Behind the check-in desk at the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington are three tapestries. They are large and densely woven to reveal the figures of three men, and intricately decorated. Beads, tassels, rhinestones and embellished flowers fleck the surface and edging. It’s over-the-top — almost gaudy against the patterned wallpaper — but Ebony Patterson, the artist behind these works, knows just how much is enough.
Patterson, a Jamaican multimedia artist who lives and teaches in Lexington, is becoming something of an art world celebrity. As the New York Times put it in their 2015 profile of Patterson, “her work hangs in museums and ‘Empire.’” Patterson’s art has been on view internationally; and through last month, she had an exhibition at the New York Museum of Art and Design called “Dead Treez,” which featured her kaleidoscopic tapestries set off by 10 life-size mannequins which she dressed in a purposefully mixed array of fabric.
“Dead Treez” is an ideal example of how Patterson’s art operates. The color and pattern initially seduce the viewer, but it’s the message that leaves a lasting impression; through her installations and tapestries, Patterson tackles issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation, gang culture and violence, police brutality, and the deadly anonymity of social media. Her work is both overt and subtle, as technically impeccable as it is socially pertinent.
Yet despite the similar ways that Patterson’s art engages viewers — reeling them in, and then making them think — it can be assessed through many valences (a dream for curators). Initial reads of the works are heavily dependent on the context in which they are presented; and perhaps it is that aesthetic flexibility, in part, which has led to Patterson’s increasing global appeal — a versatility that is easily observed in the way Kentucky museums have displayed her work in the past year.
For example, in late 2015, Stuart Horodner, the director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum, displayed Patterson’s “Invisible Presence: Bling Memories,” a collection of six small, heavily embellished coffins attached to poles — the types you would see during a funeral procession in low-income areas of modern-day Jamaica.
The social analysis is there: the spectacle that these coffins create when paraded down the street creates unassailable visibility for a community that is often marginalized. However, Horodner made the unexpected choice to present Patterson’s work in a sculpture survey — alongside a bronze by Willie Cole, a plate by Pablo Picasso, and a fabric work by Louise Bourgeois, to name a few — thus urging the viewer to initially consider craft rather than commentary.
“Ebony’s work tends to be contextualized in areas of content, and this was a show that absorbed that content into a larger discussion about how, for the most part, 20th and 21st century artists deal with methods and tendencies in sculpture,” Horodner says.
So within this show, Horodner explains, it was interesting to compare Patterson’s artistic choices to those of the sculptors around her — which he hoped would then lead to a further comparison of the symbolism behind the art.
“In that show, one could see her work — which obviously has political content — next to work by Melvin Edwards, a very well-known African American sculptor whose work is also negotiating ideas about a history of race and economics,” he says.
On that note, there are the exhibitions in which Patterson’s work is viewed foremost through the lens of its social implications, most recently in the current 21c Lexington show “Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation.”
Curated by museum director Alice Gray Stites (who holds the same position at the Louisville location), the exhibition is an exploration of global identity and the in-between spaces of personal experience and heritage, a topic which Patterson’s work speaks to in an innovative way.
Across from the three tapestries behind the check-in desk described earlier, there is another larger tapestry called “Entourage” from the Fambily series. It features 17 people — men, women, children, babies — who are posed in stylized, bedazzled garb: neon bandanas, thick gold chains, vibrant floral patterns and stylish sneakers. It’s like an updated Medieval tapestry or Renaissance portrait, Stites says; one that defies both time and gender norms.
In a release by 21c, Patterson said that her early work “looked at the fashionable practice of skin bleaching, followed by investigations of so-called ‘bling culture’ and its relationship to the masculine within an urban context.”
Patterson’s pieces, which accentuate the overall theme of the exhibition, are offset by equally thought-provoking works throughout the three museum galleries — which, in turn, collectively build the context in which to view her work.
There is set of photographs by Berni Searle in which the artist’s face is shrouded in black lace, leaving her gender, race and religion ambiguous, and a Soundsuit by artist Nick Cave, which is a large ceremonial costume that he created in response to the death of Rodney King.
Finally, there are the exhibitions where Patterson’s work is displayed for their timeliness, like a tapestry that was recently acquired by the Speed Art Museum, which was then displayed as a part of their grand opening on May 12.
Speed Museum Contemporary curator Miranda Lash explains that the museum has a tradition of “collector groups,” special-level members who pay dues to the museum and in turn have input on annual art acquisitions. In 2015, in preparation for the reopening, the group decided on two contemporary pieces: Nari Ward’s installation “We The People” and Patterson’s “Wilted Rosez” tapestry.
“I can only describe it as dazzling from afar,” Lash says. “It is a tapestry completely covered in sequins, applique, and beads — decorated textiles. So it draws you in from afar from how beautiful, and I would say, ‘blingy’ it is.”
However, like Patterson’s other work, there is a deeper meaning hidden within the tapestry. If you look closer, there is the outline of a faceless figure embedded in the tapestry — only made distinct through his colorful tennis shoes.
“For these pieces she is pulling images of young men who have been killed off YouTube and adapting that digital image and translating it into a tapestry,” Lash says. “She has described this phenomenon of seeing images online in instances of violence, and how people become immune to it, they become anonymous.”
Lash says it was imperative that Patterson be included in the Speed’s permanent contemporary collection, as she is one of the state’s leading artists.
Regardless of its context, whether it is presented for its craft or critique, Patterson’s work consistently urges contemplation on the underlying inspiration for the piece — the message behind the bling.