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Artists Reflect on the Harms of Data Collection

TUCSON — Expressive abstractions on large-scale canvases and drop clothes fill a gallery space inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson where The Relevance of Your Data, Grace Rosario Perkins’s (Diné/Akimel O’odham) first solo museum exhibition, reveals her emotive creativity. Based in Albuquerque, the artist is bringing a fresh perspective to abstract painting, making her one of the Southwest’s most exciting emerging artists.

The museum commissioned eight new paintings from Perkins for the show, which also includes work by four additional artists she invited to participate. According to exhibition materials, “the artists in the show seek to build solidarity between Black and Indigenous makers.” The artists include Ella Perkins’s father and three friends, a choice that underscores the role that kinship and mutual support play in her creative practice.

Grace Rosario Perkins, “Women Lifting Their Skirts Laughing, Fruit Punch, and LPs” (detail) (2002), acrylic, sand, cloth, spray paint on canvas (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

It’s an approach Perkins conveys in part through the text, painted forms, photographs, and found objects that fill her artworks. Spiderwebs recur throughout, suggesting the value she places on interconnectedness. One of the first works viewers see when entering the space is “Mom Jokes To Make Her Hair Curly Like A Sheep” (2022), which includes a spider web and the xeroxed image of a woman holding a cat in front of her face de ella . The composition echoes a key characteristic of Perkins’s art practice: Although largely autobiographical, the artist’s choice of subject matter and use of materials often serves to conceal rather than reveal her inner world.

Some of Perkins’s paintings hang suspended in the air; others are shown in standing frames made with unfinished wood. One painting hangs from a gallery wall, and several are positioned as if they’re supporting one another. Together, they look like a vast landscape of color, movement, and line. Her painting of her titled “The Stereos — I Really Love You.MP3” (2022) serves to support the work of San Diego-based Fox Maxy (Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians and Payómkawichum). Here, Perkins painted overlapping spider webs with the words “I Love You” on one side of her canvas. The blank side of the canvas functions as a projection screen for “Maat” (2020), a 30-minute single-channel video in which Maxy blends personal footage, digital imagery, and the voices of activists to explore identity and cultural landscapes in the borderlands.

Fox Maxy, “Maat” (2020), single-channel video with sound (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

The exhibition’s title references data as a means to categorize and ascribe value to particular people, along with related practices that are especially harmful to people of color. Here, the artists prompt reflection on the very definition of data, centering questions about how it’s collected, authenticated, documented, and distributed — and by whom.

Throughout this body of work, Perkins added and subtracted myriad layers of paint, revealing and concealing information, ideas, and language through buoyant constructions of text, painted imagery, and objects. Some objects, such as mirrors and painter’s tape, have been manufactured; others, including sand and textured bits of corn pollen that look like tangles of short threads, are sourced from the land.

Eric-Paul Riege performs during the public opening for Grace Rosario Perkins: The Relevance of Your Data at MOCA Tucson on April 2, 2022. (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

Adding another layer of connectivity, artist Eric-Paul Riege (Diné), based in Gallup, New Mexico, used corn pollen and yellow roses beneath each painting during his durational performance for the public opening of the exhibition. Two of Riege’s soft sculptures,titled “….oo-O-oo….” and “+ [pronounced ‘t],” are suspended in the center of the gallery where their stacked ellipses and symmetrical columns suggest harmony and healing. Both pieces were also part of his performance, as they were adobe mounds created by Los Angeles-based artist Rafa Esparza for the previous exhibit in this space.

Simultaneously intimate and expansive, Perkins’s paintings made with acrylic and spray paint incorporate additional materials that reflect her own lived experience and the cultural, historical, and social context for her work. For “Vast Blue Plain” (2021-2022), which includes the capitalized text “Must Be On Your Mind,” she used the aromatic resin of the copal tree prevalent in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Other paintings include rose petals or a type of marigold called calendula, calling to Indigenous peoples and land as sources of knowledge and healing.

Grace Rosario Perkins (photo by Maida Branch, courtesy the artist)

Moving through the gallery space, individual works function as both stand-alone carriers of meaning and conveyors of collective meaning. The painting “When Cosmoflora Destroys A Man’s Crocodile Tears” (2022) includes several flower-like forms that recall the “flower power” iconography of the 1960s anti-war movement, as well as a white washcloth affixed to a lower-left corner of the piece. But cheerful blossoms look more like the cotton bolls picked by enslaved people when viewed alongside “Labor in Chains” (2021), a mixed-media sculpture by Lonnie Holley, an Alabama-based artist born in the Jim Crow South.

Holley creates artworks using found objects, refuse, and personal possessions. These mash-ups of materials embody his autobiography while also challenging historical narratives. Here, he’s turned a tall artificial plant with white blossoms upside down, adding materials such as a heavy rusted chain and a sparkling gold purse left open to reveal thick strips of off-white paper that connote both shredded documents and the attempted erasure of African Americans . Elsewhere he stacked a rusted long gun and a broom for his sculpture “Sweeping Away the Evidence” (2017), and set a large white rock inside the curved blade of a long-handled shovel used to clean outhouses to make “Digging for the Truth ” (2018).

Grace Rosario Perkins: The Relevance of Your Data (installation view) (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

Along the center of a back wall, viewers see Perkins’s “Pablo 4Ever” (2022), a particularly distinct painting with its two side-by-side shapes resembling both human figures and geological formations. Set against a winding path made with letters spelling an indiscernible phrase, they share the Rorschach-like properties of her other abstract paintings and remind viewers of the essential connection between humans and land.

The sculpture “Find A River” (2016) by Olen Perkins (Akimel O’odham) is particularly poignant. It’s composed of seven mesquite branches covered with a patchwork of aluminum from cans found on the Gila River Indian Community he calls home. The branches stand in a loosely configured line suggesting the meandering banks of a river and the way traditions flow between generations.

That flow is present throughout the exhibition, where Perkins and her fellow artists have created a space for discovering and sharing data in a mutual, non-linear fashion while also undertaking collective action.

The Relevance of Your Data continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (265 South Church Avenue, Tucson, Arizona) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Laura Copelin, MOCA Tucson curator-at-large, with Alexis Wilkinson, assistant curator.

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