Vanessa German’s magical sculptures reflect the enchantment of black life – artistically | Ad On Picture


Ayanna Dozier

Portrait of vanessa german by Joshua Franzos, 2022. © vanessa german. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.

vanessa german describes herself as an artist who works from the studio of her soul, carefully observing and honoring the mystery of life, which she then translates into what she calls “portrait sculptures”. Amalgams of black culture, cobbled together through found objects such as jeans and quilts, German evocative, pot-bellied, life-size figures are clad in clothing that expands and transforms their shape, size, and appearance. These wooden sculptures are not idle objects, but imbued with all the intentionality and emotion that the Germans brought to their making.

German was born in Milwaukee but spent most of her formative youth in Los Angeles before eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she currently resides. Her upbringing in 1980s LA was the inspiration for her current solo show, Sad Rapper, which runs at Kasmin in New York through October 22. The focus of the show is a massive eponymous sculpture made with over 75 pounds of recycled denim, amassing a height of 78 inches.

Vanessa German, installation view of Sad Rapper at Kasmin, New York, 2022. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.

“Sad Rapper” opened just before Germany received the prestigious Heinz Award for the Arts, giving the artist $250,000 in unrestricted funding. Additionally, the second German solo exhibition of the year, THE RAREST BLACK WOMAN ON THE PLANET EARTH, will open next month at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum and run until May 2023.

german’s institutional success matches the excitement about their main market. Kasmin sold 15 of German’s mixed media sculptures at the Independent Art Fair last spring, valued at $30,000 to $45,000. And in Kasmin’s group presentation at the Armory Show earlier this month, one of the larger German sculptures sold for $65,000. To say German is having a moment would be a gross understatement; she is the moment.

Amid this whirlwind of achievements, German moved into a cabin, a move she described to be more in touch with nature and wildlife. That recalibration felt necessary after the tedious six months in production of Sad Rapper, where she worked at the gallery until opening night. The final sculpture was completed just five hours before the doors opened to the public.

“I recognize that my practice is not just the work of object making, but one of recovering from growing up in systems that were incredibly violent and disempowering,” she told Artsy. “My practice is deeply restorative to the technology of me as a person.” German’s self-taught practice is more holistic than that of artists who undergo the ritual of earning an MFA. Her characters mirror and heal the wounds of systemic racial and sexual oppression.

Vanessa German, installation view of Sad Rapper at Kasmin, New York, 2022. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.

german’s sculptures are influenced in part by the tradition of the Congolese minkisi, vessels that function as spiritual figures of healing rather than non-representational objects. This story was brought to german’s attention during a studio visit by a Carnegie Mellon professor. She describes her practice as an intuitive rhyme with Minkisi history and culture. “Something inside me brought me to this material that wasn’t new at all, but it was new to me,” she said.

Some ideas take years to germinate, while others need immediate completion. As someone who constantly works with her hands, German emphasized the importance of staying open to new information so her work doesn’t become siled. “Everything is available through the power of making,” German expressed. “All!”

Vanessa German, sad rapper, 2022. © vanessa german. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.

Vanessa German, 7 Beautiful Ni$$As awe in the grandeur of an Appalachian sunset, 2022. © vanessa german. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.

Always invested in searching within, German is always sketching and always carries a notebook of ideas with him. It allows her to connect with time and people across time while honoring that inspiration comes from the ground up. This earth-to-body knowledge movement rejects the top-down intellectual flow of the Cartesian method that Germans associate with oppressive systems that indoctrinate many to reject their relationship with their ancestors and the earth.

The sculptures for “Sad Rapper” were drawn from a source of German memories from the last three decades and show a traumatic testimony to the murder of a young man; Kanye West cries on stage over his mother’s death; the death of Eazy-E in 1995; and the infamous slap at the 2022 Academy Awards that made Will Smith tearfully stammer, “I don’t know why I’m crying,” during his best actor acceptance speech.

These fleeting snapshots and moments emerged “from the studio of [her] soul and on the drawing pad” to create the emblem of a sad rapper, as it is called in German. After these images were realized, the materials for the sculptures seemed crystal clear to her as she assembled the sculptures without the help of studio assistants.

Despite long-overdue recognition, German still struggles to honor her instincts and practice in a landscape where formal, academic artistic training and language are chocked and prioritized. “What I feel like I still have to fight is the shame of being a self-taught artist, of having to know everything,” she said. As such, she advocates that collectors and curators seek art beyond the institution and continue to make “bold, loving, and bold investments in artists and artist communities,” as she put it.

Finally, German added, “I want to be bolder in uncovering this type of work with magic, mystery, and searching for connections to places that have been torn apart by the same systems that would try to shatter my existence in the here and now.”

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

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