Glenn, Allison. “Nikki Pressley: Liminal Space” in Fore exh. cat., New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2012.
The artist Nikki Pressley stands in a liminal place between the past and her present, actively dismantling the dichotomies between experiences she has chosen and those she inherited. Locating her practice within the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, the artist draws inspiration from an interest in horticulture, the sublime, general history and collective memory. Pressley acknowledges the existence of a distinct pattern of faith and disbelief, and constructs her work through the analysis of this binary system. Juxtaposing themes and rituals she inherited against teachings and knowledge developed over time, Pressley has developed a body of work that pays homage to her intellectual coming of age.
Actively unhinging her upbringing enables the artist to explore a larger sense of identity, and semiotic theory provides a source from which she can borrow. As such, Pressley’s lexicon is loaded with double entendre and a strong desire to transfer intellectual theory into practice. Signifiers become conduits through which she can communicate, and source material lies in the work of linguistic masters such as hip-hop linguist, pioneer and visual artist Ramellzee, author Franz Fanon, agricultural scientist Masanobu Fukuoka and Pan-Africanist Jon Henrik Clark. This is immediately apparent in Forth and Back: New Works, a solo exhibition at Furman University in 2011. The focal point of the installation was a concentric arrangement of prayer tables. A selection of books lay on the floor—one at the base of each table, a location typically reserved for the Bible in Western Christian practice. The books in place, Black Marxism by Frederick Robinson, In My Life I Search of Africa by Jon Henrik Clark, I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality by Cheikh Anta Diop, One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka and Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon, are literary masterpieces that resonate with Pressley. Taking inspiration from their usage and form, she presented these narratives alongside an amalgam of meaning extracted from personal experiences. Their placement was a subtle gesture. Pressley, raised with a strong Southern Baptist religious practice, aggregated new teachings and juxtaposed them against older knowledge. In “replacing these truths with new truths,” the structure is the same, but the meaning has changed.
Through her work, the artist communicates a quasi-separatist manifesto, inspired by errantry and nomadic cultural experiences. Rammellzee, Fanon and Clark share a similar approach to communication, constructing leftist theories through the hybridization of language, history and cultural experience. Finding her roots in linguistics, Pressley expresses a similar outlook that is informed by the combination of experience and history. By sublimating the original meaning of appropriated vernaculars, her installation-based practice creates a space for thoughtful observation. In Actions and Contemplations, a 2009 solo exhibition at La Cienegas Projects in Los Angeles, the artist focused on the ideas of history, rights and power. Using archival imagery from a civil rights protest as a reference point, she recreated signs that were carried by protesters. Pressley then fused the posters together into a spherical cluster and suspended them in the center of the room. On the ground below the sculpture lay two old speakers filled with dirt. Two chairs were placed at the foot of the speakers. Headphones were attached, with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, and Cold Was the Ground” emanating from them. Occupying the interstitial space between cultural awareness and expectation, Actions and Contemplations was a subtly provocative political space that used history to raise awareness of loss.
Pressley looks to the structure of language as a tool to construct her own reality. Words (2010), a work that was in the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2010 California Biennial, is an embossed graphite drawing of two different creation stories, one from Western Christianity and the other from African folklore. Pressley translated the Western Christian text into the Gullah language, a South Carolinian dialect that is a mixture of Creole and West African. Her choice to use a hybridized, creole language is representative of a common trope in the artist’s work: Combining more than one story, concept or idea, and juxtaposing them in a cohesive form is the manifestation of rhizomatic thought into practice. The space created by the gesture is representative of Pressley’s interest in collective history and her personal desire for new meaning—created to express ideas she believes language cannot.
In Poetics of Relation, Martinican author and poet Édouard Glissant speaks of this space. His theory exists in contrast to the traditional linear approach to history and the development of the self. By identifying the structure of an individual’s personal and collective history as non-hierarchical, Glissant builds upon the rhizomatic form first introduced by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). To critique the systemic arrangement of experience and history, Glissant extends the idea of the rhizome as a free-flowing network. This postcolonial argument challenges history’s traditional, linear form in favor of one which is much more open and fluid. Glissant identifies the space, “in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other,” as the crux of an individual. He continues to introduce the concept of errantry as it relates to rhizomatic identity formation. For Glissant, errantry is finding resonance in multiple experiences (and cultures), and weaving this together with knowledge of collective history and memory. The result is a rhizomatic form that exists as a hive of information, a sublime space where experiences become enmeshed and connected. The networked arrangement breaks the grand narrative, stifles the “predatory rootstock” and challenges a totalizing history.
Admittedly, Pressley takes her cues from Glissant. With re:linked, re:layed, re:rooted (2012), the artist’s aversion to the idea of a totalizing narrative has reached a crescendo. The accumulation of objects—handmade furniture, pamphlets, drawings and sculpture—is symbolic of the artist’s experience in self-sustainability combined with the an understanding of historical techniques for survival. Through the systematic use of assemblage, she reinforces, links and expands upon the original meaning of them. As such, the work becomes both indexical and networked. Her layered approach to communicating information, use of appropriation and reinterpretation provides a technique for her to remain present and active in an interconnected space. Pressley employs this gesture as a mechanism to cope with the knowledge of, and a responsibility to, a larger collective history. The informational material she has created and accumulated is composed of smaller rhizomatic forms that mimic the larger system at play. An acute awareness of the past coupled with a desire for self-exploration is the driving force behind this material.
Pressley, like many before her, is grappling with this awareness. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois addresses a similar concern. In the book, DuBois wrestles with the tension inherent to his position as an African-American male at the turn of the twentieth century. DuBois considers the tautology between the struggles for freedom that were played out in the generation prior, his indissoluble tie to them and, yet, a personal desire for progress.
Pressley finds herself in a position historically analogous to DuBois’s. Living in the beginning of the twenty-first century, she is caught at a crossroads. Confronted with compound and repetitive histories, she has crafted an intricate personal narrative. For Pressley, the practice of errantry is a methodological search, finding resonance with cultures and histories that allow her to locate deeper personal truths. This theory refutes the necessity in Western thought to privilege a linear cultural history as the compass for personal development. Instead of defining herself through the past, Pressley is free to create her self through choices and experience. Alas, the errant wanderer does not reject what has come before. She merely desires to couple her history with contemporary time.