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Known Unknowns and Steffani Jemison’s Stroke

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question […]

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question that might arise. On another afternoon, you walk into a different gallery where you notice no texts or accompanying information for the work on view. Even the artist is unnamed; the gallery and the exhibition are both called Untitled. The entire experience is undefined and open to interpretation.

Engaging with each of these extremes, Steffani Jemison’s current exhibition, Stroke, at The Bindery Projects in St. Paul teeters back and forth between the devoid and the didactic. Recently split into two rooms, the Bindery Projects now offers artists the opportunity to exhibit separate, complementary experiences. On one side of Stroke are ten sheets of acetate hung at various heights, some of them spilling onto the floor. Starting with two linear, coarse brushstrokes on acetate, Jemison imprints the strokes onto paper, scans the image to manipulate the original marks, and then prints the new paired composition onto fresh acetate. The placement of the sheets feels hurried, the marks random — but of course they are not. This is a thoughtful presentation of disjunction and cohesion: the coupled marks mutate from one to another with uniform novelty, while the sheets themselves bind the walls to the ground.

Jemison exhibits her work’s process, not its foundation. Indeed, Stroke interrogates the very meaning of ‘foundation.’ Rather than giving precedence to the origin, Jemison uses her sources, here brushstrokes on acetate, as tools for their own manipulation. Gallery co-founder Nate Young regards these sheets as Jemison’s “formal investigations of a mark. She locates, and moves past.”

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the gallery

For the other gallery room Jemison has installed a set of projectors that alternately display a series of hand-made 35mm slides on which she has printed marks similar to those in the other room, as well as segments of sentences pulled from unattributed works of street fiction. To alleviate the typically severe transitions between images projected in sequence, Jemison has included a third machine, a “dissolve unit” that blends the slides with moments of darkness. As a result, the time between slides, in effect, becomes another image to take in, drawing us both to the adjacent pieces and to the sequence as a whole. Jemison accentuates this equity of attention by deliberately omitting specific references to her source-material. The darkness between the slides reminds me of what I’m not allowed to know.

Installation view. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Jemison has a second show, currently on view at Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), which is both a complement and a foil to her work at the Bindery Projects. Her roving library at JXTA, Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet, embraces and makes transparent its own history through a rigorously annotated collection of periodicals emerging from the Black diaspora prior to 1950.

In combination, both exhibitions force us, as viewers, to examine the impulse to ascribe value based on such contextual information, and to consider with fresh eyes its (ir)relevance to the process of understanding a work of art.

In a recent interview for this article, Jemison explained that she uses “minimal materials to make the questions more explicit.” In fact, she has little interest in answers, instead using her body of work to question “how we characterize the artist’s production of knowledge.”

In Stroke, like a magician refusing to reveal her secrets Jemison has made her unique knowledge of the works’ origin stories at once central and irrelevant by announcing its inaccessibility to the viewer. With the slide-presentation, for example, Jemison does not claim the words as her own, but she has taken them. She knows the titles of the books, their authors and surrounding stories; the work becomes her vessel for privileged, unmoored information. We are not allowed to know where Stroke came from, or where it’s going, but we always know exactly where it is.

Exhibition information:

Stroke is on view at the Bindery Projects until this Friday, January 31. For gallery hours and details about the show, please visit their website.

Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet also closes this Friday. Visit’s JXTA’s website for information about their new studios and educational programming.

Nathan Young – no relation to the Bindery Projects’ cofounder Nate Young –  is currently working on his M.A. at the University of Chicago, exploring the significance of Nástio Mosquito’s recent video-installations, which you can see at the Walker Art Center’s exhibition 9 Artists, open through Valentine’s Day.