Editor’s Note: This essay started with conversation between the Peyton Pitts and Emily Cox following the exhibition — All Tomorrow’s Parties — at La Esquina. Pitts provided context for the conceptual basis and allowed for further extrapolation by Cox.
Peyton Pitts’ work is full of hidden symbols. She finds joy in using secretive imagery and watching how others interpret it. As a member of the African diaspora, Pitts has been denied access to much of her ancestral history. She is attracted to and pulls freely from the deep lineages of religion and art history. Pitts combines collaged images and symbols on a blank color field, stripping many of these objects of scale. Is it a flower? A basket? An ocean wave? A spinning dress? Her play with proportion encourages the dreamlike quality, and multiple interpretations.
All Tomorrow’s Parties, featured two of Pitts’ works. “four last things, again” a deliberate scatter of color and patterns, disembodied hands and bursts of flora, bright pops and blocks of neutral, richly textured and patterned, hands curled, over and over, all floating on black paper background, as if these things are all that exist in a void.
The title of this piece, “four last things, again” is a reference to the “four last things” of the Book of Revelation: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. This is supposed to be the finality, the end of everything. To add “again,” is an irreverent wink. Maybe nothing ever ends. Maybe we will be judged again, and again.
The uppermost image in this piece looks like a stage scene, cloaked in bright curtains, while two figures face one another. There is an object on the ground between them, like an obstacle, a discussion point. The figure on the left has their hand raised, as if accusing, remonstrating. Pitts found this image, and many others in these works, in a David Hockney retrospective.
Another figure towards the bottom of the piece has their back turned, face hidden, with dark skin that is almost lost in the background. The figure’s back is marked, recalling the lashes slaves would receive — or perhaps other abuses upon black bodies that continue into the present day. Above this figure’s shoulder is a block of grey bars on black — a jail cell. Mass incarceration of black people is slavery in the modern day. Atop the grey bars, there is a rectangular burst of yellow and purple flowers. There is beauty, hope, and life despite oppression, pain, and death.
Both “the four last things, again,” and her other piece in this show, “hope you do (in High Yellow)” contain representations of patterned quilts. Quilts cover of bodies as in death. For Pitts, her use of quilts references burial, entombment, finality. Being covered, being buried, is ominous and comforting at the same time. Being trapped could be scary, being enclosed could be safe. She is interested in investigating this duality.
Furthermore, the presence of quilts harkens back to the tradition of quilt-making. A process traditionally filed under woman’s work, thus relegated to craft not “Art.” The image of quilts here pay homage to women’s labor and ties in to the visual history of women creators.
The quilt in “hope you do (in High Yellow)” is patterned with Christian symbols: the flaming heart representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his love of humanity, and a dove in flight, representing peace and life after death. The piece also features multiple crowns of thorns (as were to have been placed on Jesus during his crucifixion) and symbols of open books, which could be Bibles. Pitts’ Christian faith is always present in her mind, so she sees the inclusion of these symbols as simply an expression of herself.
The “High Yellow” of the title does not refer to the color in the piece—it is in monochromatic purple. “High yellow” is a dated term used by some in Black communities (usually older generations) to refer to lighter-skinned black folks. Peyton Pitts would fall into this category according to some in her family and community. The “high” of the phrase references the social value placed on lighter skin tone, as it suggests more European ancestry. The term references (and arguably reinforces) the colorist layers of racism. The use of the term here points to a complicated, painful history of oppression.
The central figure in this work, a self-portrait, has a blank silhouette, with a face shifted off to the right, like a mask that has just been removed, or perhaps is ready to be put on. A face separate from the body, like a spirit separate from flesh. A dissociation, a decision to be made. A question of how to present oneself to the world, assessing how one is seen. The figures clutches fabric to their breast—modeled from Kerry James Marshall’s “untitled (Pink Towel).” The figure’s hand repeats again below, reaching out to touch a cluster of leaves.
Leaves and flowers are themes throughout both works. These natural forms were inspired by Matisse’s collages, which originally inspired Pitts to work in collage. While her interest in these images is more decorative, they deepen the conversation between the elements here. Connections between the natural world and the human world are drawn out.
In a monochromatic purple, this piece is contemplative and dreamlike. There is an investigation of what is real, what is self, what connections we can make to the physical and spiritual worlds. Hands here reach out to touch and almost-touch. There is a seeking here, a communion between the sacred self and the world.
The “hope you do” of the title is from a 2017 Chris Brown song of the same name. At first, the track, a drunken booty call jam, seems utterly at odds with this work. But if we strip back to the core of what this song is asking, it is about longing, about waiting for another, about wanting to be wanted, a hope for reciprocation. There is a hope and a query and a waiting in this piece too. What will we become? Who is watching, and how do we reach them? How do we become our divine selves amongst the persistent demands of the physical world? In the end, perhaps the only security we have is in the seeking itself.
All Tomorrow’s Parties was on view at Charlotte Street’s La Esquina from January 26th- February 24th 2018. The show featured new works by Corey Antis, Hadley Clark, Kelly Clark, Jonah Criswell, Olivia Gibb, Will Henry, Caitlin Horsmon, Petyon Pitts, and Allan Winkler. The exhibition was organized and curated by Kelly Clark and Jonah Criswell