vanessa german’s Magical Sculptures Reflect the Enchantment of Black Life

vanessa german describes herself as an artist working from the studio of her soul, carefully observing and honoring the mystery of life that she then transfers into “portrait sculptures,” as she calls them. Amalgams of Black culture cobbled together through found objects like jeans and quilts, german’s evocative, bulbous, life-sized figures are dressed in clothes that extend and morph their shape, size, and appearance. These wood sculptures are not idle objects, but are imbued with all the intentionality and emotions that german carried while crafting them.

german was born in Milwaukee, but spent most of her formative youth in Los Angeles before eventually relocating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she is currently based. Her upbringing in 1980s L.A. was the inspiration behind her current solo exhibition “Sad Rapper,” on view at Kasmin in New York through October 22nd. The show is centered around a massive eponymous sculpture that features over 75 pounds of recycled denim amassing a height of 78 inches.

“Sad Rapper” opened just prior to german receiving the prestigious Heinz Award for the Arts, which will allot $250,000 of unrestricted funds to the artist. Additionally, german’s second solo exhibition of the year, “THE RAREST BLACK WOMAN ON THE PLANET EARTH,” will open at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum next month and remain on view through May 2023.

german’s institutional success matches the excitement surrounding her primary market. Kasmin sold 15 of german’s mixed-media sculptures in the range of $30,000–$45,000 at Independent Art Fair this past spring. And in Kasmin’s group presentation at The Armory Show earlier this month, one of german’s larger sculptures sold for $65,000. To say that german is having a moment would be a gross understatement; she is the moment.

TV Man, 2022
vanessa german

Kasmin

THE HERO, 2022
vanessa german

Kasmin

Amid this whirlwind of accomplishments, german moved to a cabin, a change she described making to become more in touch with nature and wildlife. This recalibration felt necessary following the laborious six-month production for “Sad Rapper,” where she worked at the gallery until opening night. The last sculpture was completed a mere five hours before doors opened to the public.

“My practice, I recognize, is not just the work of object-making, but one of restoration from being raised in systems that were incredibly violent and disempowering,” she told Artsy. “My practice is deeply restorative to the technology of me as a human being.” german’s self-taught practice is more holistic than those of artists who undergo the ritual of pursuing an MFA. Her figures both reflect and salve the wounds of systemic racial and sexual oppression.

german’s sculptures are partially informed by the tradition of Congolese minkisi, vessels that function as spiritual figures of healing rather than agentless objects. german was made aware of this history by a professor at Carnegie Mellon during a studio visit. She describes her practice as possessing an intuitive rhyme with the history and culture of minkisi. “Something inside of me brought me to this material that was not new at all, but new to me,” she said.

Some ideas might need years to germinate whereas others need to be completed immediately. As someone who constantly works with her hands, german expressed the importance of remaining open to new information so her work does not become insular. “Everything is available through the power of making,” german expressed. “Everything!”

Forever invested in seeking what’s inside of herself, german constantly sketches and keeps a notebook of ideas with her at all times. It allows her to connect to time and people across time, while honoring that inspiration comes from the ground up. This earth-to-body movement of knowledge rejects the top-down intellectual flow of the Cartesian method that german associates with oppressive systems that indoctrinate many to reject their relationship with their ancestors and the earth.

The sculptures for “Sad Rapper” were culled from a well of german’s memories from the last three decades and feature a traumatic witnessing of a young man being killed; Kanye West crying onstage over the death of his mother; the death of Eazy-E in 1995; and the infamous slap at the 2022 Academy Awards that led Will Smith to stammer through tears, “I don’t know why I’m crying,” during his acceptance speech for best actor.

Blue Bird, 2022
vanessa german

Kasmin

THE THREE-HEADED MAN, 2022
vanessa german

Kasmin

These fleeting snapshots and moments rose “from the studio of [her] soul and onto the sketchpad” to create the emblem of a sad rapper, as german conveyed. Once those images were realized, the materials for the sculptures appeared to german as clear as day while she assembled the sculptures without the aid of studio assistants.

Despite the much-due recognition, german still grapples with honoring her instinct and practice in a landscape where formal, academic artistic training and language are regurgitated and prioritized. “What I feel like I still have to kick against is the shame of being a self-taught artist, of needing to know everything,” she said. Hence, she advocates for collectors and curators to seek art beyond the institution and to continue to “make investments that are bold, loving, and courageous in artists and artist communities,” as she put it.

german further concluded, “I desire to be bolder in revealing this way of working with magic, mystery, and seeking connection to places that have been ruptured by the same systems that would seek to continue to rupture my existence in the here and now.”

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