As artists returned to figuration in the 2010s, Doreen Lynette Garner burst onto the scene with sculptures that unflinchingly catalogued histories of medical racism. Her solo show here, “REVOLTED,” finds Garner examining the ongoing effects of the slave trade and exemplifies what theorist Christina Sharpe defines as “wake work”—the notion that contemporary Black life must continually affirm itself against the negation of chattel slavery.
The sculptural installation Feast of the Hogs (all works 2022) connects the dangers of life in the Middle Passage with today’s pandemics. Here, Garner has suspended a semi-realistic approximation of a diseased animal carcass above a small wooden plank, evocative of a ship’s hold. Beneath the organ-splattered slats, Garner has placed a cast of a hand holding a knife. Gore is always counterbalanced by moments of decorative pleasure: glass beads, pearls, and crystals stud the dead creature’s exposed ribs and spilled guts. A second sculpture turns Garner’s silicone cast of a statue of James Marion Sims—which stood in New York’s Central Park for decades until its removal in 2018—into an effigy primed for glorious retaliation. For more than five years, the artist has interrogated Sims’s violent legacy: This nineteenth-century “father of modern gynecology” forcefully performed gruesome experiments on unanesthetized enslaved Black women. In this piece, she transforms his decapitated head into a boxing speed bag surrounded by raffia and cowrie shells, while the rest of his body, made into a large punching bag, is slumped in a corner.
Nearby, two reliefs reinterpret canonical European paintings. Garner gained inspiration from J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 canvas Slave Ship, which depicts the 1781 Zong massacre—resulting in the deaths of more than 130 indentured Africans—and refashions it to become an homage to the 1773 slave rebellion aboard the New Britannia. Garner’s portrayal of the captive-led uprising is a visceral quasi-abstraction of cast organs, razor blades, and pockmarked white silicone “skin.” This same skin—rendered as baloney-like slices of ghastly pale flesh, marked with pustules symptomatic of illnesses such as syphilis and smallpox—forms the backdrop of Take This and Remember Me. Channeling Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, ca. 1508–12, this work centers the silicone arms of a young Black girl extending a metal weapon to help an elder. The composition calls to mind God’s wrathful words from the Book of Romans: “Vengeance is mine . . . I will repay.”