“Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals” inaugurates “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism,” a series of ten exhibitions and public programs at the Brooklyn Museum marking the tenth anniversary of the museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The show spans nearly thirty years of work, assembling over two hundred objects and related ephemera into three sections: “Frustula, Stones, and Earthworks,” “The Artist and Her Archive,” and “Shacks, Photographs, and Legends.”
Buchanan (1940–2015) is best known for her mostly small-scale sculptures of southern vernacular architecture—humble, expressive constructions made from recycled wood, tar, foam core, paint, charcoal, and metal. These dilapidated yet sturdy forms with slanted roofs, wood frames, and stilt foundations re-create the rustic folk styles of tenant farm housing—the “shotgun,” the “dogtrot,”and the “saddlebag”—that Buchanan first encountered as a child in South Carolina.
As the thirteen examples on view convey, Buchanan remained fascinated by such structures for her entire life. Her sculptural renditions, however, serve less as an index of the architectural types than as commemorations of specific homes and inhabitants she once knew. Presented alone and in clusters on a table-size pedestal, the houses can be appreciated, up close and in the round, for their nuanced distinctions. Like the photos Buchanan took in 1989 of the brush arbor house that Mary Lou Furcron, an elderly African-American woman befriended by the artist, built herself from mud, grass, and branches, many are testaments to resilience in the face of poverty and racism.
Others manifest the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow within their materiality more grimly. Three Families (A Memorial Piece with Scars), 1989, for example, is a work comprised of three small houses that Buchanan ritually burned. (A series of black-and-white photos displayed nearby records the somber event.) The related wall label quotes Buchanan:
LIKE BURNT CLOTHING, REMAINS CARRY THE SMELL OF DANGER, PAST AND PRESENT. COVERING OR PATCHING (HOUSES OR GARMENTS) DOES NOT REMOVE THE MEMORY. THESE 3 STRUCTURES, AFTER BEING PAINTED, WERE SET ON FIRE, LEFT TO BURN AND EXTINGUISHED BY FRIENDS. THESE SHACKS ARE A METAPHOR FOR WHAT THEN, AS NOW, WAS A TACTIC FOR ENFORCED DESPAIR.
Buchanan was adopted by her great aunt and uncle, the latter of whom was dean of the School of Architecture at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Her experiences accompanying her adoptive father as he traveled to remote rural areas to advise tenant farmers on crop rotation and to track their progress are central to this body of work and to her entire oeuvre.
Guest curators Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur emphasize the impact of these formative years on her aesthetic as much as the art historical movements—Abstract Expressionism, Land art, Post-Minimalism, etc.—that also shaped her practice. We learn that the impulse to memorialize forgotten sites of political and personal import began in childhood with her gathering and relocating of stones. Even Buchanan’s decision, in 1971, to become an artist instead of entering medical school (as she was about to do to appease her adoptive mother) reflects the pull of these early memories.
Her pursuit of medicine had led her north, where, after obtaining a master’s degree from Columbia University in parasitology, she worked as a medical technologist for the Veterans Administration in the Bronx and then as a public health educator in New Jersey. She found in the crumbling facades of New Jersey’s old city buildings a visual echo of the tenant farmer houses of her youth. She started taking painting classes at the Art Students League, and for several years, under the tutelage of Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, experimented with the allusive, expressive possibilities of abstraction.
Those studies led to a series of abstract drawings in watercolor and ink titled “Black Walls.” One of these, from 1976, the first and oldest work on view, serves as a prelude to a group of sculptures made with concrete slabs and blocks cast from old bricks and cardboard molds. More than they recall walls, the sculptures evoke old gravestones, unearthed and weathered by time. In fact, despite their rough-hewn surfaces and rubblelike appearance, these artificial “ruins” and fragments (or, as Buchanan called them, “frustula”—frustulum meaning “a small piece” in Latin) are precise, arduous constructions. Some are pigmented with red clay or black paint; others are made with tabby, a type of concrete that requires a grueling process of crushing and burning oyster shells to make lime and has been historically tied to slave labor.
Set up in minimalist rows and stacks on a low platform, five arrangements of this type of work are flanked by two floor-to-ceiling video projections devised to remind viewers that Buchanan conceived most of her “ruins,” particularly those she made in the 1980s while living in Georgia, as site-specific earthworks. Created by the curators for the exhibition, the videos document four outdoor locations and record the effects of time and weather on the works that have remained. Most are decidedly unmonumental and, as the videos reveal, easy to miss. Among them is Marsh Ruins (1981), located on St. Simon’s Island, just a few miles from Georgia’s Marshes of Glynn, an area of coastal wetlands. The artwork, which looks like an unassuming group of boulders, pays tribute to seventy-five enslaved Africans who, having survived the Middle Passage, chose to drown themselves rather than live as slaves. No marker or monument previously existed to preserve that history, which seems an elision of sinister proportions. The quiet forms of Buchanan’s memorial, covered in tabby, can be seen in one of the videos, still crouching in the sea grass beside the water.
The section “The Artist and Her Archive” provides further documentation of Marsh Ruins amid a compendium of ephemera attesting to Buchanan’s prodigious output, including humorous polaroid self-portraits, notebook drawings, business cards, photographic documentation for a Guggenheim grant, artist’s books, and mixed-medium works devoted to influential friends like curator Lowery Stokes Sims. What emerges in the end is a powerful portrait of a once-marginalized artist who, like the people and places memorialized in her work, has finally been given her proper due.