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Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
Tragedy, horror and everyday racism are countered with fearless grace by the American artist in this five-decade retrospective

There is a painting in this beautiful yet devastating survey of the American artist Howardena Pindell that looks, at first, like old-fashioned pointillism. Thousands of coloured dots quicken and glow across a large abstract canvas. The predominant colour is rust, suggesting some kind of urban landscape – unless, perhaps, this is the umber of mud or soil. Slate blue creeps in, like autumn mist, but there are hints of ripening orange, and some kind of strange rumble in the distance.

The more you look, the more the riddles gather: what is behind, and what before? What is the season, and which kind of place? The tiny circles do not appear to be brushmarks, with their muzzy softness, so how are they made? The painting has all the overtones of figuration without holding an image. It is a great abstract mystery.

At 79, the Philadelphia-born Pindell has been confounding the viewing public for more than half a century. Even the object with which she made this painting – a colossal cardboard stencil, perforated all over using her trademark hole punch – looks like some kind of sculpture, presented in the gallery alongside.

The leftover confetti of tiny paper discs are used in paintings, reliefs and even 3D collages, the circles mounted on receding sheets of tracing paper, so that you seem to be looking through slow-motion snowfall. Everything is white or cream, sometimes twinkling with glitter. And, as she points out in a mordant video performance from 1980, this is not what the white establishment expect of her because Pindell is, of course, black.

She stars as two characters in the video. The first is herself, recounting experiences of everyday racism, from being brutalised as the only black child in kindergarten to trying to get a job after Yale, and being rebuffed more than 500 times along with all the other non-white applicants. The second character is a white woman (Pindell in wig and makeup) who keeps interjecting. “You really must be paranoid… I have never had experiences like that.”

This accusation of paranoia extends to everything from childhood trauma to the art she makes as an adult, which is not political enough, or the wrong colour, or just too comely for the white art world at that time.

Pindell was MoMA’s first black curator, and the first to resign in protest at the museum’s refusal to condemn the exhibition of so-called N***** Drawings, by Donald Newman, at the Artists Space in 1979. She was co-founder of the pioneering feminist AIR Gallery in New York. She is nothing if not steadily, ardently and fearlessly political.

The circles, for instance, are not just fetching shapes. They recall a childhood experience of driving through Kentucky with her father in the 1950s and stopping for root beer from a stand where the mugs they drank from had a bright red circle on the bottom. Her father explained that these were to distinguish the mugs to be used only by black customers. The circles indicated apartheid.

They appear all through this show. Painstakingly glued to stretches of canvas directly tacked to the wall, they are like sequins of light (she speaks, movingly, of trying to reverse the horror of the red circle). Sometimes they are numbered, in memory of her mathematician father; sometimes lettered with an ancient text suggesting that Phoenicians crossed the Atlantic to reach America before Columbus.

But, most powerfully, they appear in blood red against the seething black darkness of Diallo, a tremendous protest against police racism and violence. Two names appear on the canvas, including that of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean student who was killed by NYC police in 1999. There are four guns, representing the officers, and 41 dots standing for all the bullets fired at Diallo. Those in red indicate the fatal shots.

The police officers were all acquitted.

Lately, Pindell has applied her tiny discs to strips of canvas, painted an oceanic green and stitched together with calcified cotton that resembles nothing so much as decaying coral reef drifting underwater. Clouds of papery discs materialise on other fragments of painted linen like premonitory weather; visions of a declining planet, these works are like beautiful warnings.

Which might stand as a description for Pindell’s art through five decades, her careful and immaculate aesthetic so lightly carrying its weight of tragedy and horror. Visitors to Kettle’s Yard are offered leaflets to help them with the film installation that is waiting upstairs. Pindell tried to make it decades ago, in the 70s, but could not get the support or backing. You might say (she does, in an interview) that she had to wait for the era of Black Lives Matter.

Rope/Fire/Water is screened in a cinema gallery. It is so harrowing as to be almost impossible to watch, and yet the narrative asks you never to turn your eyes away. Lynching, torture, rape, the roasting alive of a black man as if he were pig, these are historic images that will – and should – haunt you for ever. Pindell explains that she saw the photograph of the burning man in a copy of Life magazine as a child, while her mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen. She could not eat meat for years afterwards.

Her steady, calm, deadpan voiceover never wavers, and never overstates. A metronome keeps regular time like a raft to hang on to in the shock. The paintings downstairs look quite different, afterwards: Pindell explicitly urges you to rest your eyes, now, on something tranquil. And so these works come to have another meaning, another significance, another effect upon the viewer. Their beauty is doubly political, by the end of this unmissable exhibition – as a message but also a comforting beneficence.

— Laura Cumming

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