LOS ANGELES — In a 2017 interview with Bomb magazine, multidisciplinary artist Steffani Jemison touched upon her relationship to abstraction. She approaches it “as a verb,” one that expresses “a desire to retain space beyond description.” Working across a range of media, from drawings and videos to performance and writing, Jemison explores how opacity and withdrawal can and have activated liberatory possibilities by creating spaces that escape our traditional modes of communication. In End Over End, the Brooklyn-based artist’s exhibition of recent work on view at JOAN, videos, drawings, and sculptures band together to form a cryptic dance between understanding and incomprehension. This dance made me consider the limits of language, and how it works alongside different modes of expression, from the physical to audiovisual.
Jemison plays with JOAN’s industrial layout, leaning into its open qualities while also shifting the space to create hidden pockets. One of the drawings from an untitled series, which display sparse, gestural markings on found glass tabletops, is tucked away in a corner near the window. The audio of “Toss” (2021), a video created during the pandemic and the centerpiece of the exhibition, fills the gallery, making its presence known long before encountering its source. Its sound merges with the ambient drone of another work, a series of three sculptures called “Tumblers” (2021). Rock tumblers smooth out their contents, which are previewed on a shard-like plinth in the middle of the gallery, decorated with bits of ceramics, hardware, and pennies.
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In “Toss,” Jemison collaborated with gymnast and artist Alexis Page (who competed on the US national team at 13), which marks the third time the artist has used video to follow and engage with a particular artist’s movement practice. Page performs a series of moves related to rhythmic gymnastics and tumbling, including flips, tosses, and traps, using found and everyday objects as her props. As she reckons with the different weights of a twig and a wig head, Page considers concepts of fluency and growth, and how they relate to her own physicality in a voiceover. At one point, she reveals her desire to “move without thinking,” where movement and being resembles a free flowing stream. Her musings are intercut with musical interludes while the slowed-down camera spins and careens, the viewer placed in the perspective of the objects tossed by Page. Watching Page use her body to express what cannot be captured in language made me meditate on what it meant to move through the world free and unencumbered by anxiety or fear.
“In Succession” (2019) continues Jemison’s investigations into the resistive power of the abstracted space. In the black and white video, four actors practice a loose choreography of stillness and support as they use each other’s limbs to form a human pyramid. Presented in a split-screen format, Jemison rotates the two images so that their tops now meet in the middle, expanding the filmic space instead of fracturing it. The actors’ clothes, hands, and faces blur into each other, forcing the viewer to reorganize their sense of time and space.
Like “Toss” and the other work, “In Succession” is informed by Jemison’s intensive research into Black cultural traditions, wherein she uses specific historical moments and performance modes (like pantomime or early film) as starting points for her own explorations into the reciprocal relationships between people and their surroundings. Rather than dismissing illegibility as a lack of clarity, Jemison embraces opacity as an expansive strategy that provides other ways of practicing freedom and connection.
End Over End is on view at JOAN (1206 Maple Avenue, Suite 715, Downtown, Los Angeles) through April 30, 2022. The exhibition is organized by Hannah Spears.