it posed to white galleries who represent Black artists or a roster of Black and white and whatever other nationality artists they work with. There’s an expectation that, as a Black gallery owner, I will only represent Black artists, but I really just represent work that resonates with me. With each artist that I represent, I see my life’s experience in their work.

Right now, Black contemporary art is a hot commodity. I’ve never seen my inbox flooded with so many images of Black artists from different institutions and organizations. Do you think that this is a trend that will last?

MB: I hope it’s not a trend, because trends come and go, and Black life and Black art are relevant today and have always been. Black creativity is essential, valuable, and an integral part of our society, of humanity. We are not a trend; we are here for eternity, and while our lives will come to an end, our legacy, as demonstrated through the art, will continue. I’ve watched the consumption of Black art grow over the past five years. I study the market on an ongoing basis and believe we are witnessing a correction.

Black artists primarily ignored by white collectors and denied access to major museums are now occupying a segment of the art market, receiving unprecedented recognition and achieving historical valuations. Key factors influencing the art market are Black collectors and museums, primarily telling the African-American experience. They are taking an active role in acquiring and preserving Black art and culture.

LC: As Myrtis mentioned, the increased trajectory of acquisitions of Black art over the past five years can be seen as a common trend among Black art administrators and Black curators, so I have no reason to believe that those things will not continue to increase, but that remains to be seen. As an artist, the market is important but it isn’t something that drives my practice. I just wanted to create and produce something that could stimulate minds and inspire people to think. How curators and the market respond to it is not up to me, but it is important for me to stay grounded on my particular principles.

 

High Rollers Series

Can you talk about changing museum culture in relation to the work that you do?

MB: We all know that Black lives matter now, but my question is this: Is this a moment or a movement? A moment is when an institution gives the appearance it has taken a stand against systemic racism in the public eye and creates the perception of justice and equality. It is a movement when there are ongoing efforts and policy changes within the institution. An important step is to hire Black curators to contextualize the work so that it is appropriately understood. I would like to see greater collaboration and financial support from museums in Washington, DC, and Baltimore. I’m talking about economic empowerment through the acquisition of works.

Part of the challenge in the field has been that curatorial museum positions are so coveted, and once people land in those positions, they stay till they die. You can try to get in and then try to work your way up the hierarchy, but there are so many barriers to keep us out, and this is why we have to create our own entities. I see a lot of examples of the importance of creating your own opportunities, that it has to come through independent means, forming our own business or offering our services as an independent curator, which I’ve done a lot of as well. There are ways to navigate, but it can be very, very difficult.

Larry, who is your biggest creative influence?

LC: My wife, Nakeya Brown. Her work ethic is amazing. Sometimes I would only be motivated to produce work when there’s a deadline, and seeing someone like her who is constantly collecting objects and shooting consistently has impacted the way I work.

 

Urban Landscapes series

What can we do to actually address and repair the gross racial inequality of the predominantly white art world? Is this even possible, or do we continue to just build and steward our own worlds as you both have done?

MB: I think the question about how to end racial inequalities in the art world is best posed to those who have the power to change it. My focus is to keep doing the work to continue to move the gallery’s agenda forward. I consider myself an activist, and I have the privilege of deploying the work of artists to combat racism. However, we can’t get to the place that we need to be unless we are receptive to dealing with the truth.

Larry’s work and the artists that I represent allow for those conversations to take place, making us all better. I have some good white friends who are very open-minded and receptive to having those difficult conversations, and art allows us a starting point for those discussions.

LC: No matter what issues surround us, it is still our responsibility to push forward and be the best versions of ourselves, and not to make any excuses. Just be great, be excellent in what you do and the work will speak for itself. If you feel like gallery representation isn’t there, then you represent yourself, create your own platform. There are so many opportunities, we just have to take advantage of them.

Can you share one piece of advice that you can offer to an emerging artist, Larry?

LC: Take advantage of every opportunity, and don’t be afraid to collaborate with your peers. Myrtis, what advice that you can offer an emerging Black curator or gallerist?

MB: Mentorship is crucial in this industry. Dr. Leslie King Hammond, Graduate Dean Emeritus at Maryland Institute College of Art, and George Ciscle, Curator-in-Residence, Emeritus at MICA, my former professor, are both my mentors. As scholars, they are well respected in the arts and have deep connections in the industry. Each has played a vital role in my personal growth and that of my business.

Collaboration is also essential. Collaborating with other galleries and art consultants has been critical to my ability to place the artists’ works in museum collections and gain exposure outside of the Baltimore area.

 

Urban Landscapes series

Header Image: Larry Cook, The Visiting Room Series

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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