WATER MILL, NY – “What happens to the color communities there?” It was the first question Tomashi Jackson asked when the Parrish Art Museum invited her to join a project in the East End of Long Island.
While Jackson was a resident of her New York gallery owner, the artist had no firsthand experience with the Hamptons, known for their beautiful scenery that inspired generations of artists, and their exorbitantly expensive second homes for the rich and famous.
But when Corinne Erni, the curator of Parrish, started telling stories of immigration arrests here and of Latinos being stopped in their cars for traffic violations that led to ICE detention and family separation, Jackson said the wheels were starting to turn. On Sunday, “Tomashi Jackson: The Land Claim” will open in Parrish with seven new canvases, an outdoor sound piece and an installation above the window of the facade, which was created through the artist’s interviews with nine members of the indigenous peoples over the past 18 months , Black and Latino communities living in the East End.
Last month at the Watermill Center, where Jackson was finishing her series of paintings for the Parrish, she explained how the idea came about.
Jackson, born in Houston in 1980 and raised in South Los Angeles, is known for digging up stories of abuse of power, disenfranchisement, and displacement of people of color. For the 2019 Whitney Biennale, her curiosity led her to explore the history of Seneca Village, the once thriving middle-class black community whose land was seized from the city by a significant domain during the creation of Central Park. Their interest in the dangers migrant workers face in the East End became the starting point for the Parrish project.
“But you know what is happening to research,” said the artist, a visiting professor at Harvard, where she will have another exhibition on September 20 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on the history of desegregation in schools. “You go into someone else’s garden with a few seedlings of questions and all sorts of other things happen.”
Jackson’s paintings synthesize connections shared by colored residents around experiences of transportation, housing, agriculture, and work. The works integrate fragments of their personal family photographs into historical images and changing color fields.
“In all of these communities I listened to, the fact of the land was a common echo – investing in, harvesting, burying people, being evicted,” said Jackson of the oral traditions she distilled into new paintings.
The title of the exhibition comes from conversations with Kelly Dennis, a member of the Shinnecock Nation and lawyer embroiled in ongoing land disputes between the City of Southampton and the Shinnecocks, which have now shrunk to a small reservation. The neighboring Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was built on land that once belonged to the Native Americans, and members of the nation claim the golf course was carved from the burial sites of the ancestors of the tribe. (In an email, Brett Pickett, the club’s president, declined to comment.)
During Jackson’s interview with Donnamarie Barnes, an archivist at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island, a ferry ride away, the artist learned of the local descendants of enslaved people brought to the island in the 17th century by the Sylvester family, sugar plantation owners in Barbados Century. Sylvester Manor was one of the largest slave owner locations on Long Island.
Richard Wingfield, a liaison officer for the Southampton School District, recalled the extraordinary gardens on Black’s properties that had been bought up by developers over time. The parish now sits in a field where his grandmother and aunts once worked as workers picking potatoes.
“The whole story of this place began to emerge, like mountains protruding from the ground – something that was invisible and unheard,” said Erni, curator of the exhibition.
Before entering the Parrish, visitors encounter the voices and stories of the nine interview partners, which are projected from loudspeakers under the roof, in a soundscape created in collaboration with the composer Michael J. Schumacher.
Jackson’s paintings, collected by the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, layer archive images on canvases painted with vibrant colors and bold, abstract geometry. Since her MFA time at Yale, she has been heavily influenced by Josef Albers’ aesthetic theories about our color perception.
“Your art is as much about abstraction as it is about racial politics,” noted Holland Cotter in his New York Times review of Jackson’s projects at the Whitney Biennale.
For “The Land Claim” she began by building her canvases like quilts, brown paper bags, fabrics from Sag Harbor, vintage potato sacks and shapes painted in rich colors. Then she superimposed the photos of the residents in layers. She converts the pictures into halftone lines and paints those lines in her busy surfaces. She prints other pictures on translucent vinyl strips that hang over the painting and create a cacophony of impressions.
In one painting, “Three Sisters”, the faces of matriarchs from three different communities and time periods cross, appear and disappear in the frame, with optical illusions created by the overlapping lines and colors. “They collide, they collapse like sediments of history,” said Jackson.
Ashley James, Associate Curator at the Guggenheim, is fascinated by how Jackson adapts a concept Albers called “vibrating borders”, how neighboring saturated colors seem to interact and how colored people are perceived in public spaces. “She rejects the idea that aesthetics can be separated from our political history,” said James.
Jackson began mural painting and worked for several years as an apprentice to muralist Juana Alicia from Chicano, California. Her interest in abstraction was sparked when she moved to New York in 2005 to attend the Cooper Union. She was a student of the critic Dore Ashton, who witnessed the rise of Abstract Expressionism first hand and brought its narrative to life for Jackson.
As she walked around New York, Jackson was struck by the ubiquity of awnings and came up with the idea of wrapping her paintings around awning-like structures protruding from walls (a technique she still uses in museum exhibits to attach to public spaces to remember). She hung clear vinyl strips on her pictures after seeing the usual plastic hatches that insulate cold rooms in New York bodegas.
After graduating in 2010, Jackson studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. For her master’s thesis, she interviewed her mother, an engineer, about her family’s suppressed history as domestic servants. It established their approach of collecting oral traditions.
“The research she does for each and every show could get a Ph.D. Thesis, ”said Connie Tilton, a founder of the Tilton Gallery in New York. She met Jackson in 2016 at Yale’s Open Studios and that year offered her a solo exhibition in a gallery. (Jackson is now also represented by the Night Gallery in Los Angeles.)
Jane Panetta, curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennale, pointed to similarities between “The Land Claim” and the Biennale project, in which Jackson used pictures of the Seneca village in the 1850s with contemporary press reports on the properties seized by the city in the wake of gentrification parts of Brooklyn merged into blacks.
“Like Central Park, the Hamptons are a very familiar, very popular, very polished place, but they have these buried, complex, often ugly stories,” Panetta said. She is also impressed by the artist’s use of aesthetic techniques to capture these stories in a not too didactic way. “Albers gave her the idea that color is subjective and can change depending on the context – it’s not a static thing,” she said.
Jackson’s impulse is always to expand the historical archive through conversations. “I consider myself a portraitist by nature,” she said, “look at other people carefully and try to capture a kind of essential humanity.”
Tomashi Jackson: The Land Claim
July 11 through November 7, Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY 631-283-2118; parrishart.org.