Renée Stout began her career as a photo-realist painter, but she never knew how serious "real" could be until she moved to Washington, D.C. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she never experienced the kind of large, urban black underclass that exists in cities like Washington or New Orleans, or the unpredictable mixture of violence and vitality that goes with it. It came as a shock that pushed her out of her comfortable photo-realist painting routine and into a darker and more subjective reality that included the dangers of the streets, but also the mystery and intrigue that attend the legacy of blues culture, voodoo and the spiritualist churches. Her work deals with all of the above.
Accomplished in the European traditions of painting and drawing from an early age, Stout says Washington made her more aware of her African-American identity, as well as the societal chaos that was all around her in the nation's capital. A painted canvas was no longer enough. She began making mixed-media works that would incorporate bits and pieces of those troubled if richly textured streets and their secrets. So it was perhaps only natural that she would end up visiting New Orleans on a routine basis, as this city is the African-American roots capital, the gritty urban altarpiece where the secrets of the culture are both sequestered and revealed.
Church of the Crossroads is an installation with a one-window wide church of the same name with adjacent wings that are actually large, dark paintings. One is a spectral view of a woman not unlike the youthful Billie Holiday; the other is of a gent in a zoot suit, sitting on a stool and strumming his guitar -- a figure not unlike dapper blues great Robert Johnson who, legend has it, cut a deal with the devil at the crossroads. Out in front is a table with a checkerboard tablecloth, on which rests a trumpet, a flask of whiskey, and some old sepia photographs. A closer look at the tiny church faade reveals some more mysterious symbols, however, including a cryptic glyph that looks a lot like the symbol for Ogun, the voodoo loa (spirit) of thunder and guns. Just below it a poem, The Reluctant Hustler, describes a boy of 16, thought to be 19, standing on a corner as another dude on a bike slowly approaches. A gun appears and "too soon Ogun takes another warrior ... ." So what might have been a sashay down memory lane takes a sudden detour to include a too-familiar form of violent death. Ordinarily, such incidents are commemorated mainly in crime reports or gangsta rap, but here Stout incorporates the reality of the present into an older and richer mythos, lending a kind of context as well as a means to look more deeply into a tragedy so routinely banal as to otherwise defy contemplation.
But the streets are also about life, love and other universal human aspirations, and Stout uses voodoo and its trappings as a way of touching on them. Madame Ching's Love Products is a glass-topped table with oils and potions, love letters, a little bell and some cards: a joker and an ace of hearts. For Stout, Madame Ching is a manifestation of Erzulie, the voodoo loa of love and lust, and the table is her altar. Other works seem autobiographical. My Door is an old door embellished with a tracery of bottle caps, floral designs and a sacred heart of sorts with the year 1916 scrawled underneath it -- the year her mother was born. Stout attributes much to her mother. A character named Slim turns up in other works. Between Midnight and Day features a bit of hand lettered text describing a dialog with Slim about what New Orleans smells like: "old wood, coffee, sweat, sex, spices, vetiver, the Mississippi river ... ." From there it digresses into a log of her days, ending with "a meeting of witches and palm readers." That rather theatrical sense of narrative, either explicit or implied, is a constant throughout this show, which is really a kind of spicy visual gumbo. Whether some of the ingredients might need a little more simmering is open to question, but its pungent spiciness is never in doubt.
- In CHURCH OF THE CROSSROADS and other mixed-media works, Renee Stout deals with the high stakes and colorful legacies of inner-city street life.